The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional Reactions to, Offspring's Mating Behavior

Text-only Preview

Evolutionary Psychology – 2008. 6(2): 217-233

Original Article
The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: Parental Influence on, and Emotional
Reactions to, Offspring’s Mating Behavior

Carin Perilloux, Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin, USA. Email: [email protected]
(Corresponding author)
Diana S. Fleischman, Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin, USA.
David M. Buss, Psychology Department, University of Texas at Austin, USA.
Abstract: Scant research has examined how individuals attempt to influence others’ mating
decisions. Parents are a special case because of their genetic relatedness to, and power over, their
children. This paper tests the Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis: humans possess adaptations that
motivate (1) protecting their daughter’s sexual reputation, (2) preserving their daughter’s mate
value, and (3) preventing their daughters from being sexually exploited. Using two data sources,
young adults and their parents, we found that parents were more likely to control their daughters’
mating decisions. Parents were more likely to control their daughters’ sexual behavior; parents
reported more emotional upset over daughters’ sexual activity; parents controlled their
daughters’ mate choice more than their sons’. The results support several hypothesized design
features of the Daughter-Guarding hypothesis.
Keywords: daughter-guarding, sex differences, parent-offspring conflict, parental influence

Human mating decisions do not occur in a social vacuum. An evolutionary perspective
leads to the expectation that those whose reproductive success (RS) can be affected by another
individual’s mating decisions—such as close kin or coalitional allies—will attempt to influence
those decisions when possible (Buunk, Park and Dubbs, 2008). Parents in particular are ideally
positioned for exerting influence over the mating decisions of their children. First, parents and
children have a coefficient of genetic relatedness of .50, so children’s mating decisions can have
profound effects on the RS of parents. Second, parents are typically in close proximity to their
children and often control resources on which children depend, creating special leverage for
exerting influence.
If guarding behavior influenced parental reproductive success equally whether it was
directed at daughters or sons, we would predict no sex differences in the target of guarding
behavior. However, there are several reasons to believe that parental guarding behaviors could

increase the RS of their daughters more than similar guarding behavior directed toward sons.
Based on sexual asymmetries in human reproductive biology, there have been recurrent sex
differences in the costs of untimely or unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, rape and other forms
of sexual victimization have undoubtedly posed more recurrent and costly adaptive problems for
females. By engaging in guarding behavior designed to prevent damage to long-term mate value,
prevent unwanted pregnancies, and prevent sexual victimization, parents could have significantly
improved the RS of their daughters. Similar guarding behaviors would not have the same effect
on the RS of sons.

Preventing damage to mate value
Because humans reproduce via internal female fertilization, women are always sure that
their children are their own. Men, in contrast, experience uncertainty over the paternity of their
putative offspring. Some studies have estimated that, within North America, between 9% and
13% of men unknowingly raise children who are not their biological offspring (Baker and Bellis,
1995; Cerda-Flores et al., 1999). Because the number of a woman’s premarital sexual partners
and her promiscuity, are key predictors of future infidelity (Thompson, 1983), when looking for
a long-term mate, men prefer women with less-than-average sexual experience, few sexual
partners, and those who display cues to fidelity (Buss and Schmitt, 1993). On the other hand,
women do not value men’s premarital sexual inexperience as highly in long-term mating
decisions because men’s sexual infidelity is not as costly to women as women’s sexual infidelity
is to men, unless the infidelity also represents a significant diversion of the man’s resources away
from the woman in question (Buss, 2000; Buss et al., 1999).
A decrement in a daughter’s long-term mate value could harm the parents’ RS if it
prevents her from obtaining a high-quality mate who will invest in her and her children or confer
direct economic or social benefits on the parents. Flinn (1988) first proposed a potential effect of
daughter-guarding by fathers in a rural Trinidadian village who went so far as restricting their
daughters’ movements, forcing their daughters to take a chaperone, and threatening men who
came to visit their daughters. A daughter’s early sexual behavior could damage her mate value
more than it would damage a son’s. In short, we predict that parents will attempt to restrict their
daughter’s sexual contact more than their son’s.

