‘Daddy complex’ may be genetic, not nurtured

A University professor’s recently published findings on the correlation between genetics and the age of first sexual intercourse turns earlier research on its head.

Assistant professor Jane Mendle published her findings in the scientific journal Child Development, and her work indicates that the presence or absence of fathers in girls’ lives has little bearing on the age a girl becomes sexually active.

Working with eight other researchers from various schools, Mendle found that the more genes children share, the more similar their ages of first intercourse, regardless of whether or not the children had absent fathers.

Mendle’s research suggests that previous research may have inadvertently overestimated the role of family structure in sexual maturation, and that genetics also plays a role in the age a child first encounters sex.

“We still found that environment plays a huge role in sexual maturation, but it’s just not 100 percent of the whole story,” Mendle said.

Mendle’s team examined data collected for the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, comparing 1,382 offspring born to women who were genetically related: twins, sisters or cousins. The mothers were interviewed every year between 1979 and 1994, and every two years thereafter. The data were collected, and for the past two years Mendle says she and her team have been analyzing and calculating.

Fellow researcher and professor Joseph Rodgers from the University of Oklahoma has been a part of several research teams that do behavioral and social science research using the NLSY.

Rodgers said this analysis came from “careful prior work from dozens of research studies that motivates the current paper,” with much of that work conducted by co-authors on
this paper.

Rodgers said the study accounts for individual differences in past behavior studied and measured in the survey to try to understand the causes of those individual differences.
“When it’s been observed in past research that parental disruption in the household is correlated with age at first intercourse, the temptation is to presume that having an absent father causes a change in adolescent sexual behavior. But that’s not strong or valid logic,” Rodgers said. “Other factors correlated with both could be the causal factor, and that’s what our research suggests.

“Rather than father absence causing young girls to have early sex, the findings from Dr. Mendle’s careful statistical analysis suggest that processes prior to the parental disruption cause this correlation,” Rodgers added. “Those processes could be genetic or could be environmental — and probably include some of both.”

Mendle said previous research found that children raised in homes without a biological father have sex earlier than children raised in traditional nuclear families. Her findings suggest that genetic causes also mediate that process.

Mendle’s interest in this subject started in graduate school with research she had read. The research found that father absence in a young girl’s life leads to early maturation, and this sparked her interest.

“The study looked into the transition of sexual maturity that some people go through earlier than others,” Mendle said. “The timing of menarche (a woman’s first menstrual period).”
This interest led Mendle to the recently published research about associations between father absence and the age of first sexual intercourse, and to her future research analyzing stress and maturation levels with foster kids.

Her research has had mixed reviews from readers, however, leading Mendle to be concerned about how the media have portrayed the research and how the public has reacted.

“A lot of reviews have been inaccurate, saying there is a ‘gene for this’ or a ‘gene for that,'” Mendle said. “It says a lot of what interests our society.” But Mendle and Rodgers are confident the research will “change the debate” and way of thinking that people have about this subject.

“Our findings show that it’s not OK for policymakers to assume that divorce in families (or) father absence is a direct causal influence on adolescent sexual behavior,” Rodgers said. “The process is more nuanced and less direct than that.”

“I hope that this will address theories that put a role on single moms,” Mendle said. “Some people go through life sooner, so this should change people’s ideas on when people mature versus what single moms can control.”

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