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Daddy’s Girl: How Fatherlessness Impacts Early Sexual Activity, Teen Pregnancy, and Sexual Abuse

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By Rob Schwarzwalder and Natasha Tax

The pathologies and moral crises of our era do not stand in isolation. They are entwined, inextricably. The pound of flesh demanded by Shylock from Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice” could not be removed without the loss of Antonio’s blood. The veins of the victim, laced throughout his body, were impossible to segregate from the flesh itself. So it is with the intersecting layers of family life, human sexual behavior, public policy, and the well-being of our children.

Certainly among these layers, fatherhood is a theme that weaves throughout them with compelling frequency. Fatherlessness is one of the most important, albeit ignored, social issues of our time. Fathers are portrayed in popular entertainment as pseudo-morons, if they are shown at all. As comedian Stephen Colbert has observed, “America used to live by the motto ‘Father Knows Best.’ Now we’re lucky if ‘Father Knows He Has Children.’ We’ve become a nation of sperm donors and baby daddies.”[i]

Yet fathers are essential to the well-being of their daughters. “Fathers have a direct impact on the well-being of their children … Girls with involved, respectful fathers see how they should expect men to treat them and are less likely to become involved in violent or unhealthy relationships,” writes Jeffrey Rosenberg and W. Bradford Wilcox in a report published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, “The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children.”[ii] Rosenberg and Wilcox also note that, sadly, “children who live in father-absent homes often face higher risks of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect than children who live with their fathers.”

In the following, we document how the absence of fathers in the home promotes dangerous sexual behavior in minor girls and young women and makes them more susceptible to physical and sexual abuse.

 

Sexual Activity and Fatherlessness

According to a 2003 study of 700 girls, “girls whose fathers left the family earlier in their lives had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by those whose fathers left at a later age, followed by girls whose fathers were present.”[iii] And in another study published in 2008, in which 90 families were observed, “more exposure to father absence was linked to earlier puberty.”[iv]

Similarly, a study assessing the factors related to sexual activity of adolescent girls, including age, race, and delinquency, found that father involvement was the only factor that “decreased the odds of engaging in sexual activity and none of the other family processes was found to be statistically significant.”[v]

Substantial research noted by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, known as MARRI, indicates that “a girl whose father leaves before she is five years old is eight times more likely to have an adolescent pregnancy than a girl whose father remains in her home.”[vi] Additionally, “African-American girls are 42 percent less likely to have sexual intercourse before age 18 if their biological father is present at home.”[vii]

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