Preventing untimely or unpropitious pregnancy
In order to produce a viable child, a woman must invest nine months of metabolically
costly gestation; a man, in contrast, can create a viable child in as little time as it takes to
inseminate one fertile woman (Trivers, 1972). When pregnancy outside a pair bond does occur,
men can more easily abandon a potential child and shirk paternal duties since they are not
physically obligated to gestate and give birth. For this reason, parents have less incentive to
restrict their son’s sexual behavior. Indeed it may be in a parent’s best interest to encourage
mating effort in sons since doing so can increase the parent’s inclusive fitness. While sons can
experience costs associated with defecting from a pregnant spouse, such as reputational damage
and potential physical harm from her family, these costs may not occur every time and may be
circumvented. Daughters and their close kin, on the other hand, could not historically avoid the
costs associated with her pregnancy without the father’s paternal investment.
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -218-

Parents should therefore have an interest in delaying the sexual activity of daughters to
keep their costs as grandparents low relative to the genetic benefits accrued through inclusive
fitness effects (DeKay, 1995; Euler and Weitzel, 1996). Consistent with this prediction, mothers’
attitudes against premarital sex are associated with delayed sexual initiation for daughters but not
sons (McNeely et al., 2002), sons are favored for use of the family car and girls have an earlier
and more stringent curfew than boys their same age (Peters, 1994). Boys are given more freedom
outside of the home at an earlier age while daughters experience restricted freedom across all age
groups and different types of families such as single-parent homes and cohabiting biological
parents (Bulcroft, Carmody, and Bulcroft, 1998). Some contextual factors appear to play a role in
child socialization (Low, 1989). The degree of stratification in a society, i.e., disparity between
socioeconomic classes, in a society predicts higher levels of socialization in girls of restrictive
attitudes about sex. Because social stratification is associated with hypergamy, or “marrying up”,
daughter-guarding would be contingent upon the stratification of resources and the probability of
any woman to marry up in status.

Preventing sexual victimization
Women are much more likely to be raped than men; prevalence studies find that between
7% and 25% of American female college students have been raped at some point in their lives
(Brownmiller, 1975; Fisher and Sloan, 2003; Koss, Gidycz, and Wisniewski, 1987; Tjaden and
Thoennes, 2000). Rape has likely been a recurrent aspect of our evolutionary history that has
imposed severe fitness costs on women because it compromises mate choice, results in
reputational damage, decreases mate value, and in some cases leaves the victim burdened with
caring for a child without paternal investment (Gottschall and Gottschall, 2003). Rape can also
impose costs on parents of rape victims. Parents whose daughters are raped (a) have no assurance
of the genetic quality of the father of their grandchild, (b) may be co-opted to invest in children
who have little if any other support and (c) may experience problems forging alliances through
arranged marriages. Young women may have been especially vulnerable to rape due to
inexperience in recognizing the warning signs of sexual coercion, as well as limited ability to
defend themselves against physically formidable males. We therefore predict that parents should
attempt to prevent exposure to situations which pose a risk for sexual victimization.

The Daughter-Guarding hypothesis
The above considerations converge to yield the Daughter Guarding Hypothesis: 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.
In our study, we obtained information about parenting practices from young adults as
well as their parents. This yielded two separate and quasi-independent data sources for testing
the following key predictions:
1. Control over behavior. Parents will allow their daughters to engage in fewer mixed-sex
romantic and social activities than sons, as reported by parents as well as children,
because these restrictions decrease daughters’ chances of sexual contact and sexual
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -219-

2. Approval of behavior. Parents will approve less of daughters than sons engaging in
physical intimacy because disapproval functions to motivate parents to limit activities
that may lead to sexual contact or sexual victimization.
3. Emotional upset over sexual activity. Parents will experience more emotional upset over
learning that a daughter is sexually active, as compared to a son. Parents are
psychologically compelled to be more vigilant in maintaining their daughter’s sexual
reputation and mate value than their son’s. When a daughter does engage in sexual
activity, parents will experience aversive emotions that function to motivate greater
4. Approval of mate choice. Parents will report that approving of their daughter’s mate is
generally more important than approving of their son’s mate and will be more likely to
disapprove of a daughter’s mate than a son’s mate, on average. Parents have historically
been able to increase their own status based on their daughter’s mateship (Dickemann,
1981), and should therefore show greater concern over a daughter’s mate choice than a
5. Control over curfew. Daughters, more than sons, will report having a curfew. Parents can
use this strategy as a means to control their daughter’s likelihood of sexual contact by
limiting the time she spends away from their supervision.
6. Control over clothing. Parents will try to influence the clothing choices of their daughters
more than those of their sons. This may function to limit how sexually provocative or
accessible their daughters appear via clothing choice. This form of influence is
hypothesized to protect the daughter’s sexual reputation by limiting signals of sexual
promiscuity or sexual availability.

