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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UTHealth Study Shows Rap Music and Adolescent Sexual Initiation Mediated by Perceived Peer Behavior

When middle school youth listen to rap music for three or more hours each day, they are more likely to believe that their peers are having sex and subsequently more likely to initiate sex by ninth grade, according to a study by researchers at University of Texas School of Public Health.


[Photo: Dr. Kimberly Johnson-Baker]

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Previous research has shown that sexually explicit media, with extreme or subtle references to permissive sexual behavior, has an impact on sexual behavior among youth and that rap music is more likely to have sexually explicit messages than other genres.

In a secondary analysis of 443 predominantly black and Hispanic youth enrolled in a longitudinal evaluation study in Houston, middle school students were surveyed about how often they listened to rap music and whether they believed their peers were having sex. At follow up in ninth grade, the same youth were surveyed about whether they had initiated sex.

Youth who listened to rap music three hours or more each day in seventh grade were 2.6 times more likely to report having had sex two years later. The association became weaker when factors like age, gender and perceived peer behavior were taken into account. However, researchers found that the association was partially mediated by perceived peer sexual behavior because youth who believed their peers were having sex were 2.5 times more likely to initiate sex, regardless of the additional factors.

“Rap music influences your beliefs about what you think your peers are doing,” says Dr. Kimberly Johnson-Baker, lead author and faculty associate in the center for health promotion and prevention research at UTHealth. “It’s a norming agent that tells you that certain things are ok, like drinking alcohol or having sex. It gives you the idea that everyone is doing it. 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.”

Dr. Johnson-Baker emphasized that when adolescents hear sexually explicit messages in a song, they are looking to their friends to confirm whether such behavior is happening around them. If their friends confirm it, youth are more likely to initiate sex. But if friends are being critical of the themes in the music, they may be convinced that 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,” Dr. Johnson-Baker said. “Rap music and forms of progressive hip-hop education can be used as tools to deconstruct sexually explicit messages adolescents receive. Parents can play a more proactive role by having open conversations with their kids regarding the themes in rap music while setting clear expectations for responsible sexual and dating behavior.”

Among the study limitations were that the sample was comprised of mostly urban, ethnic minority youth; the sample was not large enough to be able to examine differences by gender or ethnicity; and the researchers were unable to examine how gender bias in rap music affects sexual initiation.

Read the full story here.