Dads do something for kids that moms can’t.  They influence their child’s behavior in ways that moms don’t. And their involvement effects boys and girls in sex-specific ways. We know this because when dad is absent, boys and girls face distinct risks.  While boys who suffer dad deprivation tend to struggle more with criminal behavior, girls tend to engage in more risky sexual behavior (RSB).  This “father effect” has been widely acknowledged among students of family structure.  But what exactly is the underlying cause? Religion? Environment? Genetics?  

A new study has revealed that the amount of quality time with dad is the clincher when it comes to steering girls away from RSB.  Their critical tool for discovering the power of dad’s involvement?  Divorce.

Researchers selected 101 pairs of sisters, 42 which served as a control group from intact households, and 59 pairs which experienced divorced, with one critical difference- the older sisters from “disrupted families” made it to age 18 with both mom and dad in the home. The younger sister experienced her parent’s divorce prior to turning 14 when most sexual experimentation begins. Because each pair had the same mother and the same home, the researchers could rule out environmental, genetics, socioeconomic, race, and religious factors.  This narrowed variables down to one thing- father/daughter contact. Divorce, which translates into less time with dad, allowed the researchers a unique (and, for the younger daughter an unfortunate) opportunity.

“The researchers theorized that in divorced/separated families, a father — and how he behaved — was likely to have exerted a stronger influence on an older daughter than a younger daughter since older daughters systematically received larger “doses” of dad’s behavior.” 

They were right.  The older daughters with involved dads engaged in less RSB.  They had less unprotected sex, less sex involving drugs or alcohol, and less sex with someone who is abusive. They were less likely to have been in several sexual relationships at once and were less likely to engage in prostitution. The younger daughters, who got less exposure to higher-quality fathering due to divorce, were not as fortunate.  

If you are a daughter of divorce, this doesn’t surprise you. Girls are made to be cherished and protected by their fathers.  When dad is out of the picture, they are on their own when it comes to navigating the confusing, exciting, and risky world of boys.  They also tend to seek the male attention they are missing from their father in a sexual relationship.

Here are some real time examples of growing up outside the father effect: 

Having no father really became apparent, but my mother told me she didn’t know who he was. One of 3 men. I was devastated because I thought she had married my father and divorced 10 months later… Finding all of this out at 14 truly put me into a tail spin… I drank and spent too much time with boys, searching for someone to accept me. – Pamela

By the time I was about 22, I had experienced three divorces: my own parents’ divorce and my dad’s two subsequent divorces… I joined a cult at the age of 19, had an arranged marriage there, and participated and endorsed some horrific abuse and exploitation of others so that I could fit in and not be thought of as an outsider.”  – Jennifer

My parents were married for 20 years and then at the age of 15, my mother decided the marriage was over. I had very limited contact with my father after that… I took some paths in my early dating life that I am not proud of. Looking back, I think I was seeking the love of a man in my life since that was absent and I gave away more of myself that I wanted to. –Melody

Divorce deprives kids of what they were made for- high levels of love and involvement with mom and dad. If we are looking at the evidence, we cannot escape the truth that girls need more than every-other-day or every-other-weekend contact with dad.  Just like boys, they need daily love, attention, and involvement from their dad.  If they don’t get it from him, they may find a high-risk substitute.