My theoretical and empirical work in this area examines links between childhood experience and sexual development. This work stands on the shoulders of a landmark theory, first presented in 1991 by Jay Belsky and colleagues, linking childhood experience, interpersonal orientation, and reproductive strategy. This theory posited that levels of stress and support in extra-familial environments influence family dynamics (marital relationships, parent-child relationships), thereby shaping children’s early emotional and behavioral development and, through it, subsequent sexual development and behavior in adolescence and beyond. I have taken the lead role in a series of prospective, longitudinal investigations that have tested core propositions derived from this theory, particularly regarding relations between family environments and pubertal timing (e.g., Ellis et al., 1999, 2003, 2012; Ellis & Garber, 2000; Ellis & Essex, 2007; Tither & Ellis, 2008; Ellis, Shirtcliff et al., 2011; James, Ellis et al., 2012).
Based on my theoretical and empirical work, my colleagues and I have advanced a series of revisions and extensions of Belsky’s original theory, including a reanalysis of family environments to distinguish between harsh-conflictual and warm-supportive family dynamics and their relative effects on pubertal maturation (Ellis et al., 1999); development of a complementary theory of paternal investment that emphasizes the unique effects of fathers and other adult males in regulation of daughters’ sexual development (Ellis et al., 1999, 2003, 2012; Ellis & Garber, 2000; Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Essex, 2007; Tither & Ellis, 2008; Deardorff, Ellis et al., 2011); development of an alternative theory of the function of pubertal timing as a mechanism for calibrating the length of childhood to match the quality of family environments (Ellis, 2004; Ellis & Essex, 2007); reconceptualization of childhood stress as constituting two fundamental dimensions of variation—harshness and unpredictability—that ultimately guide reproductive development (Ellis, Figueredo, et al., 2009; Brumbach, Figueredo, & Ellis, 2009; Belsky, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2012; Cabeza De Baca, Barnett, & Ellis, 2015); incorporation of the importance of changes in childhood conditions during sensitive age periods as a critical factor in early pubertal development (Tither & Ellis, 2008); and development of a mediational model linking socioeconomic status, psychosocial stress in families, fat deposition in middle childhood, and onset of puberty (Deardorff et al., 2011; Ellis & Essex, 2007).
Currently, the main focus of my work moving forward in this area is to further develop my research program on the effects of fathers on sexual development in daughters. I am particularly interested in (a) further testing the causal relationship between low paternal investment and accelerated pubertal development, risky sexual behavior, and early reproduction in daughters and (b) investigating what proximal psychological changes occur in response to paternal absence or disengagement that promote these sociosexual outcomes. To address these issues, my current NSF grant (Collaborative Research: Impact of Fathers on Risky Sexual Behavior and Decision-Making in Daughters) involves a powerful natural experiment and a series of randomized experiments to examine the impact of paternal absence and disengagement on young women’s sexual psychology and risky sexual behavior—to determine whether and how fathers influence daughters’ sociosexual outcomes. This works implements a genetically- and environmentally-controlled sibling-comparison methodology (Tither & Ellis, 2008; Ellis, Schlomer et al., 2012; DelPriore, Schlomer, & Ellis, 2017; DelPriore, Shakiba, Schlomer, Hill, & Ellis, 2019), which examines the effects of differential exposure of sisters within families to father absence and investment while growing up, and randomized experiments that investigate the effects of paternal disengagement on women’s perceptions of male mating behavior and intent (DelPriore, Proffitt Leyva, Ellis, & Hill, 2018). ... [more]