Profanity in YA: Research, Assumption, and Feminism

I’ve mentioned that my educational background is in psychology. I love research and I love the idea of studying behavior to better understand it. Throughout my coursework, I had to do a lot of my own research and paper writing, along with a number of my own full-blown studies. I also had to take a course in research methods, and the professor I took it with had us work with him on his personal research. His project was utterly fascinating — he explored dating advertisements to see whether there was any sort of script to which those seeking mates sold themselves to the opposite gender.

The project involved reading a lot of dating ads and coding them (the ads were randomly selected). My partner and I in the project had to make hash marks for each time we read a word that fit a certain category; some of the categories included mentions of appearance, wealth, jobs and whether these mentions were in relation to the person writing the ad or the person they were seeking, along with the gender of each. The two of us coded each ad separately, then we checked with one another to verify whether we had the same number of coded terms each. This is standard research practice, as it helps eliminate bias or misinterpretation. We had a really strict set of parameters to follow in terms of what did and did not count as something worth coding.

At the end of coding, our professor used the information to figure out whether there was any correlation between dating ads and gender scripts. From his extensive research on gender norms and on relationship psychology, he had a solid set of hypotheses about the behavior he’d expect to see played out in the advertisements. Using the coded data we’d provided, he was able to determine whether his hypotheses were supported or not (note: supported, not true or false). From the analyses (we as students) ran on the data, he was able to write about what this support could suggest about behavior. And since he studied behavior via the advertisements, he could draw those sorts of conclusions.

The long introduction to this is necessary in explaining why I had such a fascination with reading the study being interpreted by media and bloggers about profanity in YA. I was interested in both what the study looked at and how it was presented, along with how it was being interpreted (spoiler: it was being interpreted and is STILL being interpreted wrong).

The thesis of Coyne et al’s “A Helluva Read: Profanity in Adolescent Literature” is not even a thesis. It’s a statement presented in research form stating that the study’s aim was to provide a content analysis. Content analysis means the researchers looked at something intensely in order to understand communication patterns, rather than draw conclusions. It’s sort of a pre-study, meant to be the first step in doing more in-depth studies, if that makes sense. For the purposes of this study, researchers looked at how often there was profanity in a set of books, who said the profanity, who the profanity was directed at, and what sort of characteristics were associated with either the swearer or the sworn at.

In the next section of the paper, the researchers discussed why they chose this topic to explore. They talked about how media can influence adolescent thinking, and they were curious why it had never been studied in print material the way it had been in television or video games. Other research somewhat suggested that reading has a greater influence on adolescent thinking by virtue of how reading impacts the brain and processing (it’s higher level in that it’s engagement with material, rather than being lower level and passive in consumption). The researchers’ final words in this section say that “it is important to examine negative content in print media, such as profanity, as it may represent a significant cognitive and ultimately behavioral influence on the use of profanity.”

From all of the research they cite, this sort of conclusion is wild. First, they slip in the word “significant” for no reason; in research, the word “significant” is related to statistical analysis, not behavior. Once you have found stat analysis to be “significant” when researching, you can explore the correlation among variables (i.e., if you are reading dating ads and notice a significant difference between the way men and women identify themselves with objects of wealth, you can correlate that perhaps men emphasize wealth as something women would find attractive in a mate). Likewise, if you read the sentence a few more times, you’ll note the only thing they believe is that if teens are exposed to profanity, they will think about profanity more. It doesn’t say they will use it more. Just that their thinking and behavior could be influenced.


The third section of the study lays out the exact questions the researchers were curious about:
1. How frequent is profanity use in adolescent novels?
2. What type of profanity is used most often?
3. Is profanity more frequent and intense in novels aimed at older adolescents?
4. Does author gender influence use of profanity in adolescent novels?

Let’s break this down a tiny bit. Their questions were mostly developed to help guide collecting raw data. They wanted numbers — frequency of profanity and types of profanity. Then they were curious whether profanity was more frequent in books meant for older readers. And then, out of the blue, is the final curiosity: does an author’s gender (note: they use the word gender, not sex) influence the frequency of profanity use.

