Teen Sex Apparently Driven By Music, Not Libido

There is a new study claiming that music with sexually explicit lyrics causes teenagers to have sex earlier. The lead author is Steven Martino, a Rand researcher, and the study will be published in the August issue of Pediatrics; the data come from telephone interviews with 1,461 participants, aged 12 to 17.

I haven’t read the study itself, but here’s an A.P. article, which trumpets the news in its headline: “Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex.” Here’s an excerpt:

Teens whose iPods are full of music with raunchy, sexual lyrics start having sex sooner than those who prefer other songs, a study found.

Whether it’s hip-hop, rap, pop or rock, much of popular music aimed at teens contains sexual overtones. Its influence on their behavior appears to depend on how the sex is portrayed, researchers found.

Songs depicting men as “sex-driven studs,” women as sex objects and with explicit references to sex acts are more likely to trigger early sexual behavior than those where sexual references are more veiled and relationships appear more committed, the study found.

Teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the following two years as were teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music.

Among heavy listeners, 51 percent started having sex within two years, versus 29 percent of those who said they listened to little or no sexually degrading music.

So there does seem to be a correlation between sexual music and sex. But does that make the relationship causal? Wouldn’t it make sense that the kind of teenagers who want to have a lot of sex are the same ones who want to listen to sexual music, and the ones who don’t want to have a lot of sex (or at least refrain from doing so) are the same ones who don’t listen to such music?

On the other hand, if the findings of this study are true, it sure makes things easier on all the people who are promoting birth control, safe sex, abstinence, and the like. Instead, they can just ban all the sexy music.


The relationship may not be causal, but the sex is most definitely casual. What a difference a letter makes.


I think that in this case especially, music is about empowerment. People who having sex more frequently (and perhaps, more creatively) are more likely to listen to music that tells them that its ok. Of course, hearing that its ok to have lots of care free sex very easily might encourage teens (among others), but I think the initial causality comes from the nature of the listener, not the music.

Further, as someone who very much enjoys hip-hop, I find it highly doubtful that anyone is listening to Sir Mix-A-Lot and thinks to him or her self: "Oh! Indeed, I too like big butts!! I can longer lie about this fact! Now, I shall seek out these butts for my increased pleasure." I appreciate the extent of subconscious influence on human behavior but I think this is a little absurd.


I guess that's one difference between the journal Pediatrics and the JPE.


It would also seem to make sense that teens who abstain from sex for religious reasons would be less likely to listen to sexually explicit music, or have parents who oppose sexually explicit music and prohibit it, therefore taking away much of the time that teens could listen to it.


Along the same lines, I ask whether the editors of "Pediatrics" think tids turn out like stewie from watching "Family Guy" at:


Wouldn't it make sense that the kind of teenagers who want to have a lot of sex are the same ones who want to listen to sexual music

That was my initial reaction, and reading multiple reports on the study hasn't changed it at all. What's sad is that people will cite the Rand study as a reason to ban "sexy" music, rather than as a reason to talk to your kids about sex if they are listening to a lot of music that may be giving them an inaccurate view of the risks and rewards of sexual activity.


Being a parent and grandparent, (very) young people are bombarded by sexual imagery and suggestion in a way we never were.

To suggest this has no impact would negate the entire reason for the existence of Madison Avenue. Influence is the name of popular culture.

Hip-hop is especially vile and misogynistic, and I'm hardly a prude.


Telephone interviews? That wouldn't seem to be the research method of choice in this instance.

I haven't read the study, either, but this may just show that teenagers who will claim to a Rand researcher over the phone that they've had sex are the same kind who will blast rap music anywhere.


Well, there is violence on TV all the time and the majority of people aren't out shooting each other.

Also--what a great aphrodisiac--music causes sex! Give some of that to married couples.


I'd love to know the response rate that the Rand researchers got. Also, have they considered selection bias in whom they contacted?

I'd be very skeptical of this study, and its a shame that tripe like this actually gets out there to influence (wrongly) decision-making.

Also, as a response to Save_The_RustBelt, making a blanket statement of the nature of hip-hop is akin to making a blanket statement that all Republicans support Bush. Popular Hip-hop Artists such as Common, Talib Kwali, and Kayne West received popualarity from songs which did not use sex as a selling point. While the popular rotational pop/rap music we hear on the top 40 stations might seem to be an endless repititon of sex, sex, sex...is not there selection bias as to who would be listening to that anyways?

I can unhappily say that as I listened to more rap music, my frequency of getting jiggy wit it stayed the same. How I wish music caused sex (well, except we all know that Barry White is the exception)



I wish I'd realised when I was at school that where I was going wrong was listening to the wrong music.


I wonder if Tom Jones counts as sexy, and therefore bannable (from the ears of suggestible teens).


Do you think kids join life teen groups because they listen to music about Jesus? I bet they do. The Christians are brainwashing our kids!

I'm so glad someone with visibility is calling attention to this study and how it was horribly reported in the media. Not that it matters, it was on CNN, now it must be true.

mr winston

this just in...14 year olds who listen to raunchy sex driven rap music are also more likely to embellish their own sexual experience to researchers.

all joking aside, I hate the thought of any government entity regulating what people should be listening to...but at the same time I don't seem to mind the fact that a 13 year old can't go into an adult bookstore and walk out with a stack of Hustler magazines and novelties. Is that a double standard on my part? Or are kids between the ages of 13-17 not meant to audibly digest some of the things that artists produce? Even if there is causality between sex themed music and sex, I think the onus is on parents to monitor what their kids should/should not listen to.


Good point about the possible double standard, mrwinston.

Also, this just strengthens my devout hope that mainstream media will never get ahold of any research that I'm involved in; whether or not the original study was poorly constructed, by the time it's mangled by reporters with no understanding of the difference between correlation and causation, it'll sound so!


