August 15, 2006

Studying Sex and Music in the Dark

An explosive new study linking raunchy music to heightened teen sexuality may be important. But we won't know until the authors are transparent about their data.

David Goldenberg

Earlier this month, the academic journal Pediatrics published a paper that was widely covered in the mainstream press. That's because the authors of the study focused on a controversial, topical subject—the effect of popular music on teenage sex—and concluded that youngsters who listened to lyrics containing degrading sexual language were much more likely to lose their virginity at an early age. But as Gelf tried to look into the research, we were troubled to find that the authors wouldn't answer all of our questions.

First, though, let's look at the good points of the research. The authors used a longitudinal study to follow their subjects over several years. They also corrected for 18 possible confounders—other factors that might explain the effect, including race, income levels, and parental education—and were careful to point out that their data correlating music listening with sexual practices do not necessarily imply causation. Importantly, none of the authors are paid stooges of the music business or of some arch-conservative think tank.

All of this made Gelf eager to learn more about their study as one of the few sane looks into the intersection of impressionable youth, popular culture, and sex. Though the study's methodology was clear and well-written, Gelf thought it was strange that the authors didn't include their original source material. We were interested in how the researchers went about determining what lyrics were degrading; specifically, we wanted to know which albums and artists they used to make their determinations, and how they coded particular lyrics.

Though the study has been covered by the Associated Press, Reuters, the Christian Science Monitor,, Scripps, and the Guardian, among others, none of those publications seemed to have gotten access to what Gelf figures to be fairly pertinent information. So we sent off an email to lead author Steven Martino asking him to provide that data. Here's what we wrote to him:

Gelf Magazine is currently working on an article about your recent paper in Pediatrics. One of the aspects of the paper we think our readers would be most interested in is the albums (I believe there are 16) that your group decided to study and code. Would it be possible for you to provide us with a list of the albums used in the study and how they were scored?

Martino got back to us right away:

Ja Rule
Causes teen sex.
Thank you very much for your interest in our study. In the article, we included a list of the artists whom we asked teens about, and said what percentage of each of those artists included sexual imagery in their music. We identified the musical genre of each artist, but did not list the artists by name. We feel that, given how prevalent these types of portrayals are in popular music, it doesn't make sense to pinpoint any one artist. Moreover, many (maybe even most) music artists who were popular at the time of our survey (in Spring 2002) are no longer popular. So, to name the artists would not be especially helpful to parents who are trying to monitor the content of their child's music.

Martino's point that knowledge of the specific artists would not be useful to parents makes sense. But the only examples the paper gives of differences between nondegrading sexual lyrics and degrading ones are in this passage:

Examples of nondegrading sexual lyrics from our study include: "When my eyes open I wanna see your face/Spendin' my days in your sweet embrace/Just one night with you could set me free/I get next to you and I get dizzy, dizzy/You make me think of things to come/I'm dreamin' day and night of making love," from Ninety-Eight Degrees, "Dizzy."

98 degrees
Causes teen abstinence.
Examples of degrading sexual lyrics include: "Half the ho's hate me, half them love me/The ones that hate me/Only hate me ‘cause they ain't fucked me/And they say I'm lucky/Do you think I've got time/To fuck all these ho's?" from Ja Rule, "Livin’ It Up."

Are Ja Rule's lyrics considered degrading because they refer to casual sex or contain curse words? "Degrading" is a pretty strong word, and Gelf isn't sure that tossing around a few "ho's" in a song qualifies. But we don't know the standards that are used in the paper, and the authors won't tell us.

So Gelf again wrote to Martino:

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I appreciate that listing the names of the particular artists and albums may not be particularly useful to parents, but I do think that it would be useful in terms of giving our readers specific examples of how the coding was done.
So long as there's no harm in revealing the names of the albums and how they were coded (and I can't see how there would be), I do think that having access to that information would make your data more scientifically transparent and would allow us to better explain the study.
Please let me know if that will be possible.

At this point, Martino must have forwarded the email to the PR department at the RAND Corporation where he works. A media representative emailed Gelf back with this terse reply:

I have conferred with the study's researchers regarding your request. Unfortunately, we cannot provide you with the information that you [sic] looking for.

Stunned that a nonprofit organization that prides itself on "helping to improve policy and decision making through objective research and analysis" would freeze out a news organization trying to learn more about a study their researchers published in a major academic journal, Gelf tried one last time to figure out what was going on. We sent an email back to the PR department:

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. That's too bad, as we were looking forward to seeing that information. Steven Martino told me that the reason the information will not be released is that that it is not useful for parents.
That seems like an unlikely reason not to release that data. Is there another reason why Rand will not make this information available to us?

That email was sent over one week ago. No one from RAND has responded.

In the conclusions of the study, the authors issue powerful recommendations for parents to monitor the music their children listen to and for the recording industry to consider censorship. In Gelf's view, their lack of transparency about their data makes those recommendations suspect.

Related in Gelf
A skeptical look at a study about sex and drugs in the movies.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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