Tied up in their interest in counting the instances of profanity, these researchers were attempting to draw conclusions about whether or not the gender of the author impacted the frequency of swearing. Their choice to include commentary on what impact the women’s liberation movement may have had on profanity in a handful of YA books baffles me. After the researchers presented the question, they offered a little more research. Their first study (1973!) talks about how men used profanity more than women; their second study (1997) said the ladies were using “coarse language more than ever before.” How many conflicting variables happened between 1973 and 1997?

Oh right.

The researchers then offer up a bit of research from 1991 that says there’s still a stigma for girls to swear in a way there is not one for boys. They then ran with the info of the 20-year-old study to make the leap that because the “focus of adolescent novels is on the adolescent characters, the frequency of swearing should be higher among male characters than among female.” After this line, the researchers then give a series of hypotheses about the information they expect to cull from their data coding:

1. Male characters will use profanity (especially strong profanity) more frequently than female characters.
2. Adolescent characters will use profanity (especially strong profanity) more frequently than adult characters.
3. Profanity will be more frequent in humorous situations than in non-humorous.

The researchers at this point slipped in another research question, but it doesn’t interest me as much as the gender ones do. The question, if you’re curious, is about whether social status had any bearing on profanity (i.e., do richer, prettier characters swear more?).

So far, we have a study that is going to count things. Then they’re going to look at the things they counted and draw some conclusions based on those numbers. Note: not a single one of their questions was about behavior, about influence of profanity, or any other measure of the impact of the profanity in adolescent lit. Since they had no way to run such a study without first understanding the prevalence of swearing in the lit, they instead chose to go after an odd factor and attempt to draw conclusions of no impact: whether or not the author’s gender or the character’s gender influenced profanity.

As for methodology, Coyne et al used the books that were listed on the New York Times Best Seller List the week of June 23, 2008 and the week of July 6, 2008 and pulled out the 40 most popular titles. Any books geared for those over age 9 were included, and books in a series were limited to just the two most recently published books in the series. They then divided the books up into age categories, such that 9-11 were together, 12-13 were together, and 14 and older were together. One of the books was an outlier in that it had so many instances of profanity they did a little statistical work to make it less of a problematic title in the sample (and the way they did this was legitimate, especially since the book wasn’t even a novel but a memoir).

In studying the books, the researchers used the same system of coding profanity that prior researchers who studied profanity on television used. There were 5 categories:

1. The Seven Dirty Words — things the FCC won’t let you say: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
2. Sexual Words — things that described body parts or sex in a less-than-nice way (so, “dickwad” is their example)
3. Excretory words — anything describing poop. This includes the word “crap,” even if it’s used in a way to express frustration. I suppose that makes sense.
4. Strong others — words that are offensive and taboo: bitch being one of them.
5. Mild others — words that are only kind of offensive and taboo: damn being one of them.

They drew their list of words in the 4th and 5th category from a book called Cursing in America (1992) so they had an objective list. At least, I’m led to believe that. The study does not offer an appendix with the actual list of words they coded for (a huge oversight). However, a word like “hell” used in the right context was not considered profane. The researchers only coded each word once — but they put it in the highest level category first. So, if the word “piss” was used, it went to the Seven Dirty Words category and not the excretory words.

Gender coding was straightforward: they went based on names and pronouns. They didn’t have a big deal with non-gendered characters except in the case of aliens or robots, and they were just left as “unknown.” They also coded for age (who said the swear, who received it) and for whether it was uttered in a funny or not funny situation. Social status stuff was explored too, but again, doesn’t interest me. They used multiple researchers to code the data, did verification of the coding, and all looks pretty good.

Their methodology was solid, aside from the fact the sample was so tiny (2 weeks worth of books in the middle of one summer). Also problematic was that it wasn’t random.

