Dads! What are they good for besides teaching you to drive, opening jars and getting hard-to-reach things off high shelves? Well, a new study says that good fathers can decrease their daughter’s likelihood of slutting it up early in life, or at all. While, curiously, no studies address how mothers impact the promiscuity of teenage boys, let’s see what value we can glean here.
The study, out of the University of Utah, and published in Developmental Psychology, looked at pairs of biological sisters who, due to separation or divorce, spent different amounts of time with their dads. The sisters were at least four years apart in age, and the parents had split by the time the younger sister was 14. Given that older daughters would have had more exposure to their father, the researchers wanted to know what impact the quality of fathering — his supervision, warmth, connectedness and engagement — would have on what they called “risky sexual behavior” for her, as compared with her younger sister.
Previous research the authors cite has established that kids without much parental supervision are more likely to experiment with sex and drugs and make friends with others like them, who then perpetuate the behavior and normalize it. It has also shown fathers specifically can have a strong influence on decreasing risky sexual behavior, or RSB, for an older daughter, acting as a kind of protective factor against it.
The researchers wanted to expand on this research to look specifically at the nature of the quality of the fatherhood involved, and also what impact it might have on their daughters’ befriending peers who also engaged in risky sexual behavior. They hypothesized that the differences would be greatest in disrupted families with a bigger age gap in the sisters.
To test this, they recruited 42 sister pairs from intact families, and 59 sister pairs from “disrupted” families. The sisters then ranked various aspects of their lives, such as the warmth and connectedness of their relationships with their fathers, and self-reported sexual histories — specifically, the number of sexual partners they had before age 19. And they detailed other associated risky behaviors, like unprotected sex, alcohol or drug use, and intercourse with someone who was threatening or hurting them.
They also rated how much their fathers knew about their actual lives as teenagers — who their friends were, what they spent money on, where they really went at night. Then they ranked their peers on measures such as how provocatively they dressed, if they went out with lots of guys or girls, or, to their knowledge, were engaged in “promiscuity.”
Turns out that these things are connected, to a point. The researchers found that high parental monitoring from a father was a reliable predictor of an adolescent daughter’s risky sexual behavior — specifically the older daughter. In a press release about the study results, the authors conclude:
The study found that older sisters with greater exposure to their fathers were strongly influenced by the quality of fathering they received. When fathering was high quality, parental monitoring was increased and older sisters were less likely to affiliate with sexually risky peers during adolescence compared to their younger sisters. The opposite effects were found for older sisters who spent many years living with a low-quality father.
None of this seems all that shocking. Good parenting — actual good parenting where you take an active interest in your kids’ lives and instill them with meaningful values and know what they’re up to — seems bound to produce a more well-adjusted child, one with high self-esteem and good boundaries and a healthy respect for others.
What might be more surprising would be to find out how much mothers affect the same things in sons. Studies like this mean well, and point out the value in good, engaged parenting. But they frame it through the bogeyman of sexual activity in women, which tends toward slut-shaming and determining a woman’s value by how long she waits to get it on. Yet, there are two sides to the puzzle of teens having ill-timed sex for which they are ill-prepared. If opposite-sex relationships are important for daughters, why wouldn’t they be for sons?
Perhaps we’re reluctant to even study male sexuality from this lens because we don’t seem to think a horny teenage boy is a problem, while trying to figure out who’s to blame when a woman has sex “too soon” is an entire body of work—and never assumed to be the result of her curiosity about sex or general horniness, just an emotional void that must be filled with the nearest available goofball.
Nevertheless, it can’t be overstated that fathers critically shape their daughters’ lives — in how women learn to deal with stress, in terms of their self-esteem and body image, and, yes, in terms of their future relationships with men. Girls who don’t feel close to their fathers may very well seek out earlier relationships with men, which will likely involve sexual intimacy, to replace that. But again, some teenage girls are just curious about sex and want to experience it.
The real takeaway is perhaps that everyone should be taught safe sex, and that all teenagers should be encouraged to wait to be sexually intimate in a safe way until they understand the real risks, emotionally and physically.
While the researchers ultimately conclude that we can use this study to stress how important it is for fathers to have good parenting skills with teenage daughters, we should keep in mind that the same may hold true for mothers and sons.