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Father's Day's Best Kept Secret - Women's Sex Lives Are Profoundly Influenced by the Relationship With Their Fathers

14/06/2013 17:04 BST | Updated 19/05/2014 11:59 BST

The sexualization of young girls is of mounting concern, with the Western media blamed as primary culprit.

But now a new series of remarkable psychology experiments is about to be published which reveals a powerful, yet hitherto unsuspected, influence on girls' sexuality, and it's right at the heart of family life.

Fathers could be profoundly influential on the subsequent sexual and romantic lives of their daughters, without anyone in the family previously realising it.

A million UK children are growing up without a father in their lives, according to a new report earlier this week from The Centre for Social Justice. Some parts of the UK have become "men deserts" due to the high number of fatherless households. Lone parent families are increasing by more than 20,000 a year and will top two million by the next general election.

What the report writers would not know is a series of psychological studies yet to be published, dramatically indicates the influence of absent fathers. This could be more profound that previously suspected, and might endure for generations.

Danielle DelPriore and Sarah Hill from Texas Christian University in the USA point out previous psychological research has found a robust association between father absence - both physical and psychological - with sexual risk taking in daughters.

Father absence promotes 'short-term mating strategies' in daughters which renders one parent families more likely in future generations. The new findings bring more precision to our understanding of the effects of father absences.

Their study entitled 'The Effects of Paternal Disengagement on Women's Sexual Decision Making: an Experimental Approach' was partly inspired by Frayser High School in Memphis, Tennessee, recently hitting national headlines in the USA, when it was revealed that one in five female students was pregnant, or had recently given birth.

DelPriore and Hill noticed that in addition to high rates of teen pregnancy, Tennessee has one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the US, with nearly one in four families being headed by single mothers. Could all of these findings be linked in some way?

Evolutionary theory predicts that those growing up in harsh or unpredictable family environments might develop more impetus to pass on their genes, through earlier physical maturation and engaging in a 'fast life'. This means early and risky sex, investment in offspring quantity over quality.

During harsh conditions, the evolutionary imperative of 'survival of the fittest' favours a shortened 'reproductive timetable'. This ensures passing on genes to future generations before perishing.

DelPriore and Hill point out that previous research indeed confirms this evolutionary theory by finding that girls growing up in father-absent homes - or in homes characterized by low-quality paternal investment -experience accelerated pubertal development, initiation of sexual intercourse and becoming pregnant earlier. They also have a greater number of sexual partners, and are more likely to get divorced; relative to girls growing up in households with two 'investing' parents.

Yet DelPriore and Hill have now conducted a remarkable series of new experiments, soon to be published in the 'Journal of Personality and Social Psychology', which demonstrate how unambiguous is the power of father absence, even in women from stable fairly privileged backgrounds, namely undergraduate students.

The experiments involved randomly assigning women (most of whom were brought up in two parent families) to describe a time their father was physically or psychologically absent, or present, for an important life event. The women's degree of sexual permissiveness was assessed by their subsequent answers to questions such as "Sex without love is OK," "I can imagine myself being comfortable and enjoying casual sex with different partners," and "I would have to be closely attached to someone (both emotionally and psychologically), before I could feel comfortable and fully enjoy having sex with him".

The startling finding is that just briefly thinking about a past time of paternal disengagement, significantly increased female attitudes to sexual permissiveness, including the number of men with whom women desired to have sex, and how many people they foresaw themselves having sex with during the next five years.

Merely recalling an episode of father absence in their lives, compared with maternal absence, elevated the number of people the women predicted they were going to have sex with over the next five years from just under two, to almost three, which was a statistically significant effect.

The researchers also examined the impact of thinking about father absence on attitudes toward condom use, as measured by questions such as, "I dislike using condoms due to reduced sexual pleasure," and "Condoms ruin the mood because you have to stop to put one on".

Remembering past episodes of paternal disengagement produced a significant negative impact on attitudes toward condom use in both women and men. But the effect was stronger for women.

DelPriore and Hill point out that women's attitudes toward condom use predicts engaging in unprotected sex. The results of their experiments suggest that paternal 'disengagement' in daughters' lives, renders women increasingly willing to engage in unsafe sex. This 'risky shift' contributes to the links reliably observed between father absence and daughters' increased teen pregnancy, plus sexually transmitted infection risk.

DelPriore and Hill conclude that their research has demonstrated a stronger unique effect of fathers on daughters' sex lives relative to sons'.

And there is something about the father's decision-making to absent themselves which is crucial. Previous research, DelPriore and Hill point out, on the daughters of widows - whose fathers are involuntarily absent - do not experience the 'accelerated sexual development' typically observed in girls whose fathers are absent due to marital discord, or disruption.

According to evolutionary theory girls are uniquely sensitive at an unconscious and biological level to father absence--or low-quality paternal care--during their childhoods. Father absence shifts girls toward faster reproduction strategies - precocious sexual development, earlier sexual activity, plus younger age at first sexual encounter.

Evolutionary theory predicts women would not benefit from delaying romance and sex to search for a 'high investing mate' in environments where male parental care is scarce.

DelPriore and Hill point out that one of the strengths of their current series of studies is the emergence of these father-daughter effects within samples of female undergraduates attending their university from relatively advantaged, intact families.

Just thinking about past father absences produced remarkable effects in shifting these women towards being more sexually permissive, although the female participants started out a relatively conservative group in terms of attitudes to uncommitted sex and sexual risk.

So this Father's Day, it would appear vital, according to latest psychological research, that, for their daughters' sake, and for the sake of families, plus society at large, the enormous psychological importance of fathers is acknowledged.