The “Birds and the Bees” Differ for Boys and Girls
Findings from a new study of sex differences in the nature of sex talks.
Posted Nov 28, 2014
An emrassing rite of passage for many American children is the parent-child sex talk. The awkwardness of this “birds and the bees" talk has been hilariously depicted in many movies, perhaps best so in the 1999 teen sex comedy American Pie:
The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis
Most prior research on such talks failed to carve nature at its joints (Plato & Scully, 2003) by exploring the differential functions that parental sex-talks may serve for sons and daughters. We tested six sex-linked predictions about the content of parental sex-talks and other messages that parents communicate to their children. Our predictions were derived from the daughter-guarding hypothesis which posits that, “parents possess adaptations with design features that function to defend their daughter’s sexual reputation, preserve her mate value, and protect her from sexual victimization” (Perilloux, Fleischman, & Buss, 2008, p. 219). We reasoned that parents may attempt to guard their daughters’ sexualities through strategic communication about sex because, relative to ancestral sons, ancestral daughters incurred greater reproductive costs (Buss, 2003; Perilloux et al., 2008; Trivers, 1972) from:
- an untimely or unwanted pregnancy
- rape and other forms of sexual victimization
- damage to their long-term mate value as a result of early, pre-marital, short-term (i.e., casual) sexual experience
Daughter Guarding Examples
Examples of daughter-guarding can be found in anthropological, psychological, and popular culture outlets. Anthropologist Mark Flinn (1988) coined the term “daughter guarding” and documented examples of it by rural Trinidadian fathers who restricted their daughters’ movements, forced them to take chaperones, and threatened men who came to visit their daughters. In support of their daughter-guarding hypothesis, evolutionary psychologists Carin Perilloux, Diana Fleischman, and David Buss (2008) found that parents of U.S. college students were more likely to control their daughters’ than sons’ mating decisions, mate choice, and sexual behavior and reported greater upset over their daughters’ than sons’ sexual activity. On a lighter, popular culture note, comedian Chris Rock, whose stand-up material often reflects a sophisticated grasp of evolved psychological sex differences (Kuhle, 2012; see also this blog series), riffed about the importance of daughter-guarding in this bit from his 2004 HBO special Never Scared:
Predictions Derived from the Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis
Given previous theory and findings, we predicted that daughters would be more likely than sons to report receiving a parental sex talk and other parental messages that encouraged:
- abstinence (prediction 1)
- being discriminating in allocating sexual access (prediction 2)
- deterring, inhibiting, and defending against sexual advances (prediction 3)
We also predicted that daughters would be more likely than sons to report receiving messages:
- to not emulate depictions of sexual activity (prediction 4)
- that defined when they were old enough to date (prediction 5)
- that curtailed contact with the opposite sex (prediction 6)
We administered an online questionnaire that tested these six sex-linked predictions. Our participants were undergraduates from a Northeastern U.S. Jesuit university (n = 226) and young adults recruited through Facebook (n = 391).
Although daughters were significantly more likely than sons to receive each of the predicted messages about sex from their parents, these findings are not due to daughters being more likely to receive any and all messages about sex. Sons were significantly more likely than daughters to be told to “have fun” and equally likely as daughters to be told other messages (e.g., “sex should be enjoyable”).
Modern day American parents appear to socialize children in ways that fostered ancestral reproductive success through the communication of sex-linked birds-and-the-bees talks and messages.
Buss, D. M. (2003). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (revised edition). New York: Basic Books.
Flinn, M. V. (1988). Parent-offspring interactions in a Caribbean village: Daughter guarding. In L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, & P. Turke (Eds.), Human reproductive behaviour (pp. 189-200). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kuhle, B. X. (2012). It’s funny because it’s true (because it evokes our evolved psychology). Review of General Psychology, 16, 177-186.
Kuhle, B. X., Melzer, D. K., Cooper, C. A., Merkle, A. J., Pepe, N. A., Ribanovic, A., Verdesco, A. L., & Wettstein, T. L. (2014, June 30). The “birds and the bees” differ for boys and girls: Sex differences in the nature of sex talks. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000012
Perilloux, C., Fleischman, D. S., & Buss, D. M. (2008). The daughter-guarding hypothesis: Parental influence on, and emotional reactions to, offspring's mating behavior. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 217-233.
Plato, & Scully, S. (2003). Plato's Phaedrus. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co.
Rock, C. (Executive Producer). (2004). Chris Rock: Never Scared [DVD]. HBO.
Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man: 1871 - 1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine.
Copyright © 2014 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.
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