Civil Liberties

The Decline of American Civilization

Does a raunchy culture produce raunchy kids?


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in August 2006.

If you take a look at mass media aimed at teenagers, you start to see a pattern. What topic suffuses teenage prime-time dramas? Sex. Movies aimed at high school boys? Violence. Music popular among the SAT-taking crowd? Sex and violence.

You've noticed, and the scholars at the medical journal Pediatrics have noticed. They have unveiled two studies that confirm what we all know: The kids most exposed to sex and violence are the ones most likely to participate in sex and violence.

One study found that teenagers who listen to a lot of music "with degrading sexual content" are more likely to have intercourse than those who don't. Another study in the same issue found that high school students who watch professional wrestling on TV have a habit of getting in fights with their dates.

This may sound like what's known as a blinding flash of the obvious. If you venture into a humid swamp on a hot day, you'll soon be sweating. So if you grow up in a culture drenched in the likes of the Pussycat Dolls and the Samoan Bulldozer, why wouldn't you get soaked?

But what's obvious is not necessarily true. Even these studies don't claim to prove that exposure to unwholesome fare causes unwholesome conduct. The fact that two things are connected doesn't mean one causes the other: Birds fly south and then winter comes, but it's not the birds' exodus that brings on ice and snow.

As the music researchers stipulated, "Our correlational data do not allow us to make causal inferences with certainty." All these articles really prove is that the kids who like raunchy music or violent sports are generally the same ones who are prone to troublesome behavior.

The explanation for the connection could be something quite different and spectacularly simple: Kids interested in sex and violence are, well, interested in sex and violence. Those who are inclined to have sex earlier than their peers could be inclined to seek out vulgar rock and rap musicians. Teenagers with a penchant for mayhem could be drawn to a sport that glorifies it.

What got overlooked in the research are the grounds for optimism. The music study, which highlighted the possible dangers of "degrading sexual content," actually concluded that "exposure to nondegrading sexual content was negatively associated" with the loss of virginity.

That's right: Kids who listen to a lot of music that merely celebrates sexual pleasure are not more likely to jump in the sack but less likely. Christina Aguilera may be a force for abstinence. How do latter-day Puritans explain that?

The studies got attention because they confirm the notion that today's kids are being poisoned by a culture that glorifies all the wrong things. But parents have been thinking that at least since Beaver Cleaver's era. This time, at least, they're wrong.

Despite all the lascivious music, sexual activity among teens has been on the decline. A federal survey found that in 1991, 54 percent of high school students reported they had had sexual intercourse. In 2005, the number was down to 47 percent. Oral sex is allegedly the rage among the pubescent set, but David Landry, a researcher at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says its popularity has been stable.

Not only are teenagers more cautious about having sex, they are more cautious while having sex: Condom use has risen by more than a third since the early 1990s. From 1990 through 2000, the pregnancy rate among adolescents fell every year, for a cumulative decline of 28 percent.

The same positive pattern holds for violence. Teens today are considerably less likely to get in fights or carry weapons than they were 15 years ago. Kids under the age of 18 commit only one-third as many crimes as they did in the peak year of 1993. Maybe seeing the wrestlers on TV has convinced a lot of youngsters that pounding on people is something that should be left to professionals.

Like adults, who can enjoy murder mysteries without ever feeling the need to commit murder, adolescents apparently can separate the fantasies of mass entertainment from the realities of how they want to live their own lives. Whatever our culture is doing wrong in the way of setting a good example for kids, it must be doing something right.