I think that Dubner isn't being fair about this study/article (and the same could be said about several commenters). They aren't saying that sex isn't driven by libido, or that it would be possible to get teens to stop having sex just by banning sexy music (and they aren't suggesting anything like a ban). And they aren't saying that everyone who listens to sexy music has sex, or that someone who wanted to get laid would have a better chance if (s)he listened to some sexy music. All that they're contending is that (on average) young teens who listen to music with sexual lyrics tend to have sex sooner than they would have if they had not listened to music with sexual lyrics. That's it. And it seems like a plausible hypothesis. If wouldn't be surprising if people who hear a lot about sex in their music become more likely to see sex as something normal for people like them, something that they'd be comfortable doing, something worth trying, something that other people are doing, something they should be doing, etc.

The study (at least as reported in the article) doesn't provide very convincing evidence for the hypothesis, for pretty much the reason that Dubner gives. It's correlational research, which means that it just shows that young teens who listen to music with sexual lyrics tend to have sex sooner than other young teens who do not listen to music with sexual lyrics. It's possible (indeed, very likely) that there are other differences between teens who choose to listen to sexy music and those who don't. The researchers asked additional questions to try to account for some of those differences (the article mentioned a question about parental permissiveness), but (especially without seeing the study itself) we have no reason to think that they even came close to ruling out the hypothesis that "the kind of teenagers who want to have a lot of sex are the same ones who want to listen to sexual music." And this is true even though each kid was interviewed over several years, with questions about music listening habits coming before almost any of them had had sex.

The AP just had a similar article titled Teens Who Watched Wrestling More Violent. The reporter for that article was actually pretty careful about correlation and causation (though not perfect, and especially bad at not pointing out that the relationship might not be causal), but the quotes from the researcher (and another researcher who was not a coauthor) were shamelessly causal.



One of the authors of the study was on NPR, and she talked about the correlation/causation issue, and admitted that the study did not prove a causal relationship one way or another. She did talk some about study methods, and the fact that they talked with kids being studied repeatedly over a period of what seemed to be several years. But the study showed such a strong correlation (and so much sexual content) between early sex and music listening that there seems to be sufficient reason for concern. The music teens were listening to was several multiples more likely to contain sexually explicit content than the TV they watched, books they read or even the internet sites they visited.

I also read the AP article about wrestling and violence. And heard some tape of the press conference / talk (it was not clear which it was) from which the quotations were drawn. There were a number of points at which a leading or trailing sentence from the lead researcher was dropped, almost completing changing the meaning of a particular quotation.

This highlights a problem of criticizing a study based on what is reported in a newspaper article or news report. Though I am often guilty of quick reactions myself, I have to remind myself that is pretty arrogant to bring up simple, obvious problems without first checking the reseach methods themselves to see whether a group of experts might have come up with those themselves. I believe I have even read some critics of Levitt's research who have done the same thing.



One of the problems with these studies is that we only see overviews and extracts (normally), which want to have a sound bite conclusion to juice up the story. No matter how careful the researchers are (and if peer reviewed, they will have very vague conclusions), the science editor at papers/TV/mags will want to sum up an "answer". When we get these 3rd hand, it tends to be even worse (Dubner, in this case, wants a catchy headline and to pick out the most sound-bitey part of the overview article).
To be fair to all concerned, humans tend to want to assume causality when they see correlation. So, the trend, as the story passes from hand to hand is to attach more causal linkage, even though there is none proven or shown. Further, these hot button issues are targetted right into the social divide in the Country, so conclusions are quickly drawn. There are a lot of people who want to find a scapegoat for things they do not like, and this kind of study gives them the ammunition they crave, even if that means drawing some pretty big conclusions.



So there does seem to be a correlation between sexual music and sex. But does that make the relationship causal?
I came to the same conclusion on my own blog, and referenced Freakonomics as the guiding light in reaching that conclusion. Interesting study.


I think valid criticism can be made only on the authors' own statements. Below is an excerpt from the actual article. From their conclusions, it seems they do (carefully) infer causality.

DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS. We conducted a national longitudinal telephone survey of
1461 adolescents. Participants were interviewed at baseline (T1), when they were 12 to 17 years old, and again 1 and 3 years later (T2 and T3). At all of the
interviews, participants reported their sexual experience and responded to measures
of more than a dozen factors known to be associated with adolescent sexual
initiation. A total of 1242 participants reported on their sexual behavior at all 3
time points; a subsample of 938 were identified as virgins before music exposure
for certain analyses. Participants also indicated how frequently they listened to
each of more than a dozen musical artists representing a variety of musical genres.
Data on listening habits were combined with results of an analysis of the sexual
content of each artist's songs to create measures of exposure to 2 kinds of sexual
content: degrading and nondegrading.

OUTCOME MEASURES. We measured initiation of intercourse and advancement in noncoital
sexual activity level over a 2-year period.

RESULTS. Multivariate regression analyses indicated that youth who listened to more
degrading sexual content at T2 were more likely to subsequently initiate intercourse
and to progress to more advanced levels of noncoital sexual activity, even after controlling for 18 respondent characteristics that might otherwise explain these relationships. In contrast,
exposure to nondegrading sexual content was unrelated to changes in participants' sexual behavior.

CONCLUSION. Listening to music with degrading sexual lyrics is related to advances in a range of sexual activities
among adolescents, whereas this does not seem to be true of other sexual lyrics. This result is consistent with sexual-script theory and suggests that cultural messages about expected sexual behavior among males and females
may underlie the effect. Reducing the amount of degrading sexual content in popular music or reducing young people's exposure to music with this type of
content could help delay the onset of sexual behavior.