Materials and Methods

Participants, both students and their parents, responded to questions in survey format on a
computer at any location of their choice. They responded to questions regarding parental
influence experienced during their senior1 year of high school, as well as some individual
difference measures. The entire survey lasted approximately half an hour.

Participants from two different psychology courses at a large southern university, 39
males and 134 females between ages 18 and 30, participated in this study. All students were
recruited in upper-division psychology courses and received extra credit if they chose to
participate. The mean age of all student participants was 21.2 years (SD = 1.5). Ethnically, 54%
of the participants were White non-Hispanics, 19% were Hispanic, 16% East Asian, 4% South
Asian, 3% Middle Eastern, 2% African-American and 2% chose “Other ethnicity.” Most
students indicated that their families were lower middle class (18%), middle class (34%), or

1 In American high schools, students in their last, or senior, year are generally about 17 years old.
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -220-

upper middle class (34%). Of these students, 55% had at least one parent who completed our
parent survey.
Parents of a subset of the students, 84 fathers and 88 mothers, participated in the parent
survey. The student participants received additional extra credit for parental participation in the
survey. The mean age of all parent participants was 51.4 (SD = 5.4). Our participants consisted
of 56% White non-Hispanics, 17% Hispanic, 15% East Asian, 4% South Asian, 4% Middle
Eastern, 3% African-American and 1% chose “Other ethnicity.” Most parents indicated that their
income reflected middle class (32%) or upper middle class status (41%).

We designed a new instrument for this study to assess how parents selectively guard their
children. Unless indicated otherwise, questions were rated on 10-point Likert scales. One section
focused on parental behaviors related to guarding. When designing this section, we created a list
of activities that varied in risk of sexual contact and that might reasonably be under the control of
the parents of high-school seniors. We developed the items based on conversations with
undergraduate assistants who indicated that these activities would most likely require a child to
ask his or her parents for permission and ranged from as low-risk such as “driving alone during
the day” to as high-risk as “sleep over at romantic partner’s home.” For each item, parents and
students rated how likely the parents would have been to allow their child to engage in that
behavior. The instrument also included several questions designed to gauge parental control
specifically over clothing choice, mate choice, and curfews. Parental control over clothing was
assessed by asking students to rate how much their parents controlled what they wore. Parents
were asked to rate how important it was that they approved of their child’s mate and both parents
and students were asked whether the parents had ever disapproved of one of the child’s mates.
One question simply asked students whether or not they had a curfew.
The second section focused on parental attitudes related to guarding. The attitudinal
components measured parental approval of varying degrees of their child’s sexual activity. The
four items within this part of the instrument reflected four levels of intimate contact with a
romantic partner, ranging from holding hands to actually having sex. The items were chosen
such that they reflected affectionate behaviors which adolescents would not necessarily ask
permission to engage in, but should evoke some level of approval or disapproval by parents.
Students and parents were asked to rate how much the parents would have approved of the child
engaging in each behavior. This section also included a question to measure the level of
emotional upset experienced by parents when they learned that their child was sexually active.
Parents who did not know or did not believe their child was sexually active were instructed to
imagine they had found out that their child was sexually active before answering the question.
The responses on this scale ranged from +3, “extremely happy”, to -3, “extremely upset”. In
sum, the instrument assessed parental guarding by measuring parental behaviors and attitudes
surrounding the social and mating activities of their children.

