Multivariable analyses were used to assess associations between independent variables exposure to lyrics describing degrading and nondegrading sex and sexual behavior intercourse and, for those who had not had intercourse, progression along a noncoital sexual continuum.
Logistic regression was used for the dichotomous variable intercourse , and ordered logistic regression was used for the ordered categorical outcome noncoital sexual continuum. Additionally, to determine the robustness of results, all logistic regression analyses were conducted using stepwise backward regression, and all analyses were conducted using the independent variable exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex as continuous rather than categorical.
For the analyses involving the ordered categorical outcome noncoital sexual continuum , the proportional odds assumption was tested, and it was not violated. Participants with missing data were not included in the analysis. Analyses were conducted in Results Participants were exposed to an average of Higher exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex, older age, male gender, African-American race, lower grades, higher sensation seeking, and higher rebelliousness were all associated with having had sexual intercourse Table 2.
The participants who had not had sexual intercourse reported a range of behaviors, with most at the stage in which they had touched breasts or had breasts touched. However, exposure to lyrics describing nondegrading sex was not significantly related to either sexual outcome. In the models presented in Table 3 , other factors independently associated with intercourse included older age, male gender, African-American race, lower maternal education, lower grades, higher sensation seeking, and higher rebelliousness.
Only male gender, sensation seeking, and rebelliousness were independently associated with progression along the noncoital sexual continuum in these multivariable analyses. There were no significant interactions between exposure to degrading sexual lyrics and age, gender, or race in any of the multivariable models. All results were similar when analyses were conducted with stepwise backward logistic regression and when exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex and exposure to lyrics describing nondegrading sex was modeled as a continuous variable.
Discussion This study demonstrates that, among this sample of young adolescents, high exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex in popular music was independently associated with higher levels of sexual behavior. In fact, exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex was one of the strongest associations with sexual activity in these models. In contrast, exposure to lyrics describing non-degrading sex in popular music was not associated with greater risk of sexual activity in any of the models.
These findings build on those of previous studies 13 , 30 suggesting that exposure to sex in media messages may be a risk factor for early sexual progression.
Specifically, these results support previous findings 21 that exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex in particular may be a stronger risk factor for early sexual progression than exposure to lyrics describing nondegrading sex.
Although music lacks the visual elements of film and television, there are reasons why references in popular music may be as potent in relationship to sexual behavior. First, exposure to popular music is rapidly increasing, whereas exposure to films is much lower, and exposure to television is decreasing.
The relationship between exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex and sexual experience held equally for both young men and women, which is consistent with the social cognitive theory. Such descriptions may offer scripts that adolescents feel compelled to play out, whether they are cast in the role of either the female or the male partner. However, lyrics describing nondegrading sex may portray more of the complications and complexities of sexual activity, making it less likely that young people will simply and blindly imitate what they hear.
Similarly, repeated exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex in music may desensitize individuals to real-life violence and power differentials related to sex. This possibility is consistent with prior studies 15 , 33 — 35 showing that media messages containing sexual aggression toward women tend to desensitize both men and women to real-life sexual aggression.
These findings may have implications for sexual health education. It may be useful for health educators, health professionals, curriculum designers, parents, and community-group leaders to become familiar with the messages that young people receive about sex in their music, so that they can more effectively counter these messages. Innovative interventions and creative techniques are needed to encourage young people to think critically about the veracity of the sex-related messages they receive in their media and to understand the consequences of early sexual behavior.
One way of doing this may be to include more media literacy—whereby young people learn to analyze and evaluate media portrayals of sex—in sexual health education. This study focused only on lyrics. Although it is likely that those exposed to lyrics describing degrading sex similarly are exposed to images depicting it, there may be value for future analyses to more carefully assess the relationship between audio and visual messages.
This study was limited by its cross-sectional design. The associations found between measures of music exposure and sexual behavior do not imply causality. Although it is theoretically plausible that media exposure precedes sexual behavior, it is also possible that engagement in sexual behavior causes young people to seek out media with particular sexual messages.
Thus, longitudinal research is needed to more completely explore these associations. This effort was also limited in that the estimated exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex was based on only one favorite artist.
Finally, it should be noted that the coding of elements such as sexual behavior can be subjective. For this reason, this study employed a complex coding methodology and ensured that inter-rater agreement was adequate. In summary, adolescents are heavily exposed to lyrics describing degrading sex in popular music, and this exposure is associated with early sexual experience among them in an urban population of youth at high risk for risky sexual behavior.
These results provide further support for the need for additional research and educational intervention in this area. The authors would like to thank Steven Martino, PhD, for his editorial input and his assistance with study design. Primack had full access to all the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
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