But rather than dwell on those little facts, let’s talk about the results!

In regards to their first research question, the researchers found 1,522 separate uses of profanity in the 40 books. Only 5 books did not contain a single profane item they were looking for. And 4 of the 5 were for books in the 9-11 age group. In doing a little more number crunching, the researchers found the average adolescent reading and average size book would encounter 6.66 profane words per hour. Let that number sit with you a few minutes.

For their second research question, researchers found that 51% of the profane instances were mild profanity. The Seven Dirty Words made up 20% of profanity. The other categories were much smaller.

The next research question relating to target age of the book and instances of profanity includes a large table that, if you can get your hands on the study, is worth looking at. But some of the interesting findings included seeing that the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books had virtually no profanity, whereas Harry Potter, Pendragon, and Ranger’s Apprentice books were coming in with 20+ instances each. For books published with the 9-11 year group in mind, there were 166 instances of profanity total. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother had 175 instances of profanity, whereas the Summer Collection of Gossip Girls books had between 16 and 70 instances. Sarah Dessen’s Lock and Key had 53 instances. For books published with the 12-13 market in mind, there were a total of 654 instances of profanity. As for books geared for the 14 and older crowd, there were 1,522 instances of profanity, with The Book Thief having 101 instances of profanity, and the two Pretty Little Liars books having 40 and 80. Anna Godbersen’s The Luxe had 14 instances of profanity.

Looking at those raw numbers would suggest something, wouldn’t it? That The Book Thief is a terrible book because it has so much swearing in it, but that the Pretty Little Liars books were better because there weren’t as many instances? Or that Little Brother is the worst offender out there with its hulking 175 instances of profanity. But I’d say that The Book Thief and Little Brother are modern YA classics because I’ve read them and know the content, and I know as a reader that goes a lot further than the instances of profanity. Yet, researchers who are not invested in the content of the books are looking instead at word frequency, and in doing so, they’re intentionally developing a system of ranking the books based on it. But I’m not going to talk about this more because I think the YALSA blog post does a fine job expressing these things.

Of course the researchers found that there was more swearing in book for older adolescents than for those meant for younger ones. However, and I go back to my earlier discussion of the word “significant.” The research showed no significant difference in the instances of profanity for books published for those age 12-13 and those published for the 14 and older crowd. What that means is there cannot be any real correlations drawn. However, there was a significant difference in profanity between books aimed at those age 9-11 and those age 14 and older. To that I say, no shit. Oh, and books aimed at those for 14 and older were six times more likely to use the seven dirty words than those aimed at 12-13 year olds.

On to the thing that interested me the most in the results: gender. Again, gender. Not sex. There was no difference between the use of profanity in a book written by a male author and a book written by a female author. Even in terms of what kind of profanity was used (lady authors are using piss and fuck as much as the men are). The only differences found in the numbers came when the researchers looked at who was swearing in the text. Books written by females had more frequently swearing female characters than books written by males did, and vice versa.

When the researchers broke down the data they collected and explored their hypotheses, more things emerged worth looking at. First and foremost, gender of characters did not matter when it came to profanity use. In other words, female characters kept pace with male counterparts (the percentage break down was 49% of profanity came from a female character and 51% from a male). Likewise, there wasn’t a difference in the types of profanity uttered between the genders. And in results that aren’t surprising, adolescents swore a lot more in books than adults did. The researchers then drilled down even further and found that minor female characters swore significantly more than adult female characters except when it came to the seven dirty words (apparently adult females needed their fucks and cunts more than minor female characters did).

The other result I want to note was that profanity happened 23 times more often in non-funny books than in funny books. Again, a total no-brainer for anyone who has read one of these books in the last few decades.

