New research suggests growing up without a father puts girls more at risk of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy.
“Too trusting, hungry for relationships with a male, and easily exploited ... research reveals a sad pattern among girls who grow up without a father.”
“My parents split up when I was 12 or 13 and I became increasingly promiscuous. I now realise I was looking for someone to take my father's place. I've always had a sense of grief at being abandoned by him. You look for other men to make you feel good about yourself. I think if a young woman gets the message from her father that she is precious, she is loved, valuable, special, she's less likely to become sexually involved at an early age.”
This is Mary, 32, a Sydney social worker. She counts herself lucky she managed to avoid falling pregnant as a result of her risky early sexual behaviour but acknowledges it caused her a lot of heartache. She now feels she used sex to get her parents' attention during their acrimonious marital separation.
“I wanted to get back at Mum and Dad because I couldn't stand the way they were carrying on and ignoring me,” she said, mentioning the occasion she arranged for her mother to pick her up at a hotel where she'd been holidaying with a girlfriend, knowing her mother would walk in on the boyfriend who was still in her bed.
Her sexual behaviour made for rocky times for this middle-class girl, who had spent her early years in a very protective, conservative family. Growing up without a father means girls are more likely to engage in sex at an early age, according to research published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development. In fact, father absence is the most significant risk factor for teen pregnancy, say the researchers, who include Dr Bruce Ellis of the University of Canterbury and colleagues from the Christchurch School of Medicine and scientists from three American universities.
The study tracked nearly 800 girls in New Zealand and the United States from early in life to age 18.
“The earlier the father is absent from the home, the greater the risk of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy,” Ellis says. Rates of teenage pregnancy increased from about 1:20 among father-present girls to 1:3 among early father-absent girls in the US sample, and from about 1:30 among father-present girls to 1:4 among early father-absent girls in the New Zealand sample (early father absence was defined as the first five years of life).
The link between the absence of a father and risky sexual behaviour applies even to girls from more privileged homes, says Ellis. The effect was noted irrespective of the girls' temperament, whether they were rich or poor, black or white, raised in safe or violent neighbourhoods, subjected to few or many stressful life events or brought up by supporting or rejecting parents.
The significance of this study is that it rules out economic disadvantage as the underlying factor influencing girls' early sexual activity in father-absent homes, says Dr Jan Nicholson, senior research fellow at the Centre for Health Research at Queensland University of Technology. Nicholson says there's been plenty of research suggesting a link between early sexual activity and father absence but this major longitudinal study is the first to definitively rule out a range of other contributing factors.
Nicholson is involved in a new Australian longitudinal study which will shed light on such issues but at present there's no relevant local research.
These are interesting findings, says Dr George Patton, director of the Centre for Adolescent Health in Melbourne. What is needed now is to know why girls act out sexually when their fathers disappear, he says.
The NZ researchers suggest girls may respond to father absence with personality changes that lead them to form early and unstable bonds with men, or that the girls are influenced by exposure to their mother's dating behaviour.
Genetic explanations are also a possibility. While Patton believes “a whole lot of these factors are likely to be contributing”, he says father-absent homes also miss out on the two-parent advantage in the monitoring and supervision that keep teens on track. “If there is only one parent, they tend to be so stretched that the task of monitoring is so much more difficult.”
This is the flip side of the issue – that having a father present does protect daughters. A Victorian parenting expert, Michael Grose, says: “I think fathers are really instrumental in providing self-esteem for girls. She knows there's a male who approves of her and thinks she's OK. But if Dad's not around or doesn't approve, that sense of wanting approval is transferred to someone else.”
Grose has spent many years working in areas of country Victoria with high numbers of sole parents. He has found that when the mother has a very active sex life, daughters tend to follow suit. It becomes a competition for desirability, he says, mentioning a talk he had with a girl whose ears were crammed with rows of earrings. “Why do you have so many?” he asked. “Cos I've got to have one more than Mum,” she said.
Alma Ries is a community health nurse at the Gippsland Women's Health Service who works with at-risk groups of teenage girls. Many of the girls she sees are from one-parent families and have been sexually active for years. Ries finds that in many of these families there was no attempt to shield the daughters from their mothers' relationships. One mother came in for counselling about contraception, accompanied by her teenage daughter. They weren't interested when Ries suggested the daughter might wait outside. “I found it most uncomfortable that her mother was describing her sex life in front of the daughter,” she says.
Ries finds many of these young women start their sexual romances when their mothers are involved in new relationships. “Some are quite bereft and may even need treatment for depression. They feel quite isolated and resentful when they are left to look after younger siblings when Mum's out dating,” she said, mentioning two girls who drank scotch before school “to face the day”.
If a mother's new partner becomes part of the family, this can increase the risk for these girls. A few years ago, QUT's Nicholson was involved in research with Professor David Fergusson, another of the Christchurch team, which found that teenagers in step-families are 50 per cent more likely to engage in early sexual activity and have multiple partners.
Other researchers, including Ellis, have found teenage girls are more likely to go through puberty early – up to nine months earlier than in some cases – when they live with unrelated males (like stepfathers), another factor which increases risk of early sexual behaviour.
Yet there are still many unanswered questions raised by the findings. The researchers were unable to examine the role child sexual abuse might have played in the girl's precocious sexuality. “You just can't ask parents those kind of questions,” says Ellis, who points out that the risk from biological fathers is much lower than that faced by girls in father-absent families from unrelated males. The research also says nothing about the impact of contact between non-custodial fathers and daughters – although Ellis is pessimistic about whether the visiting father role would offer much protection.
There's also much still to be learnt about genetic factors that could be at play here. One of Nicholson's colleagues at QUT, Dr Michael Dunne, has been conducting research with twins which suggests there may also be a genetic component underlying the early sexual activity of girls in father-absent homes.
His study of 6000 Australian twins showed that the age of first intercourse was in part determined by inherited personality characteristics. “Children don't just look like their parents. Personality has a strong genetic component too,” he says.
“If the biological father has internal drives to be a promiscuous risk-taker and has difficulty maintaining emotional attachments, it is likely that his children will have similar passions, behaviours and eventually social problems.” But equally, inherited personality characteristics may lead the mother to form unstable relationships.
And what about the sons? While this new research focuses only on daughters in father-absent families, the consensus among Australian experts is that boys in such families are also at risk of early promiscuity.
A Melbourne adolescent psychologist, Michael Carr-Gregg, reports that boys in father-absent families are more likely to go off track, indulging in destructive behaviour which may include a highly-charged, risky sex life as well as alcohol and marijuana abuse.
Given recent concerns about the teen pregnancy rate – Australia has the sixth-highest rate among OECD countries – Carr-Gregg believes it is important to educate the community that girls in father-absent homes are more at risk. But he stresses not all girls in these families are vulnerable.
“The risk is there but the impact is highly variable. Many lone parents do a great job raising confident, responsible girls who sail through adolescence,” Carr-Gregg says. However, people working with at-risk girls needed to be aware of their sexual vulnerability.
It's a point heartily endorsed by the Reverend Bill Crews, minister at the Ashfield Uniting Church in Sydney who has worked with at-risk youth for 30 years. He has found the young teenage girls he works with are far too trusting. “You can build a bond with these girls so easily which can become exploitative,” he said. “The girls are so hungry for a meaningful relationship with a male. It's quite intense. I've learnt how easy it is for these girls to be exploited, and [have been] surprised by the number of males who are prepared to do just that.”
Crews suggests that knowing more about their situation is a start to offering these girls the protection they need.
By Bettina Arndt
23 September 2003