Student participants learned about our study during a psychology course and were given a
direct link to access the survey online at a time and place of their choice. At the end of the
survey, students filled out a separate webpage to receive credit in their class as well as to
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -221-

optionally tell us the email addresses of their parents. Students could view a copy of the parent
survey before deciding to permit us to solicit parental participation. Parents were then emailed a
direct link to the parent online survey via the email addresses provided. Parents and students
were not able to read or access one another’s responses at any time. At the end of each
instrument, participants read a debriefing document online about the nature and purpose of the


Control over behavior

One set of questions asked students how likely it was that they would have been allowed
to engage in several activities during their last year of high school. A parallel instrument
presented the same items to parents so that they could rate the likelihood that they would have
allowed their child to engage in each activity during that same year. Where available, we
calculated the correlation of the student’s rating with their parent’s rating. We found that of the
nine activities on the instrument, the responses of the children and parents exhibited significant
correlations on eight, the only exception was the item “allow child to attend a high school
dance.” Table 1 presents the correlations between parents’ and children’s ratings on the items
within our instrument. Obtaining data from these two different data sources permitted two
separate sets of tests of the key predictions.

Table 1. Correlations between ratings given by parents and children

Allow child to
Drive alone during the day
Drive alone at night
Drive with same sex
Drive with opposite sex
Date without chaperone
Attend dance without chaperone
Spend the night, same sex
Spend the night, mixed sex
Spend the night at romantic partner’s home
Approve of child
Holding hands with romantic partner
Kissing romantic partner
Having sex in own home
Having sex elsewhere

*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -222-

The ratings of individual items followed extremely non-normal distributions within both
datasets with most items showing an extreme negative skew. Though t-tests are often robust to
assumption violations, we did not want to lose power in our pair-wise comparisons by using the
Student’s t-test on data that did not meet assumptions. Instead we calculated Mann-Whitney rank
sum tests for all non-normal pair-wise a priori comparisons and we report z scores and p-values

Participant reports of their parents’ guarding behavior
Among the student participants, we found that child’s sex was related to the guarding
they experienced. Every item reflected the trend of sons being allowed to engage in more
activities than daughters, and six of the nine activities exhibited these predicted sex differences at
statistically significant levels. Table 2 contains the group means and test statistics for each item.
Sons were significantly more likely to be allowed to drive alone at night, drive with a member of
the opposite sex in the car, go on a date without a chaperone, spend the night at a same-sex
friend’s home, spend the night with a mixed-sex group, and spend the night at his romantic
partner’s home. The three items that did not exhibit a statistically significant sex difference were
driving alone during the day, driving with a member of the same sex, and attending a school
dance without a chaperone.

Parental reports of their guarding behavior.
Our parent dataset revealed similar results. Of the nine items, parents were significantly
more likely to allow their sons to engage in five of them. The means and test statistics for each
item are presented in Table 2. Parents indicated that they would have been more likely to allow
sons to drive alone during the day, drive alone at night, drive with a member of the opposite sex
in the car, spend the night at a same-sex friend’s home, and spend the night at a romantic
partner’s home. Going on a date and attending a mixed-sex sleepover were both in the predicted
direction but only approached significance, p = 0.07 and p = 0.08 respectively. Surprisingly,
parents indicated that they would be more likely to allow daughters to attend a school dance
without a chaperone than sons, though not significantly so. This is the only result in either
dataset that does not conform to the prediction that sons will be allowed to engage in more
mating-related activities than daughters.

Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -223-


Table 2. Guarding behaviors from children’s and parents’ perspectives
Children mean ratings
Parent mean ratings
Allow child to
Sons Daughters z
Sons Daughters z
Drive alone during the day

Drive alone at night
4.46** 9.12
Drive with same sex
Drive with opposite sex
3.98** 9.00
Date without chaperone
3.34** 8.55
Attend dance without
9.56 9.35
1.13 8.20 8.98
Spend night, same sex
Spend night, mixed sex
5.47** 5.42
Spend night at romantic

5.44 2.48
2.65 2.07
Note. Higher means indicate greater likelihood to allow the behavior. All comparisons were evaluated using the non-
parametric Mann-Whitney Rank Sum test.

*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

Approval of behavior

After evaluating the likelihood that these activities would be allowed, students and
parents rated how much they believed, or knew, their parents would approve of each romantic
activity if the students had engaged in it during their final year of high school. We found that the
responses of the children and parents exhibited significant correlations on all four items relating
to approval of behavior, as presented in Table 1. We predicted that parents would show less
approval of daughters engaging in each of these activities than sons. Once again, the individual
item ratings were extremely non-normally distributed: two possessed large positive skew one
possessed large negative skew and the remaining item showed high kurtosis. Therefore, all a
pair-wise comparisons were conducted using the Mann-Whitney rank sum statistic.