My favorite part of any research study and the one I focused on most in this one is the discussion section. This is where the researchers have a chance to speculate upon the things they found. This is also where the bulk of misinformation about this particular study has stemmed from. The bulk of discussion in this piece boils down to this: while 88% of the books studied had profanity, some books had a lot of it, while others only had one or two instances (and I imagine many of those books were instances of saying “crap” or “damn” or other inoffensive, mildly profane words). They also state that in comparison to television, YA books aren’t pumping out more profanity. They’re on par with one another. And in an hour, the researchers found adolescents would hear 12 instances of profanity on television, as opposed to 6.66 in reading a book.

The researchers mentioned, too, YA books have more profanity than video games rated T for teen (this is based on a study they cite). But you know what they say about this? They suggest this is the case because most of the video games marketed for this age range are not heavy in dialog. And thus, when there is little dialog going on, then there’s going to be less profanity.

In their own research, they state that there is not more profanity in adolescent books than there is on television nor in video games.

More curious in the discussion, though, are the bits about gender. As the researchers showed, gender didn’t matter in terms of profanity use — that is, male and female authors wrote their swears equally, and they didn’t discriminate against the character’s gender either. But what the researchers had the gall to say here is what is worth thinking about. They write, “In previous years, women seemed to conform more to gender stereotypes, being kind, considerate, well mannered, and well spoken. In fact, it was often seen as a man’s obligation to protect women from profanity.” I want to note this was attributed to a source dating from 1975.

They continue with this, “With the women’s movement of the 1960s, however, activists challenged the idea that women should not use expletives. Later, women were encouraged to use expletives as a symbol of power they had gained through this movement.” Note, this was attributed to another source. Dated 1975 (not a typo — both sources are from 1975).

The researchers then dazzle us with this conclusion drawn from the antiquated research and their own work, “In books at least, it appears authors are moving with this trend and are portraying women to be just as crass as men.” 

Let that sink in a second.

Coyne and her associates explored how many instances of profanity appeared in adolescent literature. But their conclusions come to involve the notion that the loose lips (or fingers) of lady writers is thanks to the women’s liberation movement. Not even thinking about the fact their sources about dainty and demure women date 1975, this sort of commentary is mind-blowing and discredits everything else said in the study for me. Because men are no longer dominant and women have some equal rights, they’re mucking up books with their crass language? If women were demure and well spoken and kind, they wouldn’t be contributing to the downfall of our children? To me, the message is between the lines here that, thanks to women having the ability to do what they want to do without the guidance of men, they’re ruining the future. They’re swearing! And they’re letting their young people in fiction swear! And forbid it all, but those young people then might use a profane word here!

Stepping back a little bit further, I’d like to point out that this study was conducted at Brigham Young University, regularly listed as one of the top conservative universities in the country.  Moreover, the researchers were split between the department of family life and the department of communication. This is also an LDS university. Absolutely none of these things in and of themselves is wrong or questionable, but given what the commentary is in the discussion, the questionable research framing, and the topic at hand, it is hard for me to give this much credence. It is unabashedly biased and it is, without question, influenced by the source.

There’s more to the discussion section worth highlighting too. The researchers bring up the notion of social learning theory (we learn things via other people) and suggest that the more young people are exposed to profanity, the more likely they accept it. They become, in the study’s words, “desensitized.” That’s quite a leap to make, given that never once did this research set out to study behavior, but I suppose they’re pulling upon historical research on other, unrelated topics (they didn’t cite anything here though). But as much as I am giving this a hard time, I give the researchers huge credit when they state for themselves that they did not study behavior and that they were only speculating upon what the effects of reading profanity could do for cognitive and behavior of adolescents.

This is the line that those news articles everywhere failed to mention.

All Coyne et al’s study did was count instances of profanity and compare it to a number of other quantifiable variables like gender.

While the study talks about how finding books appropriate for adolescent readers can be challenging for parents, it states explicitly that the researchers do not advocate for a ratings system on books. They acknowledge that including a rating on a book is cause for hot debate and it is incredibly controversial.

