This study demonstrated that more than one-third of popular songs portrayed sexual intercourse, and that in about two-thirds of those references the intercourse was degrading. It also showed that genres differ in the types of sex they portray, with Rap having the highest levels of references to degrading sex and Country and R&B/Hip-Hop featuring the highest levels of references to non-degrading sex. Finally, references to substance use, violence, and weapon carrying were associated with songs featuring degrading sex but not with songs containing non-degrading sex.
Our finding that about one-third of popular music contains references to sexual intercourse is important because adolescents listen to popular music about 2.4 hours each day.1
Our results therefore suggest that the average adolescent who listens to a complete cross-section of popular music will spend about 48 minutes each day listening to songs with sexual content, and about 32 minutes each day listening to songs with degrading sexual content. However, our results further suggest that degrading sex is far more common in some genres than others, with the vast majority of degrading sexual references found in two genres (Rap and R&B/Hip-Hop). Interestingly, these happen to be the most popular genres among young people today, regardless of demographic characteristics.1
Future research will need to clarify what impact this exposure has on sexual and other health-related behavior outcomes. Research investigating the relationship between visual media and sex show that the two are related.5,26,27
Although music lacks the visual elements of film and television, there are reasons to believe that references in popular music may be as potent in their relationship with sexual behavior.4,5
Music is known to be highly related to personal identity;11,28,29
young people often model themselves in terms of dress, behavior, and identity after musical figures. In addition, exposure to popular music is vast, with the average adolescent now listening to about 16 hours of music each week.
Our finding that sexual content is frequent in popular music may also have implications for sexual health education. Considering the daily and weekly estimates of music exposure among U.S. youth,1
sexual health lessons are likely to be dwarfed in young people's minds by the lessons they learn through music lyrics' representations of sex. It may therefore be useful for health educators, health professionals, and curriculum designers to become familiar with the messages young people receive about sex in popular music, so that they can effectively respond to those messages. Innovative interventions could identify creative ways of generating doubt in the minds of young people as to the veracity of the sex-related media messages they receive. One way of doing this may be to include media literacy in sexuality education programming, whereby young people learn to analyze and evaluate media portrayals of sex.5,30–32
Our finding that different types of sexual content vary significantly by genre suggests that those exposed to specific musical genres may be at increased risk for the sequelae of early intercourse. This is because previous research has demonstrated an association between degrading sexual content and early sexual intercourse.4,18
Those exposed to proportionally more Rap music, for example, may be at increased risk of early coitarche and sexually transmitted infections. It will be interesting in future research to determine if preference of and/or exposure to certain genres are associated with sexual experience. Additionally, it will be interesting to explore the reasons for differential portrayal of degrading sex in various genres. The sexual content of a genre's songs is likely to be due to a number of social, political, and economic factors, but further research will be necessary to determine more specifically the reasons for these differences. In the meantime, however, this information may be used in developing health promotion materials and campaigns. If indeed those listening to Rap music may be more at risk for sexual risk taking, the principles of social marketing would suggest that it may be useful to choose a Rap artist to be a spokesperson regarding sexual health.
Our finding that songs containing degrading sex more frequently referenced substance use and violence is troubling because substance use can increase both sexual risk taking33,34
and violent behaviors.35
These findings are also concerning because a prior study found that exposure to televised music videos was associated with increased acceptance of rape,36
and it is estimated that over the course of one year, up to 30% of young women have an unwanted sexual experience.37
As alcohol use has been associated with date/acquaintance rape,38
further studies examining the relationship between music lyrics and sexual risk taking will need to consider the mediating effect of musical references to use of substances such as alcohol.
Our study was limited in that it focused on one year of popular music, and it is possible that there are temporal trends in references to sex in musical lyrics. As such, it will be important to conduct longer-term analyses of popular music content using rigorous methods. Additionally, it should be noted that coding even the mere presence or absence of sexual activity can be difficult because of the tendency for song lyrics to be highly suggestive but not explicit (). It is for this reason that we employed a complex coding methodology and confirmed that our coders reached an adequate level of inter-rater agreement. Still, the challenge of determining sexual content remains an important limitation to this type of work. Finally, it should be emphasized that the purpose of this study was not to link sexual content to actual sexual behavior. This content analysis, however, provides the foundation on which future studies investigating the relationship between exposure to sexual content and actual sexual behavior can be built.