For Clues on Teenage Sex, Experts Look To Hip-Hop
Hip-hop, with its suggestive lyrics, videos and dance moves, has long been criticized by public health experts and parents, who fear that it leads to risky sexual behavior among teenagers.
But it has never been clear whether there is something uniquely insidious about hip-hop or whether the problem is simply that most people over 40 just don’t understand it. After all, nearly every generation seems troubled by the musical preferences of the next; remember, Elvis’s gyrating hips were once viewed as a corrupting influence on the nation’s youth. To solve that riddle, public health researchers are deconstructing hip-hop culture, venturing onto club dance floors and dissecting rap lyrics. The hope is that by understanding hip-hop, experts can design more effective health messages — and maybe even give parents insight into the often confounding music embraced by their children.
“There’s definitely a popular opinion that hip-hop is music that is bad for you and makes people do crazy things,” said Miguel A. Muñoz-Laboy, an assistant professor in the department of sociomedical sciences at Columbia. “We need to try to see how youth understand their own culture without imposing our own adult judgments.”
Dr. Muñoz-Laboy spent three years studying the hip-hop club scene, talking to dozens of teenagers and watching them dance. While hip-hop music has been widely assailed as misogynistic, the researchers found that young women were the “gatekeepers” of boundaries on the dance floor, according to research published this month in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality. Even during the highly sexualized form of dance known as grinding, in which bodies rub against each other, the girls in the study “were consistently vigilant about maintaining control over their bodies and space,” the study noted.
Most of the teenagers in the study were sexually experienced. But the researchers found that the overt sexuality of the music and dancing was not the main influence on sexual behavior. Rather it was the old standbys of alcohol, drugs and peer pressure that typically led them into sexual encounters.
The lesson for public health workers is that hip-hop is not just music but a support system and social structure that dominates youth culture, Dr. Muñoz-Laboy said. The language of hip-hop also may in fact be a more effective way to communicate with teenagers. One H.I.V. prevention ad that resonated with women, for instance, mirrored the sexualized lyrics of hip-hop, telling girls, “Don’t take it laying down.”
Questions remain about whether hip-hop’s explicit lyrics encourage early sex. Last year, the journal Pediatrics published research from the RAND Corporation concluding that degrading lyrics, not sexual lyrics, were the problem.
The researchers interviewed more than 1,400 teenagers over two years, asking them about the music they listened to along with factors like peer pressure and parental supervision. They found that adolescents who were exposed to the highest levels of sexually degrading lyrics were twice as likely to have had sex by the end of the study.
The researchers defined degrading lyrics as those that portrayed women as sexual objects, men as insatiable and sex as inconsequential. One example they cited was from the rapper Ja Rule, whose song “Livin’ It Up” includes the lyrics “Half the ho’s hate me, half them love me.” Notably, lyrics that celebrated sex, like those crooned by the band 98 Degrees — “I’m dreamin’ day and night of making love” — had no effect on sexual behavior, the study found.
It may be that teenagers who are most interested in initiating sexual activity simply gravitate toward songs with edgier lyrics. But the research suggests that parents should focus less on whether their children listen to hip-hop and pay more attention to the content. “We need to teach teens that these portrayals of women and sex don’t represent reality,” said Steven C. Martino, a behavioral scientist at RAND.
This year, another paper in Culture, Health and Sexuality titled “Representin’ in Cyberspace” studied the way black American girls used hip-hop terms like “freaks” and “pimpettes” to describe themselves on personal home pages. The research led the author, Carla E. Stokes, to form HotGirls (Helping Our Teen Girls in Real Life Situations), an Atlanta-based nonprofit group that holds workshops where girls talk about music, rewrite objectionable lyrics and even record their own music. “We’re trying to build on the empowering aspects of the hip-hop culture,” Dr. Stokes said.
In fact, many experts believe the keys to communicating with an entire generation of young people can be found in hip-hop. “That’s far more powerful than any negative influence the music may be having,” said Bakari Kitwana, an artist in residence at the University of Chicago whose book “The Hip-Hop Generation” is viewed as the leading scholarly work on the culture.
“Hip-hop is a generational phenomenon that has united young people,” Mr. Kitwana added. “If that’s not understood, you’re going to miss a lot.”
By Tara Parker-Pope