Conversations centered around dating, relationships, and sex take place in classrooms, on social media, in households, and even in mainstream news outlets. Policymakers, educators, and parents alike realize the benefits of teaching adolescents about these topics instead of leaving teens to learn on their own via the internet, friends, and other less-than-ideal sources. However, one critical group with a wealth of experience and perspective is still largely left out of the conversation: fathers.
According to a 2020 study conducted by Dr. Jennifer Grossman here at WCW, 60% of heterosexual teens talk with their mothers about sex and 32% talk with their fathers. This statistic is a cause for concern: Fathers offer a nuanced perspective, play an important cultural role, and add an often-forgotten voice to this conversation. With this in mind, Dr. Grossman and her research team undertook a study exploring father-teen communication on dating, relationships, and sex with the intention of creating an intervention program for fathers across the U.S.
This summer, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Grossman and her team as an undergraduate research intern. I took on multiple roles which built on my pre-existing psychology research skill set and exposed me to new tools, protocols, and knowledge. I spent the beginning of the summer quantitatively analyzing demographic data, but I particularly enjoyed the last two months of my internship, when I examined qualitative data.
Dr. Grossman’s team interviewed 43 fathers, 13 teens, and 22 mothers about father-teen communication about dating, relationships, and sex. I analyzed the father interviews and consolidated the data into overarching thematic categories based on what was discussed—including protection methods, healthy and unhealthy relationships, dating and relationships, and cultural and religious views about sex. In doing so, I was astonished by some fathers' powerful personal anecdotes and progressive understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships. I also noticed that few fathers had spoken with their parents about these topics when they were growing up.
More than 90% of the fathers interviewed said that their experience talking (or not talking) with their parents impacts how they speak with their teens now.
After months of analyzing interviews, I created an independent project examining whether and how fathers talked with their own parents about sexual topics and how those conversations impacted their conversations with their teens. Of the 43 fathers interviewed, only 30% had conversations with their own parents about dating, relationships, or sex, and nearly two-thirds of those wished they had talked more with their parents, gone into greater detail, or touched on more subjects. More than 90% of the fathers interviewed said that their experience talking (or not talking) with their parents impacts how they speak with their teens now.
A few fathers who did not talk with their own parents expressed fear of conversing with their teens, but many of these fathers expressed a desire to do things differently than their parents. A few fathers underscored how their lack of discourse negatively impacted their lives; one father noted, “I wish my dad would have done this. He would have saved me this much, you know, pain.”
Fathers also used their personal experiences with teen pregnancy, unhealthy relationships, dating, and their own perspectives when they were adolescents to connect, teach, and “break generational curses.” One father used his personal experience with a sexually transmitted infection to educate his teen about the consequences of unprotected sex. Although he thought this conversation was a bit uncomfortable, he wanted to warn his son so he would not experience the same outcome. These powerful personal anecdotes highlight the advantage of including fathers in these conversations.
This research project—with a focus on prevention—aligns with many of my past intern and volunteer experiences. A few years ago, I volunteered with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, and I was the president of Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone at Wellesley College. These experiences, coupled with my personal and academic background, offered me a unique approach to this project and will inform my post-graduation plans.
This independent project, research opportunity, and connection I’ve made with Dr. Grossman allowed me to consolidate my past experiences into a cohesive narrative and vision. I hope to use this experience and the skills I’ve gained to help me with my independent study on sexual health programming in college settings, my continued collaboration with Dr. Grossman, and graduate school a few years down the line. I am grateful for this research internship and the opportunity to emphasize fathers' central role in the multi-generational narrative around relationships and sex.
Jacqueline Brinkhaus is a student at Wellesley College pursuing a degree in Psychology. Her research interests include health and wellness education, ADHD in women, and interpersonal violence prevention. During the summer of 2021, she worked with Senior Research Scientist Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., with funding from the Joan Freed Kahn '51 Service Program Service Opportunity Stipend through Wellesley College Career Education.