Since Sigmund Freud coined the term "father complex" over a century ago, our culture has been fixated on the supposed impact of our male progenitors' behavior on our lives; in pop culture especially, there's an entrenched idea that a woman's early relationship to her dad affects her romantic and sexual life. (Thus the ubiquitous concept of "daddy issues.")
Is there any truth to the trope? Researchers at the University of Utah recently set out to study what they call the "robust association… observed between fathering quality and sexual risk taking among adolescent girls." Their findings, published by Developmental Psychology in a study called "Impact of Fathers on Parental Monitoring of Daughters and Their Affiliation With Sexually Promiscuous Peers," confirm that a father's relationship with his daughter does influence the daughter's likelihood to engage in "risky sexual behavior" (RSB).
Researchers define RSB as unprotected sex, sex in conjunction with the use of drugs or alcohol, sex with someone who injects drugs, sex with someone who is abusive, "engaging in concurrent sexual relationships with different partners," and receiving compensation for engaging in sexual activity.
The study collected data from 202 individuals comprised of sister pairs so that researchers could compare the differences (or lack thereof) in each one's sexual behavior, with the control of having the same father. The sister pairs were chosen from families whose parents remained together throughout the adolescence of both sisters, and those whose parents divorced before the youngest sister turned 14. Families whose parents remained together were used as the control group, while divorced families made it possible to have sister pairs where one sister—the eldest—was exposed to the father for a longer period of time.
All participants were between the ages of 18 and 36. According to its lead author Dr. Danielle J. DelPriore, the study's subjects are what set this research apart from other studies on the topic. "By comparing full biological sisters who grew up under the same family conditions, we can rule out the possible influence of genetics and environmental factors," she tells Broadly.
The association between father absence/low quality fathering and adolescent sexual behavior has been shown to be stronger for daughters than for sons.
Instead, the research focused on the quality of father-daughter relationships (FDRs), parental monitoring (parental knowledge, supervision, communication, and behavioral control), and the amount of time daughters were exposed to their fathers during adolescence. FDR was measured by two scales: harsh-coercive fathering and paternal warmth/supportiveness. Participants were asked to rate the degree to which their father exhibited these traits on a four-point scale.
Researchers found that fathers in divorced families had greater influence on their eldest daughters' sexual behavior. When the quality of the father's parenting was high, the eldest daughter was more likely to engage in less RSB, as well as less likely to associate with peers who engaged in less RSB when compared with the youngest daughter. They found the opposite to be true as well: If the father had low-quality parenting tendencies in a divorced family, the eldest daughter was more likely to engage in RSB than the youngest.
"We decided to focus on daughters because of past research and theory," says Dr. DelPriore when asked why she decided to focus on the sexual behaviors of daughters and not sons in relation to their fathers. "The association between father absence/low quality fathering and adolescent sexual behavior has been shown to be stronger for daughters than for sons."
The study offers a section on the practical significance of its findings. "The current work suggests that high parental monitoring and low [peer risky sexual behaviors] are protective factors against adolescent [risky sexual behaviors]," it reads. It suggests that both parental monitoring and adolescents' susceptibility to deviant peer influence "provide two additional modifiable factors that can be targeted for prevention and intervention" in the future.
For now, Dr. DelPriore believes that the biggest takeaway from her research is that "what mattered for a daughters' behavior was the amount of time she lived with her father and was exposed to his behavior, for better or for worse."
In essence, daddy issues, like all cliches, are real.