Can listening to pro-equality music help fight misogyny?

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B**ch, shut the f**k up and get in my car and suck my f***ing dick while I take a shit … You don't wanna blow that rape whistle on me. Scream! I love it.

Those are lyrics from Eminem's most recent album, Shady XV, in which he casually raps about raping Iggy Azalea. Of course, bashing women in music is nothing new. Misogyny in rap, especially, has been well documented, as has its damaging effects on real-world attitudes and behavior.

But what if we flip the script? If listening to violent lyrics can have a negative effect on human behavior, can listening to pro-equality lyrics—those about empowering women—have a positive effect?


That's exactly what researchers from University of Innsbruck in Austria and the University of Sussex in the U.K. set out to explore through four separate studies, in which they had participants listen to songs with either pro-equality lyrics or neutral lyrics, then perform various exercises. Their findings were recently published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

While the sample size was small, turns out the music made a difference.

Study no. 1: Can pro-equality lyrics influence attitudes toward women?

In the first study, researchers recruited 55 students. The pro-equality group listened to "Respect" by Train as well as "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. The neutral group listened to "Let it Roll" by Train and "Rock Steady" by Aretha Franklin. After hearing the songs, researchers asked the participants to read a true story about a female student who was sexually harassed by a professor. Next, the researchers measured how each participant felt about the story: Were they empathetic toward the victim? Did they feel the victim was to blame? How harshly should the professor be punished?


Researchers also asked each participant to rate 25 separate statements—one example, "There are many jobs in which men should be given preference over women in being hired or promoted"—on a scale of strongly-agree to strongly-disagree.

At the end of the study, sure enough, those from the pro-equality group felt more empathy for the victim described in the story and reported more positive attitudes toward women in general.


Study no. 2: Can pro-equality lyrics change attitudes about violence toward women?

For the second study, researchers enlisted 69 participants aged 18 to 33. The pro-equality group listened to "True Companion" by Marc Cohn and "Respect" by Aretha Franklin. The neutral group listened to "Silver Thunderbird" by Marc Cohn and "Rock Steady" by Aretha Franklin. (The researchers were apparently very keen on the Queen of Soul.)


This time, researchers gauged the participants' adversarial sexual beliefs—in other words, the extent to which men and women are adversaries in their sexual relationships—and feelings about interpersonal violence, by asking them agree / disagree questions such as, "A woman will only respect a man who will lay down the law to her" and "A wife should move out of the house if her husband hits her."

They also asked participants how satisfied were with their own sex lives.

Again, those who listed to the pro-equality songs appeared less accepting of violence, held fewer adversarial sex beliefs, and "female participants in the pro-equality condition reported more satisfaction with their own sex role than female participants in the neutral condition," the researchers reported.


Study no. 3: Can pro-equality lyrics change people's real-world behavior?

For the third study, researchers got a little sneaky. This time, they enlisted 100 students from a German university. They still split them into pro-equality and neutral groups—but at the end, researchers pretended the testing was over when it wasn't.


First, they conducted the study similarly to the previous two studies. The pro-equality group listened to "Frauen dieser Welt" by the German punk group Die Toten Hosen and "Woman" by John Lennon, whereas participants in the neutral group heard "Wahlkampf" by Die Toten Hosen and "Watching the Wheels" by John Lennon.

After concluding the experiment, students were thanked and handed a flyer on their way out. The flyer informed the students about their university's participation with a group called "Equality Now," described as "committed to the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world."


Students had the option to take the flyer or leave it.

Lo and behold, 12.2 percent of participants from the pro-equality lyric group took the flyer versus zero percent from the neutral group. "This finding is consistent with those reported in studies one and two and suggests that not only attitudes but also behavior toward women may be positively affected by media exposure," wrote the researchers.


Study no. 4: Can pro-equality lyrics change people's behavior toward women in realtime?

For the final study, researchers again used a method in which they pretended the experiment was over. This time 80 British participants were split into two groups and again exposed to different music. The pro-equality group heard "Strength of a Woman" by Shaggy and "Keep Ya Head Up" by Tupac Shakur, whereas participants in the neutral condition heard "Dance and Shout" by Shaggy and "Ghetto Gospel" by Tupac. (They didn't address their, um, eclectic musical taste in the study.)


At the end of the experiment, participants were given a questionnaire written by a doctoral fellow whom the university was supposedly trying to hire. They were told the position was very competitive and their feedback was vital. Half of each group was told the doctoral fellow's name was "Sophie" and the other half was told "Steven." Then they were asked three questions: "Would you recommend hiring the doctoral student?”, “How competent do you think the doctoral student is?", and “How likable do you think the doctoral student is?"

Researchers found that participants from the pro-equality group were more likely to recommend the female student than those participants who had listened to music with neutral lyrics. "Study four provided more direct evidence that exposure to pro-equality music elicits pro-female behavioral responses," the researchers wrote.


What does it all mean?

At the end of all four studies, researchers concluded that, in the same way violent lyrics can have a negative impact on behavior toward women, pro-equality lyrics can have an equally positive affect. "It appears that media exposure may not only harm people’s attitude and behavior toward women, but it may also be effectively used to improve how women are perceived and treated." Of course, much more research with larger sample sizes would need to be conducted to gauge the true impact, but the results are intriguing.


Bottom line? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. It does wonders.

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.

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