Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Some Kind of Link

Since everyone knows that teenagers have no desire for sex unless they've been corrupted by some Pied Piper of sleaze, research into pop-music lyrics is Serious Business.

There's still no firm proof that raunchy music makes kids have sex, but a new study provides another suggestion that there's at least some kind of link between "degrading" songs and teenage sexual activity.
Once you assume that there's some kind of link between hearing about sex and having sex, confirming the theory is relatively light work: Over here, Britney Spears is singing about being a slave 4 U. Over there, a couple of teenagers are having awkward, fumbling sex. Game, set, match!

There are degrading sexual messages in TV shows. And commercials. And magazine ads. And comic books. And those morning radio shows where faux-populist hosts get the workforce's adrenaline flowing by degrading women, laughing at tragedy, and generally acting like a bunch of loudmouthed fucking assholes. For that matter, some children may be exposed to degrading sexual behavior and attitudes in their own homes. But teens' so-called music is obviously much more significant, speaking from a purely objective sociological standpoint. That's just common sense.

Because this is Science, the first thing we need is a clear definition of "degrading."
The researchers...determined how many of the 279 most popular songs in 2005 were "degrading" because they referred to sex that's "based only on physical characteristics" and features a "power differential" instead of being mutually consensual.
First off, sex that's "based only on physical characteristics" is not degrading in and of itself; it's acceptable, in this day and age, for men and women to have recreational sex with people with whom they share no other interests, and have no intention of dating, let alone marrying (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they belong to that lucky group of citizens who are allowed to marry).

This kind of sex is often degrading because we live in a society that sees it as degrading, for reasons having to do with misogyny and homophobia and good old-fashioned ressentiment.

Second, the whole problem with a power differential is that it can create consent (cf. the groupie phenomenon). In some cases, consent can even be seen as an additional degradation (cf. the woman in the clothing ad above).

So right off the bat, the definition of degradation is mired in the same psychosexual fever swamp as the lyrics it's intended to critique. People who have casual sex for no more transcendent reason than ordinary human lust are "degraded" (especially if they're women). But where there's consent, one needn't look too closely for a power differential. (If only our horny teens could get this through their skulls, somehow!)

Those are somewhat arcane objections, though. There are more basic problems here.
"Wait (The Whisper Song)" by the rap group known as Ying Yang Twins was deemed degrading, apparently because it included a reference to rough intercourse.
You can Google the lyrics, if you like, and decide for yourself whether it's the "reference to rough intercourse" that makes the song degrading. I see a larger problem, personally.
By contrast, the lyrics of the rap song "Baby I'm Back" by Baby Bash, including the lines "I wanna be stronger than we've ever been/I'm here to cater to you," was said to be not degrading.
Just for the record, this song is about a two-timin' man who wants to be allowed back into his jilted partner's...er...good graces, and it includes such tender blandishments as "please forgive me for being a rolling stone; please forgive me, let me polish it up like chrome," and "I was gone for a minute; now I'm back, let me hit it."

At this point, I think that we can all agree that this study has a couple of conceptual flaws. On the bright side, these problems are more than made up for by the high quality of the results:
[T]he findings don't prove that the music caused kids to have sex, acknowledged [Dr. Brian A.] Primack, who's an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"The opposite could be true -- that people who have more sex then go out and seek music with degrading sexual messages," he said.
Well, at least we know that it's one or the other. It's a start.

And we also know that teenagers shouldn't be having sex, period, responsibly or otherwise. Which means that something must be done!!1
What to do? Laura Lindberg, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York City, said that teens need to learn how to interpret and analyze the messages they see in the world around them.
It seems to me that this is what they're doing already, and that adult culture isn't contradicting their interpretation in any serious way. A feminist (or at least anti-misogynist) overhaul of our society could help with that problem; unfortunately, that would require being a certain amount of acceptance of teenagers as autonomous sexual beings, among other concessions to reality that we find emotionally or politically or logically unacceptable. That leaves us with our longstanding two-pronged approach: spouting anti-sex pieties that are totally at odds with adult culture -- and which teenagers can see through like a gang sign thrown by Jay Leno -- and reinforcing the sexual stereotypes and double standards on which those pieties are based.

But even if we can't handle the issue in all its complexity, we can at least avoid oversimplifying it:
"[T]here's no silver bullet," [Lindberg] said. "If you get all teenagers to turn in their iPods, the teen pregnancy rate is not going to automatically decline."
I'm not so sure. If we take all their iPods away, and pregnancy rates drop, what other explanation could there possibly be?

And besides, how can we know until we try? That's the scientific method, after all.

(Illustration: Ad for Mr. Leggs Trousers, 1970. Via Found in Mom's Attic.)


Anonymous said...

These people are so goofy. Suggestive lyrics and movie dialogue have been around forever. The other day I saw the first movie that paired Fred and Ginger. The main actress was from S. America and one of the blonde Americans said something like, "what do those South Americans have below the equator that we don't have?"

Phila said...

Well, some of the lyrics they're talking about are way beyond suggestive, and I find 'em pretty disturbing myself. But my concern has to do with women being treated like subhumans, not with kids being sexually active.

These researchers seem to have other priorities, as Dick Cheney would say.

Jay Schiavone said...

Why can't I get my slacks to look like that?

Anonymous said...

"which teenagers can see through like a gang sign thrown by Jay Leno"

Now that's quality snark.