Vitality

Parental Advisory: Rap Music With Explicit Lyrics May Trigger Risky Sexual Behavior In Teens

Man listening to music
Teens who listen to rap music with sexually explicit lyrics are more likely to be sexually active. Garry Knight, CC BY 2.0

In the early 90s, “Down Wit’ O.P.P.”  by the rap group Naughty By Nature became a popular catchphrase, condoning sexual infidelity. The song’s alluring beat and lyrics continue to be echoed in bars, clubs, and lounges with crowds enthusiastically singing along to its explicit lyrics. But can songs like this do more harm than good? According to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, listening to rap music for three hours or more each day can encourage promiscuous sexual behavior in teens.  

Rap music’s sexual overtones “gives you the idea that everyone is doing it,'” said Kimberly Johnson-Baker, lead author and faculty associate in the Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, in the news release. “And the more you’re listening to it, the more you’re conforming, so you could see how it would set up a belief about what your peers are doing,” she added.

Previous research shows rap music is associated with risky sexual behavior, specifically among ethnic minority youth. However, Johnson-Baker and her colleagues sought to explore whether listening to rap music influences teens to initiate sex and if so, what factors influence  this effect.

In the study, a total of 443 predominantly black and Hispanic students, between the ages of 13 and 16 in Houston, were surveyed about how often they listened to rap music, and whether they believed their friends were having sex in the seventh grade. At the follow up, ninth grade students were asked about whether they had initiated sex.

The findings revealed those who listened to rap music three hours or more each day in seventh grade were 2.6 times more likely to have had sex two years later. The association was mediated by the students’ perception of their friends’ sexual behavior. Those who believed their friends were having sex were 2.5 times more likely to initiate intercourse, regardless of age and gender.

When teens hear sexually explicit lyrics in a song, they look to their friends to confirm whether this behavior is actually happening, according to Johnson-Baker. However, if their friends are critical of the explicit content, teens will believe it's not happening around them.

“Perceived peer sex is the most powerful predictor of future sex and addressing perceived peer behavior with youth is really important. Rap music and forms of progressive hip-hop education can be used as tools to deconstruct sexually explicit messages adolescents receive,” she said.

In a similar 2009 study, more than 700 ninth-grade students at three large, urban high schools were exposed to over 14 hours of sexually explicit lyrics each week. The relationship between exposure to lyrics describing degrading sex and sexual experience was the same for both young men and women. One-third of the students had previously been sexually active.

Compared to those who had been exposed the least to sexually degrading lyrics, teens with the most exposure were more than twice as likely to have had sexual intercourse. Similarly, among students who hadn’t had sex, those who were highly exposed to these lyrics were nearly twice as likely to continue non-coital sexual behaviors, like mutual masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex compared to virgins with minimal exposure.

These studies suggest sex in media messages, like rap music, may be a risk factor for early teen sex; it can potentially lower teens’ inhibitions and make them less thoughtful about sexual choices. Monitoring media exposure during teen years is important because the brain’s impulse-control center is “still under construction” when an interest in sex rises. Hormonal changes take place during adolescence, and hormone systems involved in the brain’s response to stress also change during the teen years. Stress hormones can have complex effects on the brain, and therefore, (sexual) behavior, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.  

In general, this is not to say parents should try to ban rap music, because banning it will not stop teens from listening to it. Instead, there should be an ongoing dialogue about healthy sex and dating behaviors that will put rap lyrics in context.

Sources: Johnson-Baker A, Markham C, Baumler E et al. Rap Music Use, Perceived Peer Behavior, and Sexual Initiation Among Ethnic Minority Youth. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2016.

Primack BA, Douglas EL, Fine MJ et al. Exposure to Sexual Lyrics and Sexual Experience Among Urban Adolescents. Am J Prev Med. 2009.

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