How about sexy history?

CNN carries the Associated Press report on the new study: Sexy music triggers teen sex.

According to AP:

Teens who said they listened to lots of music with degrading sexual messages were almost twice as likely to start having intercourse or other sexual activities within the following two years as were teens who listened to little or no sexually degrading music.

If only it were so easy! Shelly Batts at Retrospectacle points out the science error (which is actually noted in the AP story). (The original study is in Pediatrics; an abstract of the article is here, free of charge. I have not found a free source for the ful text.) Consider how we could use this research, were it accurate.

  1. The story related in the musical 1776! about how a conjugal visit from Martha Jefferson got Thomas off the dime to complete the Declaration of Independence would hold the rapt attention of kids who normally can’t tell the difference between the Declaration and the U.S.S. Independence.
  2. Woodrow Wilson’s romance after the death of his first wife would be a critical lead-in to a lesson about Wilson’s 14 Points, the Treaty of Versailles, the end of World War I and the setup for World War II.
  3. No student, knowing of the love Archduke Ferdinand had for Sophie, would ever forget the act that triggered World War I.
  4. Students would hide copies of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin with the good passages highlighted, to pass around. They’d want to go to London in their youth to work in a publishing house, and to Paris in their old age, to play chess with the ladies. Heck, they might even take up playing Franklin’s glass harmonica, and learn Mozart’s pieces written for the instrument, to see if it really drove ladies into fits of uncontrollable passion.
  5. Warm Springs, Georgia, might become a key Spring Break destination, to see if the warm waters would do for teenagers what it seemed to do for the libido of Franklin Roosevelt.
  6. Harry Truman would be devalued in the rankings of “better presidents.”
  7. Boys Nation of the American Legion would be overwhelmed with applicants trying to follow in the footsteps of Bill Clinton.

Oh, I’m sure we can find more. Richard Feynman’s stories of seduction would make the history of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project crackle to life, and boys would try to impress the girls with their understanding of the binding curve of energy.

I am reminded of Allan Bloom’s rant against modern culture, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he partly adopts Aristotle’s view that kids shouldn’t have “music” at all, because it appeals to their emotions. Aristotle’s definition of music was much more expansive than Bloom acknowledged, encompassing poetry and drama as well as music — but the point suffers even more when we understand that. (Antonio D’Amasio’s research suggests emotion is an essential component of good decision-making, which if true, makes Bloom’s rant and Aristote’s beliefs quite dangerous.)

To me the research article suggests more that we still do not use media appropriately or adequately in teaching, especially in teaching history. The usual education establishment reaction is to ban new media, new forms of expression, and otherwise to slow down the adoption of new technologies and new applications of old technologies. Allan Bloom complained that freshmen at the University of Chicago arrived with stereos and rock and roll albums (how fast things change!) but no appreciation for classical music or drama. He urged some sort of ban on the music; today my classroom has a projector and stereo sound, and I’ve added a boom box, the better to introduce classical music and drama, as well as great video histories. I wish I had the means to move that stuff to iPods and cell phones, which would increase the use of the material by kids.

If we are troubled by the images, music and other material students get from new media and new media outlets, the answer is to join the fray and provide competing material of higher quality and higher moral value. Good ideas do best when they are discussed and spread around.

In any case, this study is not clean enough to draw conclusions much beyond the fact that kids listen to music that parents and teachers regularly disapprove of, and students don’t use the same media to learn what they should. Since the material they should learn is not available in iPod, nor on the radio, nor much in CD or DVD form, I’m not sure it’s the kids’ fault.

3 Responses to How about sexy history?

  1. nick says:

    The study looks to be an interesting confirmation of my grandma’s worst nightmare. I do take issue with bringing D’Amasio into the picture, though. Accumulating evidence for the role of emotion and those beautiful little amygalae nuclei in rational thought would seem to further Aristotle’s educational program, not show it to be a dangerous idea. Not that Aristotle refused music–his recommended gymnastics under which dance fell–but that habituation to ‘uncultured’ music, and the emotions evoked, would be a hindrance to thought. As you say, introducing media with substance–‘higher quality and higher moral value’–would mute fears of troublesome habituations, much to the detriment of my attendance at indie shows. This, however, speaks towards the importance of D’Amasio’s findings and that they are in accord with an Aristotelian or Bloomian form of education, not that they are dangerous in light of the ex-Iowa now USC brain titan’s findings.


  2. edarrell says:

    There are several potential problems with the study — go check out the post at Retrospectacle. I think there is a good case to be made for a pre-selection bias: Kids who listen to raunchy music are more predisposed to have earlier sex in the first place. As the AP article notes, other scientists think it’s difficult to filter out other influences — the music is played in venues that are not exactly encouraging of chastity. Generally the Boy Scout troop isn’t going to sing such lyrics as they hike, but if they did, would it make the average Boy Scout as likely to engage in sex as the average high school drop out who goes clubbing every weekend?

    The causal links are weak, I agree.


  3. R. Becker says:

    I wondered on reading the first news reports if they accurately summarized the research. Clearly the research established some kind of significant statistical relationship between those who listened to sexually explicit lyrics and those who engaged earlier in sex. But did it establish a causal relationship? The news wire stories jumped to that conclusion… after all , it made a much better front page lead in the Deseret News that way. And other papers.

    I wonder, though, if the study drew that kind of causal link explicitly. Did it, for example, address this hypothesis: that students who mature sexually earlier than others might be drawn to listen to more sexually explicit music than those who mature [sexually] somewhat later? I don’t know, but I’d want to know before I began drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the study means or how it should inform public policy. If it should at all.


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