The Height of Disrespect

New study on 'hip-hop' sexuality finds anti-woman strain—even among young women

While statistics tell us that across the country teen pregnancy is declining and sex education is increasingly effective, most of the adolescents who are getting pregnant are the very poor. A recent study of sexuality among African American youth in households earning less than $25,000 per year was prompted in part by figures showing that black adolescents are becoming sexually active at younger ages than other youth, and are suffering from HIV/AIDS in the highest numbers.

For some, listening to the young people videotaped (but not named) during focus groups for the recent study might be more disturbing than reading the stats.

Although the study gives short shrift to its second mission—to explore the connections between the teens' attitudes and media consumption—their comments overwhelmingly display the "hard" and cavalier posturing of some segments of rap and hip-hop culture. The tones are generally dismissive, the bravado is amped, and the vocabulary is objectifying. "Everything is flipped. We used to bag chicks—now they're baggin' us," said one New York male. And even those who expressed these attitudes cited certain hip-hop artists as more "positive" and called for more "message" in the music.

Teens in New York: Who's baggin' whom?
photo: Cary Conover
Teens in New York: Who's baggin' whom?

The study, conducted by Motivational Educational Entertainment (MEE), a Philadelphia communications firm that researches and markets to urban and low-income groups, refers to these teens as "the hip-hop generation." In reality, the teens interviewed—between 16 and 20 years old—are probably children of the first hip-hop generation (usually considered people born between 1965 and 1980). The subjects of this study, then, have been raised during the rise of this influential culture and may reflect the long-term effects of the devastation of black communities following the civil rights and black-power movements.

The most telling attitudinal change from the "movement" years is the absence of any influence of feminism and the open disdain for black women. As the authors put it, "Black females are valued by no one." The study's glossary includes six nouns used to describe males: Dog, homeboy, playa, lame, sugar daddy, and payload, another word for sugar daddy.

For women, there are at least 15, none good: Block bender, woo-wop, flip-flop, skeezer, 'hood rat, 'ho, and trick all mean promiscuous female. In addition, there are freak, bitch, gold digger, hoochie mama, runner, flipper, shorty, and the more ambiguous wifey. Young women in the interviews also use some of these terms.

In the survey of 2,000 teens, who were contacted through 80 community-based groups in nine urban areas, the "play or get played" ethos is equally influential among males and females, along with this disrespect for black women. The survey found that urban youth continue to engage in risky sexual behavior in relationships the teens themselves describe as lacking emotional intimacy and trust.

MEE's study, funded by the California Endowment and the Ford Foundation, was conducted with the help of a multicultural group of 10 scholars—social scientists, clinical psychologists, and media experts. The group's goal is to get community-based service organizations and creators of entertainment programming to make more effective interventions with this generation of adolescents.

Professor Beth Richie of the University of Illinois at Chicago, one of the study's scholars, said, "Young people today in lower-income black communities are facing a . . . whole set of stereotypical images of themselves—hypersexual, sexually irresponsible, not concerned with ongoing intimate relationships. [They] can't help but be influenced by those images." When several young women were talking about their reluctance to use condoms, one said that no one on TV or in films is ever shown using them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, African American adults and adolescents in 2001 had an AIDS case rate 10 times higher than whites. African American youth account for 60 percent of new AIDS cases, and black females ages 13 to 19 represent 66 percent of AIDS cases reported among young women, according to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. Teens repeatedly reported that "everybody" is having sex and complained that most sex-ed classes begin in eighth grade, by which time, they thought, most kids have already had sexual intercourse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that black teens are more likely than whites to have had sex, more likely to have begun at an earlier age (13), and to have had more than four partners by that stage of life. Blacks are also much more likely to have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant.

The MEE survey reveals some of the attitudes behind the behavior. On several occasions in the MEE focus-group videos, males casually mentioned group rape—doing "bust-outs," or handing off partners for others to "try out." Even if bravado or "lying on [one's] dick" may account for some of the tales and blasé attitudes toward this sexual violence, the fact that young women reported it too, along with some admitting to having had sex with more than one partner at a time, suggests a disturbing acceptance of the abuse of women.

One Atlanta teen explained his promiscuity by saying, "I ain't cheatin' 'cause I ain't shit; I'm cheatin' 'cause she ain't shit." And sadly, both males and females frequently displayed their distrust of females as a group. A young New York woman said, "If I have a problem, I prefer to take it to a man rather than a girl. A girl might try to take your man." Women are "girls" but boys are "men"? An Oakland male said girls "don't trust each other, that's why I can't trust them."

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