Participants’ reports of parental approval of sexual behavior.
Among student participants, a significant effect of their own sex on parental approval of
intimate contact emerged. As predicted, female students reported significantly less parental
approval on all four behaviors than male students: holding hands with their romantic partner,
kissing their romantic partner, having sex with their romantic partner in their own home, and
having sex with their romantic partner somewhere else. The means and test statistics are
presented in Table 3.
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -224-


Parents’ reports of their approval of sexual behavior.
Parents reported somewhat less approval of daughters engaging in each activity
compared to sons. Parents’ mean ratings and test statistics are presented in Table 3. Parents were
significantly less likely to approve of their daughter having sex with her romantic partner
somewhere besides her home as compared to sons. The remaining three items only approached
significance (p < .10) but were in the predicted direction, with parents approving less of
daughters engaging in each activity compared to sons.

Table 3. Guarding attitudes from children’s and parents’ perspectives
Children mean ratings
Parent mean ratings
Approve of child
Sons Daughters z
Sons Daughters z
Holding hands with romantic
partner 8.36
Kissing romantic partner
Having sex in own home
Having sex elsewhere
Note. Higher means indicate greater likelihood to approve of the behavior. All comparisons were evaluated using the
non-parametric Mann-Whitney Rank Sum test.

*p < 0.05; **p < 0.01.

Emotional upset over sexual activity

Parents rated how they felt or would feel when they found out that their son or daughter
was sexually active. A 2x2 ANOVA with parent sex and child sex factors revealed that neither
the interaction nor the parent sex factor was statistically significant, F(1, 145) = 0.65 and F(1,
145) = 2.65, respectively, but that the child sex factor was significant, F(1, 145) = 17.12, p <
0.001. As predicted, parents indicated significantly more upset if they learned that their daughter
was sexually active (M = -1.65, SD = 1.34) than if they found out that their son (M = -0.58, SD =
1.25) was, Mann-Whitney Rank Sum test, z(148) = 3.93, p < 0.001.

Approval of mate choice
As predicted, parents reported higher levels of importance for approving of their
daughter’s mates than their son’s mates, Mann-Whitney Rank Sum test z(164) = 2.53, p = 0.012.
An ANOVA revealed a significant interaction of parent sex and child sex, F(1, 161) = 4.07, p =
0.045, displayed in Figure 1. Tukey’s HSD post-hoc tests revealed that fathers found it
significantly less important to approve of their son’s mates (M = 6.19, SD = 2.48) than
daughter’s mates (M = 7.94, SD = 1.66), and significantly less important than mothers reported
for both sons (M = 8.00, SD = 1.58) and daughters (M = 8.41, SD = 1.57), the latter three means
did not significantly differ. The data also indicated more instances of parents disapproving of
daughters’ mates than sons’ mates; this pattern was found both in the child dataset, ?2(1, N=115)
= 7.50, p = 0.006, as well as the parent dataset, ?2(1, N=112) = 10.21, p = 0.001. In the child
dataset, 59% of daughters reported parental disapproval of their mates compared to only 30% of
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -225-

sons. Of the parents themselves, 61% of the parents of daughters reported disapproving of their
child’s mate compared to only 26% of the parents of sons.

Figure 1. Parents’ ratings of the importance of approving of their child’s mate. Possible values
ranged from 1 (“Not at all important”) to 10 (“Extremely important”).


Control over curfew

Students were asked whether or not they had a curfew during their last year in high
school as an additional measure of parental influence over their children’s behavior. As
predicted, more daughters (60%) reported having a curfew than sons (36%), ?2(1, N=172) =
7.54, p = 0.006.

Control over clothing
A single question assessed parental influence over the clothing that children wore during
their final year of high school. As predicted, female students (M = 2.87, SD = 1.66) indicated that
their parents had significantly more influence over their clothing than male students (M = 1.85,
SD = 1.25), z(170) = 3.72, p < 0.001.


The findings from this study provided support for the Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis.
Using two separate data sources, participants and their parents, we found that parents guarded
Evolutionary Psychology – ISSN 1474-7049 – Volume 6(2). 2008. -226-

Document Outline
  • ??