What the researchers are curious about for future studies is how adolescents are using profanity in books. They set out believing that profanity would be used in humorous situations and were blown away to discover the bulk of swearing came in non-funny situations. As they state in the discussion, “Future research might more fully explore to what purposes profanity is used. Specifically, is use meant to exercise power, to assert superiority, to threaten, to warn, or to add emphasis or force to other utterances?” They also advocate for continued research of adolescent books in order to better understand it as a media form and to better learn about how it can impact behavior.


Here is an idea that could help both future endeavors:

How about reading the books?

This is not a study about context and it is not a study about the impact of profanity in books on teenage behavior. This is also not a study about how important it is to label content nor does it even advocate for that. This is not a study about how women swear more now than they did in the past nor about how crass and filthy characters in books are. This is not a study about how books for 11-year-olds are going to ruin them for life. This is not a study about what does and does not make an adult uncomfortable reading in books meant for kids. This is not a study about how much better or worse books for young readers are than watching television or movies for that age group are nor is it a study about how video games and books compare to one another in terms of how they impact a teen’s mind. This is not a study written by the researchers meant to incite others to react and decry these books.

All they did was code data.

When I brought up the research project I helped out with, I mentioned that once we had coded the data, my professor was able to explore the statistical results and draw some interesting connections among the data. From there, he could suggest that men often spoke more to things of wealth in their dating ad while soliciting mentions of beauty in what they were seeking in a mate. He could then suggest that women made mention of their appearance in dating ads while their solicitations made mention of age quite frequently. In looking at this data, he could say that, in general, men are seeking mates who are good looking and do so by showing off the financial security they could offer and that women seek older, established mates while emphasizing their attractiveness. Through the research, my professor could draw these sorts of conclusions because he had not only the raw data, but he’d gotten it through the study of behavior (writing and submitting a dating advertisement), context (dating advertisements again) and through use of solid and up-to-date research done by others about intimate relationships and gender. It’s an incredibly careful methodology.

What Coyne and her team did was not this. They studied frequency of words in a non-random selection of books that were on the NYT Best Sellers list during two separate weeks. They studied those words out of context. They then went as far as to attempt to define behavior in a sexist and problematic way by looking at author gender and the number of profane words used in a book. Again, without context.

So what we should be making of this study and of the news articles that came out suggesting what this study said is this: nothing. What we should be doing when we attempt to describe what this study said is this: nothing. I will not be linking to any of the erroneous blog posts I’ve seen talking about this study because each time I saw one, I got a little bit more frustrated.

Misinformation is problematic. As much as this study in and of itself is silly, it wasn’t wrong and it didn’t actually suggest anything in regards to what we should be doing with profane teen books. It never once explored whether or not there has been an increase in profanity in teen books (that would have required them to study books over a period of time or from different periods of time and that is not what they did).

Part of being an advocate for books and reading and teenagers or, hell, anything worth being an advocate for, is being critical. It requires you go to the source material when you read a claim that feels outrageous or inflammatory. In this case, we’ve done precisely what the media, which didn’t even read the study correctly, has wanted us to do: panic. It’s caused erroneous stories to spread. Misinformation continues to be fed to people who take what they hear at face value. They then worry and fret about how everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

This is a non-story and a non-issue. But it has been a damn good exercise in critical reading, critical thinking, and, really, a damn fine opportunity to learn a hell of a lot about profanity and just what books are chock full of it.

It’s also been an opportunity to say thank you to authors for not censoring their stories and not conforming to gender roles. For pushing boundaries and challenging 1970s societal norms.

And the biggest thank you goes out to all of the women who pushed for liberation and for all of the men who have embraced equality.

Because, as I learned, feminism is about showing your power through one’s fucking words. For both men and women.

All data, citations, and statistics come from Sarah M. Coyne, Mark Callister, Laura A. Stockdale, David A. Nelson & Brian M. Wells (2012): “A Helluva Read”: Profanity in Adolescent Literature, Mass Communication and Society, 15:3, 360-383.

