Several dozen female undergraduates at Texas Christian University—all straight, mostly white—recently participated in a curious research study in the school’s department of psychology. Half of the students, told that their psych professors were interested in evaluating their writing style, received the following writing prompt:
Take a few seconds to think back to a time when your biological father was absent for an important life event when you really needed him …. Describe in detail how your father’s lack of support—or his physical or psychological absence—made you feel.
The other half of the students received a similar prompt asking them to remember a time when their fathers were physically or psychologically present for an important life event. After typing these mini-memoirs, some of the students were asked to fill in blanks in 14 incomplete series of letters to make words (e.g., S_X, _AK_D). Others were given a list of statements about sexual permissiveness (e.g., “Sex without love is OK”) and asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with the statement on a scale of 1 to 9. Researchers found that students primed to think about paternal disappointment were more likely than those primed to think about paternal support to complete the word stems in a sexualized way (SEX for S_X, NAKED for _AK_D) and more likely to reveal sexually permissive attitudes on the questionnaire.
What do you make of such a study? My first reaction when looking at this data is that women don’t like to conflate feelings of fondness for their fathers with sexual feelings: Switching immediately from thinking about how great Dad is to thinking about how great sex is feels icky. Another possibility is that students at Texas Christian University, which describes itself on its website as “associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination committed to demonstrating true community, deep Christian spirituality and a passion for justice,” are more likely to come from religiously conservative families than your average college student. A young Christian woman thinking about a time her dad was there for her might be more likely to espouse views held by her dad—e.g., that sex before marriage is wrong—whereas a young Christian woman thinking about a time her dad disappointed her would be more likely to reject her dad’s beliefs. A third possibility, of course, is that these findings are simply a fluke—one study drawing from a small, demographically homogeneous population might not be replicable.
One conclusion I would absolutely not draw from this study is that “absent fathers create more sexually risky daughters.” After all, the study didn’t even ask participants whether their fathers were habitually absent when they were growing up, which is the criterion most English speakers would use to determine whether someone is an “absent father.” Nor did the study measure participants’ actual sexual behavior—it merely made them take a cursory quiz and play a stupid fill-in-the-blank game. (By the way, is there anyone in the country over the age of 12 who would look at “S_X” and actually think “SIX” instead of “SEX”? Or are my daddy issues showing?) And yet “Absent Fathers Create More Sexually Risky Daughters” is exactly the headline of the press release published by the communications firm representing TCU’s psychology department. It’s not just a question of titillating PR tactics: The researchers themselves write that their “results provide the first true experimental evidence supporting a causal relationship between paternal disengagement and changes in women’s psychology that promote risky sexual behavior.”
This is enough of a stretch to make Stretch Armstrong look like he needs to loosen up. In fact, the idea that this study suggests anything at all about the effect of absent fathers on women’s sexual behavior is so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology accepted it for publication. I am not disputing the notion that fathers’ presence or absence may affect girls’ sexual development: Previous research has indeed suggested that this is the case. Nor am I contesting the idea that a woman’s relationship with her father has some impact on her later romantic and sexual choices—the thriving state of the psychotherapy industry is the equivalent of a big fat “no duh” on this point. But this study does not demonstrate either of those conclusions. This study merely demonstrates that female TCU students would rather not think about loving Daddy and having sex at the same time.
The TCU researchers’ eagerness to stuff their data into the most provocative possible framework is so blatant as to make me feel conflicted to be writing about the study. Of course, all researchers want their work to reach the widest possible audience, but the proliferation of feminist blogs and websites over the past decade (a good thing, on the whole) has created a new beast: the research study that is deliberately crafted (or deftly manipulated) to cue lady-blog outrage, or at least get lady-blog attention. It’s a perverse and dismal win-win situation: Researchers get a spotlight, and blog posts like this one get page views. (Which reminds me—please post this to Facebook.)