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Genetics May Play Significant Role In Early Sexual Behavior

September 15, 2009

U.S. researchers say genes play a role in children raised in homes without a dad that begin showing sexual behavior earlier in life, BBC New reported.

Genetic influences as well as factors such as poverty, educational opportunities and religion were also tested during the study that found the more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse regardless of whether they had an absent father or not.

However, several theories have been offered about the environmental factors that influence this association between absent fathers and early sex, according to the study published in the journal Child Development.

One theory suggests that children who observe unstable or stressed parental relationships learn that resources are scarce, and people untrustworthy, leading them to mature in such a way that they are geared towards mating rather than parenting.

Also, since adolescents reared in single parent households may have parents engaging in sexual behavior with partners to whom they are not married, the children may be more likely to view non-marital sex as the norm.

Another theory contends that a single-parent family structure may encourage adolescent sexuality by reduced parental control, meaning two parents can much more closely monitor their offspring’s activities and social networks; therefore reducing the opportunities for sex.

But with these theories aside, the new study shows that the previous factors are not as important as genes in determining early sexual behavior.

University of Oregon researchers looked at more than 1,000 cousins aged 14 and older from the American National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and compared the average age of first intercourse among children whose fathers were always absent, partially absent or always present throughout childhood.

Some 63.2 percent of the children whose fathers were always absent reported having had sex, compared to 52.5 percent of children whose fathers were sometimes absent and 21 percent of children whose fathers were always present.

The first incidences of intercourse reported in children whose fathers were always absent happened at an average age of around 15.28, compared to partially fathered children at 15.36 and 16.11 for children whose fathers were present for all of their childhood.

The study compared kids who were related in different ways to each other, and those who had different living situations with their fathers.

However, the study showed that the more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse, regardless of whether an absent father was part of their childhood.

The association between father’s absence and children’s sexuality is best explained by genetic influences, rather than by environmental theories alone, according to Jane Mendle, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the leader of the study.

She said that while there is clearly no such thing as a ‘father absence gene’, there are genetic contributions to traits in both mothers and fathers that increase the likelihood of earlier sexual behavior in their kids.

“These include impulsivity, substance use and abuse, argumentativeness and sensation seeking,” she added.

But Mendle acknowledged that the study did not have the power to discriminate conclusively between genetic and environmental factors and further research with a larger number of children would be necessary.

Some experts, like Simon Blake from the sexual health charity Brook Advisory Center, disagree that genes are the overriding factor in early sexual behavior.

“We know from research that factors associated with young people having first intercourse at a younger age are: lower educational achievements; friends and the media being the main source of information about sex education; socio-economic status; early sexual experience and the earlier age at which girls start their periods.”

He noted that all young people need access to confidential sexual health services as well as high quality education about sex and relationships from a young age.

“This gives them the skills and information to make informed choices, and the self-esteem and aspirations for themselves for the future. Targeted outreach work is also an effective way of reaching those more vulnerable groups,” Blake concluded.

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