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Growing up with a troubled or harsh father can influence a woman’s expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour

The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?  

A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.  

Danielle DelPriore at Pennsylvania State University and colleagues recruited 233 pairs of biological sisters who were all of reproductive age (18-36), born at least four years apart, and whose parents had divorced or separated before the younger sister turned 14. On average, the older sisters had spent 5.6 years longer living with their fathers than the younger sisters. 

This sister-pair design allowed the researchers to focus in, as much as possible, on the effects of the father’s behaviour, and his presence or absence from the home. They reasoned that, for each pair, while the younger sister would have spent less time living with their father, most other potential influences on their attitudes to men and their sexual behaviour – including childhood culture, religion, and even genes, to some extent – would be similar. 

The sisters all completed assessments of the quality of their childhood relationship with their father (rating his warmth or harshness, and his involvement in their daily lives, for example). They also rated levels of any paternal behavioural or mental health problems (noting drug abuse or suicide attempts, for example) while they were growing up. The women also completed assessments of their expectations for men as parents and partners, and reported on how many sexual partners they had had in the past year, and how many different sexual partners they would like to have, and expected to have, in future. 

The analysis showed that older sisters who were exposed to poor-quality paternal behaviour (particularly in terms of behavioural or mental health problems) reported lower expectations of the investment they were likely to receive from a male partner. These women also reported having more sexual partners. (Women who don’t expect to get much support from a partner may be more likely to engage in short-term relationships, it has been suggested.) For the younger sisters, who had spent significantly less time living with their fathers, the analysis revealed no effect of paternal behaviour on these measures. The researchers also gathered ratings of maternal warmth, and in contrast to the paternal findings, these did not relate to expectations of male partners, or sexual behaviour. 

“It appears that the father’s behaviour while in the home rather than his absence from the home has the strongest influence on his daughter’s sexual behaviour,” DelPriore and her colleagues concluded. 

There are certainly limitations to the study. An important one is that it’s based on self-reports of events and behaviour in the past, and retrospective reports are known to be vulnerable to bias and error. Also, it’s very hard to tease out the individual effects of numerous variables. But this study does go some way towards trying to isolate potential influences of a father’s behaviour on his daughter’s relationships with men, and in so doing “provides a modifiable target for interventions attempting to reduce risky sexual behavior” the researchers said. 

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest