The SPARK Research Blog: Real Talk about Really New Research on the Sexualization of Girls, is brought to you by the ASAP Initiative at Hunter/CUNY, one of the SPARK leadership team partners. The goal of the bi-monthly SPARK Research Blog is to tell you about the latest research findings in clear and plain language, with a girl-centered perspective, jettisoning the often difficult jargon that plagues a lot of scientific writing.
Sexualization in Song Lyrics has Skyrocketed in the Past Decade
There I was. Sitting at my computer, doing a little bit of work (and a little too much procrastinating), and bobbing my head to some new tunes I had playing on my headphones. All of a sudden, I froze.
“But man I ain’t never seen an a** like hers
That p***y in my mouth had me at a loss for words
I told her to back it up like burp burp
And make that a** jump like shczerp shczerp.”
Ahh!, I think, I hate when male artists sexualize and degrade women in their lyrics! I quickly switched to a new station – Nicki Minaj, a woman. Much better. Until…
“And I think I like him better with the fitted cap on
He ain’t even gotta try to put the mac on
He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look
Then the panties comin’ off, off, unh.”
Noooo!, I think to myself, Even women are in on it! It’s everywhere! You’d pretty much have to have been living under a rock not to notice how sexually degrading song lyrics are these days. And as I discovered, men are not the only ones to blame. With young people consuming about 2.5 hours of music everyday (about 75% of it on computers and MP3 players), it is more important than ever to take a look at what exactly this music is communicating.
Lots of research has analyzed music lyrics to determine how much of what we listen to is sexual in nature. But many studies don’t take into consideration whether those sexual references are degrading, and even fewer studies have looked at how music lyrics have changed over the years. A recent study by researchers at Brigham Young University does both of these things – and the results are not exactly what the researchers (or I) expected.
But before I give away the ending, let me set the scene. Researchers P. Cougar Hall, Joshua West and Shane Hill wanted to find out how sexualization in popular music lyrics has changed in the period from 1959-2009. To find out, they looked at the lyrics of the Billboard Hot 100 year-end most popular songs (across all genres) in the years 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999, and 2009. That means in total, the researchers analyzed the lyrics of exactly 600 songs!
Not just any sexual reference in the lyrics counted as sexualization, however. The researchers were very careful about making a distinction between degrading and non-degrading sexual lyrics. After all, as the researchers point out, lyrics that describe mutual respect between consenting sexual partners may actually be beneficial to adolescents, because they present a healthy and responsible sexuality. So for this study, only lyrics that were determined to be degrading were considered sexualizing. Degrading sexualizing lyrics were defined as those in which “one person has a large sexual appetite, the other person is sexually objectified, and sexual value is placed solely on physical characteristics.”
Now, if I were to ask you to make your best guess (in science, someone’s best guess is called their hypothesis) as to whether newer or older songs contained more degrading sexualization, you would probably guess newer – and you would be right. “[We found] an enormous difference between [lyrics from] Ray Charles or Elvis and what we saw with Lady Gaga and Britney Spears,” the researchers noted in an interview with Deseret News.
But you may be surprised to learn that the increase in degrading sexualizing lyrics was not at all gradual. Instead, according to Cougar Hall, starting in 1999, it “skyrocketed.” Between 1999 and 2009, the amount of degrading sexualization found in the lyrics tripled. Furthermore, non-White artists produced degrading sexualized lyrics almost 3 times as often as White artists in 1999 and 2009, and male artists were more than twice as likely as female artists to perform lyrics with sexualization.
If music lyrics have changed so much over the past decade, I can only presume that the rest of our culture might be heading down the same path. And I’m not gonna lie – I’ve noticed significantly more degrading sexualization of women on billboards, in magazines, and on TV in recent years. I think these researchers’ discovery is just one small square of a massive media quilt, and I think that quilt is smothering us.
“Popular music can teach young men to be sexually aggressive and treat women as objects while often teaching young women that their value to society is to provide sexual pleasure for others,” the researchers note. It’s time to reverse this trend. When girls and women listen to hip new music, they shouldn’t have to endure an onslaught of disrespect and sexualization. So no, you won’t catch me at a Lil Wayne concert this year or downloading Nicki Minaj’s latest. Why? Because money talks. And if I can use my dollars to tell the music industry that I’m not buying this degrading garbage, then maybe they’ll stop selling it.
 From “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne.
 From “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj
 Roberts, D.F., Foehr, U.G., & Rideout, V. (2010). Generagion M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm
 Hall, P.C., West, J.H., Hill, S. (2011). Sexualization in lyrics of popular music from 1959 to 2009: Implications for sexuality educators. Sexuality & Culture, published online: 01 September 2011.
 US Department of Health and Human Services. (2001). The surgeon general’s call to action to promote sexual health and responsible behavior. MD: Rockville.
 Hall, et. al., p. 4.
 Collins, L.M. (8 September, 2011). BYU study: Sexualized song lyrics increasing dramatically. Deseret News. Retrieved from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700177458/BYU-study-Sexualized-song-lyrics-increasing-dramatically.html?pg=1.