When it comes to the sexuality of music, the battle between the old and young has raged for decades.
Blues was once "the devil's music." The Rolling Stones had to sing a sterilized "Let's Spend Some Time Together" to get radio play.
But, as always, the previous generations' complaints over musical tastefulness might now appear almost quaint. A new study poses serious questions about more recent music that isn't just sexual, but also degrading and misogynistic.
According to a study published Monday by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research group, teenagers who spent more time listening to music with lyrics that objectify women or praise men for their voracious sexual appetites were more likely to become sexually active earlier in their youth. Previous studies have linked sex at a young age with higher risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
It's the latest, and among the most rigorous, studies in a growing body of research that suggests media have a significant impact on young people's behavior – a claim that ignites controversy when coupled with calls for censorship or restrictions.
When it comes to counteracting a harmful message, communicating with teenagers about appropriate behavior, experts say, can be more useful than stopping the music.
"Kids are exposed to these sorts of messages not just in music but in culture in general," says Steven Martino, a RAND psychologist and lead researcher on the study. "It's better to have them be critical thinkers than have them just be sheltered teens."
Still, Dr. Martino says, the study left little doubt in his mind that the music's message has an effect.
He and other researchers surveyed 1,461 adolescents in 2001 about their sexual experiences and related factors. The researchers followed up with similar questions in 2002 and 2004.
Throughout the study, participants reported how often they were listening to 16 artists chosen by the study's authors based on their popularity. In every case – across racial and gender lines, and after accounting for factors like a heightened interest in sex or more permissive parents – increased exposure to sexually degrading lyrics (though not merely sexual ones) led to increased sexual activity.
Parents and psychologists have long worried about the harm not only of music, but also of TV, movies, and video games. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, a few groups decried the violence depicted by rock singer Marilyn Manson's lyrics. Some went so far as to blame the singer for the attacks. More recently, the governor of Illinois tried unsuccessfully to ban sales of violent video games to minors.
Free-speech proponents have reacted angrily to suggestions of censorship, sometimes citing the fact that all individuals process information differently and can normally distinguish between what they're watching or listening to and their own behavior.
But more sophisticated studies, like the one published by RAND, are starting to tease out which aspects of media affect kids, and in what ways.
"This uses a more precise methodology than previous studies have, particularly around the issue of content," says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard University. "We as a society have lulled ourselves into thinking that if it's entertainment it doesn't affect us. There's this artificial dichotomy we've drawn between education and entertainment – education is at school, and then kids turn their brains off when they go home and listen to misogynistic lyrics."
Still, Dr. Rich and others agree that censorship – whether at home or on a social level – is a losing game. Rather than ban music, they say, parents should be aware of what their kids are listening to and willing to have conversations that put it in context.
"You can listen with them, and then say 'What do you think of that line?' " says James Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media, which conducts media ratings and reviews. "It may be a little embarrassing, but it's a great way to have a conversation with kids about smart sexuality."
Mr. Steyer is quick to say that media shouldn't be punished – it's very possible, he says, to appreciate the beat and rhythm of a song and reject the lyrics' message. But he thinks it's naive to assume music has no effect. "More and more, it's going to be important to look at media through the lens of public health," he says.
Still, such studies are notoriously difficult to conduct and are often inconclusive – merely finding an association, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean that one activity leads to another. Even Martino acknowledges there are still variables his team might not have accounted for. While it's impossible to prove that lyrics were responsible for his study's observations, Martino says he hopes that by tracking the adolescents over time – as well as by accounting for other factors such as an expressed desire to have sex at an earlier age – the study has demonstrated a strong causal connection.
Determining which lyrics were degrading and which were merely sexual constituted another challenge. Two separate researchers made that subjective decision and generally agreed. They looked for lyrics that either objectified women, viewed men as insatiable studs, or treated sex as an inconsequential game.
"These kids are teenagers, and ... it would be wrong to say we shouldn't expose these kids to sex," says Martino. "But it's another thing to expose these kids very consistently to the message that women are sexual objects."