Having an absent father causes women to sexualize interactions with men, study finds

SALT LAKE CITY — Having a strained or estranged relationship with their father can cause a woman to overinterpret advances with men, often believing they’re strictly of sexual nature, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Utah conducted five different studies with female participants, in which subjects were assigned to one of two groups and asked to imagine a corresponding scenario.

Girl or woman alone on swing
A new study finds that women who reported having a strained relationship with their father often overinterpret a man’s advances, increasing their odds of engaging in sexual behavior.

In each experiment, half of the participants were asked to reflect on a moment during which their biological father had been absent from their life, while the other half were asked to recollect a period, however brief, during which either their father was present or mother absent.

A subsequent phase of the experiment had participants assess different aspects of a given man’s sexual and romantic desirability: how he expressed affection (e.g., holding hands, flirting, kissing), his physical attractiveness (presented through portraits of male faces), and how they felt via direct interaction (accomplished through the use of a video screen).

Each of the five studies found that women who had been asked to recall a moment involving their father that evoked feelings of pain and disappointment perceived greater sexual interest from potential suitors.

Women asked to think of similar experiences with their mothers did not demonstrate similar reactions.

“This research underscores an important psychological change — perceiving greater sexual interest among men — that could increase a woman’s likelihood of engaging in unrestricted or risky sexual behavior in response to growing up with a disengaged father,” says Danielle J. DelPriore, the study’s lead author, in a university news release.

While some of the study’s participants were raised in fragmented families, many of the study’s participants came from intact households, the researchers noted.

Importantly, this effect was found in all women conditioned to think of their father in a negative light, regardless of his actual presence or engagement.

“The experiments test the effect of making salient feelings of pain, loss, and disappointment related to the father on a daughter’s sexual perceptions, and using this approach allowed us to capture psychological shifts that could help shape women’s mating behavior,” DelPriore summarizes. “Importantly, we found evidence of similar shifts taking place in response to women’s actual exposures to harsh and deviant fathering while they were growing up.”

The full study was published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.