Digging in the Kinsey Archives for New Family Insights

Father absence in Kinsey data is associated with accelerated life history traits

Posted Apr 02, 2014

Where to find the Kinsey Institute--and new insights into family structure and life history.

By Alfred Kinsey’s account, he had a strained relationship with his father. Kinsey’s father wanted his son to succeed in a profession like engineering, and to stand tall as a religious man. Though Kinsey’s father was certainly present, in early adulthood Kinsey would need to break away from that oppressive oversight to find a path of his own and one ultimately of great prominence. Alfred Kinsey would earn a PhD at Harvard in biology, and then accept a faculty position at Indiana University. He continued his studies of gall wasps, only later shifting his scholarly eye to that peculiar organism, the human being. Struck by his own (e.g., a virgin at the time of marriage) and his students’ poor grasp of sexuality, Kinsey would make this the focus of his future work. While Kinsey and his research team would conduct thousands of interviews and write two major works on human sexuality, the data garnered from those massive mid-twentieth century efforts would remain in an archive (what is now the Kinsey Institute), only seldom dug up and featured in a new study.

To investigate relationships between family structure and subsequent life history traits, Paula Sheppard, Justin Garcia and Rebecca Sear recently published a paper in PLoS ONE that drew upon this rich Kinsey dataset. The data stemmed from over 16,000 interviews with adults aged 18 and older, a slight majority of those with men. While interviews were conducted between 1938 and 1963, these recalled events happening earlier in most interviewees’ lives, making this a record of predominantly early 20th century family structure and life history in the U.S. The data were not drawn from a probability sample, leaving them vulnerable to sampling criticisms, as were raised at the time of the original research. Nonetheless, the data also bypass some of the prevailing constraints on more current data sets: these Kinsey data include both men and women, encompass a variety of family structures, embrace a wide array of life history variables covering puberty, sex, reproduction and risk-taking, and enable connecting early and later life history events from individuals’ lives.

Family structure was divided into eight categories, though the key findings of this study can be understood with respect to intact (mother and father present); father-absent (single mother or mother with stepfather); and mother-absent (single father or father with stepmother) households. Family structure referred to the time when a subject was between 6-8 years of age. The dependent variables were age at puberty, age at first petting, premarital sex, number of sexual partners, progression to first sex, extramarital sex, progression to first marriage, having more than one marriage, age at first birth, gambling, and use of illegal drugs. Key control variables were socioeconomic status (of parents at the time the subject was 14-17 years of age), number of siblings, age of puberty, ethnicity, year of birth and birth order.

What did these analyses reveal about links between family structure (during an individual’s mid-childhood) and subsequent pubertal, sexual, reproductive, and risk-taking profiles? Many of the dependent variables did not differ in relation to household structure. As an example, age of first petting was generally lower among individuals from mother and father-absent households, but with the exception of females raised by a mother and stepfather those differences were not significant. The majority of the life history variables differed depending on parental socioeconomic status (e.g., individuals whose parents were of higher socioeconomic status had later ages of first sex, marriage and first birth), demonstrating why it is important to control for socioeconomic status (as this study did) in investigating relationships between family structure and later life history. Consistent with more recent data from high-income, low-fertility contexts, this Kinsey-based study also found some delays in life history traits among individuals from intact households. Importantly, however, those differences were largely traced to accelerated life history variables among individuals from father-absent families rather than mother-absent families. As examples, individuals from father-absent households had earlier ages of first sex, more premarital sex, engaged in more gambling and had higher illegal drug use, with some of those patterns specific to males or females, although overall sex differences in those linkages were not prominent. The take-home message of the study could be that in a large, rich older American dataset there were many life history variables that did not differ by family structure, and for those that did differ by family structure they were more often associated with father absence.

As the authors discuss, those patterns are consistent with some models of family dynamics and life history that emphasize the role of fathers rather than some larger concept of risk per se. These findings also stand against the backdrop of some other studies situated in higher-fertility contexts in which father absence has been associated with delays in children’s life history progressions (rather than accelerations). As an example, Brooke Scelza found that father absence among the Martu of Australia was associated with a son’s later age of initiation. The present study thus adds to the mix of work investigating potential influences of fathers on children. In drawing upon the Kinsey archives, we see new ways in which fathers might shape the lives of the next generation. And for Kinsey himself, we might imagine how the intense presence of his father may have impacted not just the son, but the very study of human sexuality itself, eventually giving rise to the present analysis linking fathers and offspring life history.

Reference: Sheppard, P., Garcia, J.R., & Sear, R. (2014). A not-so-grim tale: How childhood family structure influences reproductive and risk-taking outcomes in a Historical U.S. population. PLoS ONE, 9, e89539.   

About the Authors

Peter B. Gray, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D.

Kermyt G. Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is the co-author of Fatherhood.

More Posts