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  1. says

    Wow. I confess that I've only half been paying attention to this whole brouhaha (largely because it's seemed to be the usual freaking out over very little), but I really appreciate your in-depth analysis of what the study actually did and didn't address. Now I can go back to giving it only as much credence as it merits. :-)

    • says

      It was the usual freaking out over very little that interested me because I kept reading stuff interpreting what the study said without ever reading the study … which seems a little odd. And yep. There's nothing really to see here other except a few trivia bits :)

  2. says

    Kelly, what an insightful piece. Thank you for taking the time to read this study critically and share your thoughts with your readers.

    • says

      My thought was many weren't going to get to read the study, and I thought it was worth pointing out whether it was or wasn't worth it anyway. In short: skip it. And skip all of the media attention the non-study has gotten too.

  3. says

    Terrific post! I've learned from science articles that the media is terrible at summarizing a study for the public.

    (I do have to admit that I'm even divided on whether all the seven words are on the same level. I mean, piss, shit, and tits are no cunt, fuck, motherfucker, and cocksucker. Pardon me for being ungenteel.)

  4. says

    Very long and very interesting.

    My opinion on the matter is: Once you're in 6th grade, you know them all, so it's mostly a matter of taste. I myself learned all of the curse words (and many of the variations) at no later than the beginning of the 7th grade.

    Crass kids and the Internet does that to ya.

    But in the end, what really matters is the tone you're aiming for in a book, the severity, and what type of reality you want to present.

  5. says

    What I found most interesting was that this study was conducted jointly between the department of family life and the department of communication. Huh.
    I'd love to see some studies on MG and YA literature done by, I don't know, the ENGLISH department? EDUCATION? LANGUAGE AND LITERACY? LIBRARY SCIENCE?
    Oh, fuck it. Now I want to apply for a PhD program.

  6. says

    "it is important to examine negative content in print media, such as profanity"

    With this statement they LOUDLY proclaimed their bias. Profanity = negative. No context allowed. You can practically feel the soap they intend to wash our mouths out with.

    Thanks for this evocative and educational look at the text of this extremely flawed study.

  7. says

    Thank you for taking the time to dissect this. I've been wondering what the real root of the controversy is, and now I know.

    However, I do think that not acknowledging that there were / are stereotypes about women using profanity as opposed to men using profanity is just as biased as this study seems to be. The quotes you posted from the actual research paper about women's use of profanity, apart from the conclusion (which I agree is bizarre considering they didn't study profanity usage in previous eras of literature), aren't necessarily biased in and of themselves.

    They simply point out a cultural movement/change in gender roles that may or may not have influenced the profanity usage they studied. Again, as you pointed out, this isn't really relevant to the study since the researchers stated they were not attempting to study behavior (which again makes their conclusion weird and out of place).

    No matter what, there are going to be biases. The researchers who perform the study, the people who rave about the study's results without actually understanding it, the people who carefully dissect the study to get at its real meaning in purpose. Everyone is biased.

    I am generally biased against people who automatically think that conservative institutions will produce people or research or information that is against feminism and generally sexist just because of its conservative-ness. I recognize that and that it's probably the main reason why I feel like leaving a comment.

    But I see no reason why you or others should discredit the results of the study–(the actual measured data)–because of the study's inherit biases or the stigma associated with anything that comes from BYU or other conservative associations. Data is data.

    Just thought someone should say that.

  8. says

    Were they interested in blasphemy? As in taking the name of the Lord in vain, as they say? Because I believe that is often included under the definition of profanity. If the study didn't include it, I find that very interesting.

    I know this study doesn't appear to have been designed to come to any conclusions or to mean much of anything beyond counting words in a limited number of books. But if it only counted vulgarities/obscenities because of an interest in "how media can influence adolescent thinking" related to them, does it mean anything that the researchers didn't include blasphemy because of "how media can influence adolescent thinking" about issues of faith? That's not as important as how many times they read words that describe sex and excrement in vulgar ways?

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