Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Youth, sex and sexism

Many parents, educators, legislators and academics—among many others—worry over the influence that popular music has on youth sexual activity.

A New York Times article earlier this month addressed the issue by citing the most recent academic research undertaken by public health experts. Though only hip-hop is referenced, the issues that it touches on apply just as much to reggaeton.

Dr. Miguel A. Muñoz-Laboy, assistant professor in the department of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, spent three years conducting research in the hip-hop club scene, observing youth in dance action and interviewing dozens of them. The study, published this month in the journal Culture, Health and Sexuality, concluded that the main factors that have bearing on youth sexual activity are peer pressure and drug and alcohol use, not the sexual explicitness of lyrics and dancemoves.

The journal Pediatrics had already published last year research findings suggesting that hip-hop’s sexually explicit lyrics are not the main factor influencing young people’s decisions to be sexually active. The key, according to the study, are “degrading lyrics,” not sexually explicit lyrics. (The researchers defined “degrading lyrics” as “those that portrayed women as sexual objects, men as insatiable and sex as inconsequential.”)

I'm particularly interested in thinking through that distinction between “sexual explicitness” and “sexism.”

I celebrate the efforts of researchers who are trying to address these issues by taking into account their complexity. I appreciate their attempt not to go to the extreme of censoring or mindlessly celebrating. I think it’s worth our while to go case-by-case, song-by-song, artist-by-artist, thinking through these issues and taking the opportunity to talk to the young people in our lives about them.

Hip-hop and reggaeton provide a great communication opportunity between adults and young folks. I worry that so many adults make the same error as our parents by simply sentencing: “it’s all the same crap.” Case closed.

If we keep doing that, we keep closing off the path toward dialogue and possibilities for change.

What you’ve read above was my column in El Diario / La Prensa last Wednesday. In response, a reader wrote in the paper’s web version: “Hahahaha!, of course that music is crap. And case closed! Just because you made all your limited ‘career’ as a sociologist based on that trash called reggaeton you think us parents have to analyze one by one all the aspects of that music? Be honest, reggaeton and hip-hop only produce delinquents and people who are resentful. Trash-music for young folks that later will be trash-adults.”

My answer: I’m not saying everybody has to like the music. I’m just saying that, for the sake of connecting with young folks, it’s worth learning and talking about it—and making at least an effort to understand and respect their musical taste. Not all artists are the same. Not all fans are the same.

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