How Absentee Fathers Affect Women’s Sexuality

Why are some women more sexually active than others? There’s a host of sociocultural, biological, and genetic explanations—many of which transcend the narrow “women are more selective” stance offered by some evolutionary theorists—and no single reason. But a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that how present or absent women’s fathers were during their childhood can strongly influence their mating behaviors once they’re adults.

A team of researchers from the University of Utah and Texas Christian University, led by Danielle Delpiore, conducted five separate studies to explore the impact that having an absent or disengaged father had upon women’s perceptions of sexual interest from men they had never met.

In the first study, 34 women were asked to describe in detail a time that their father was “physically or psychologically absent for an important life event” in order to stir up “thoughts and feelings associated with parental disengagement.” (As a comparison, 41 women were asked to describe a time when their father was present for an important life event.) Shortly thereafter, all participants were asked to “imagine they were dating a man and to rate the likelihood that he wanted to have sex or develop a committed relationship with them” given that he performed 10 behaviors—hand-holding, complimenting, saying “I love you,” buying the participant expensive jewelry, buying her dinner, asking the participant out on a date, calling or texting the participant, buying the participant a drink, flirting with the participant, and telling the participant she was sexy.

Women who had mulled over a time when their fathers were absent were more likely to attribute higher levels of romantic and sexual interest to this fictitious male than those who mulled over a time when their fathers were present, offering the researchers “initial evidence that paternal disengagement may lead women to perceive men in ways that expedite sexual activity.”

In the second study, 35 women underwent the same “paternal disengagement” prime (recalling a time when their father was physically or emotionally absent) and 33 were asked to recall a time when their mother was absent. All were then asked to rate how sexually attractive they perceived a series of male faces displaying neutral expressions as well as how angry, fearful, or happy these faces looked. Women who recalled a time when their fathers were absent were more likely to rate these men’s faces as sexually attractive than women who recalled a time when their mothers were absent. Women primed to recall paternal disengagement also perceived these males’ faces to look happier.

The third study followed the same priming procedure (this time, asking 38 women to recall a time their fathers were absent, while asking 48 other women to recall a time their mothers were absent) after which all participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of both male and female faces (16 in total) as well as to rate the degree to which the face conveyed sexual arousal and/or other emotions (e.g., anger, fear, happiness). Yet again, paternal disengagement appeared to incline women towards perceiving greater sexual intent in male faces but not toward perceiving greater sexual intent in female faces.

The fourth study began with the same priming procedure, this time fitting women with an electrode on their fingers that led them to believe they were engaging in a “guided imagery” task designed to measure their “baseline stress response.” Following the prime, women were then introduced (remotely, via a television screen) to a previously unknown male (he was a fellow researcher) with whom they engaged in a virtual “getting to know you” interview. To wrap up, participants were asked to rate their perceptions of this man, specifically how likely they thought this individual was to “(a) form a friendship with you; (b) go on a date with you; (c) enter into a committed relationship with you; and (d) have a short-term sexual relationship with you.”

Participants were videotaped during these interactions, which enabled the researchers to observe how flirtatious their behavior was. Following the virtual exchange, all were asked to report how strongly they felt the male on the other end of the screen wanted to date and/or have sex with them. Yet again, women entering into the exchange after having recalled an event during which their fathers were absent were more likely than those entering the exchange following recollection of a mother’s absence to attribute more romantic and sexual interest to the male in the video. Those primed with paternal disengagement were also more likely to engage in flirting behavior with the stranger.

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In the first four studies, all female participants came from “intact” (not divorced) households, so their recollections of paternal absence may not have been as emotionally charged as, say, females who emerged from homes that had been torn apart by divorce or separation. Hence why, in the fifth study, the researchers sought to explore how women who had weathered their parents’ divorce during childhood and experienced extended paternal absence perceived and behaved around men they had never met.

In this fifth and final study, 117 women were divided into paternal disengagement or maternal disengagement groups. (Those in the disengagement group were pushed to recall, more specifically, a time when they felt intense emotional pain due to their father’s emotional or physical absence.) To assess the nature of, and distance inherent in, participants’ relationships with their fathers, researchers interviewed these women about the harshness of their fathers’ parenting tactics, utilizing the Conflict Tactics Scale, which asks interviewees to rate how accurate are statements such as “My father insulted me or put me down,” as well as about how “deviant” they perceived their fathers’ behaviors as being during their upbringing, based on a series of questions such as “Did your birth father suffer from nervous or emotional problems?” “…have trouble with drug abuse?” or “…have temper tantrums or a hot temper?”