New findings published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science shed light on the influence of parenting on young women’s sexual attitudes. The researchers found that either being primed with parental disengagement or having a history of parental disengagement was associated with more risky attitudes toward sex among college women.
The study, led by Lisa M. Bohon, draws from the theory that people who grow up in unstable, distressing environments often develop low expectations for the future and remain focused on the present. Such a mentality can pave the way for risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, criminality, and problematic sexual behaviors.
Previous research has revealed that priming college-age men and women to recall past experiences when a parent was disengaged (i.e., not there for them) leads them to report more risky sexual attitudes, such as an unfavorable opinion about condom use. Bohon and her team wanted to build on these findings by comparing the effects of primed parental disengagement versus a history of parental disengagement.
A total of 147 female college students took part in the online study and were randomly assigned to one of four groups. Depending on the condition, participants were asked to recall either a time when their mother or father was either engaged (present, connected) or disengaged (not there for them). The students visualized the memory and wrote down a few lines about their feelings — this served as the disengagement/engagement prime.
Following the prime, subjects completed various assessments of sexual attitudes and intentions (e.g., “I will use protection (e.g., condom) when I have sex”). They also completed measures of past and current parental engagement with the items, “Growing up, I had a close and warm relationship with my mother/father” and “I have a good relationship with my biological mother/father now.”
The researchers found that those who were primed with a memory of parental disengagement reported more precarious sexual attitudes and intentions compared to those who were primed with a memory of a parent being present with them. This was true whether the student had recalled an experience with a father or a mother.
Those who reported a more distanced relationship with their parent, either at the time of study or during childhood, also showed more risky sexual attitudes and intentions compared to those who reported a closer relationship.
Interestingly, neither the parental disengagement prime nor a lived experience of disengagement was significantly associated with condom use or having sex while intoxicated. However, the findings did lean in that direction. The authors note that future studies with larger samples might provide more insight into these relationships.
While an earlier study by DelPriore and Hill (2013) found that a father’s disengagement had a greater effect on daughters’ endorsement of sexual risk than a mother’s disengagement, the current study did not find such an effect. The role of disengagement was similar for mothers and fathers, and although nonsignificant, the findings leaned towards a stronger effect for mothers’ disengagement.
Bohon and her team conclude that their study suggests that warmth and support from both mothers and fathers are important to a teen’s development of healthy attitudes toward sex. Parents can foster a warm connection with youth by staying regularly engaged in their lives and having direct conversations with them about the consequences of risky sexual behavior.
The study, “The Effects of Manipulated and Biographical Parent Disengagement on the Sexually Risky Attitudes and Intentions of College Women”, was authored by Lisa M. Bohon, Cole Lancaster, Thalia P. Sullivan, Raquel R. Medeiros, and Lynn Hawley.