Journal Article

Father absence and pubertal timing in Korean boys and girls

Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 1–11 (2023)
Open Access


Background and objectives: Pubertal timing is a key life history trait with long-term health consequences in both sexes. Evolutionary theory has guided extensive research on developmental influences, in particular growing up without a father, on earlier menarche. Far less is known whether a similar relationship exists for boys, especially beyond western contexts. We used longitudinal data from the nationally representative sample of Korean adolescents, which provided us with a unique opportunity for studying male puberty using a hitherto underutilized biomarker: age at first nocturnal ejaculation. 
Methodology: We pre-registered and tested a prediction that growing up in father-absent households is associated with earlier puberty in both sexes. Large sample size (>6,000) allowed testing the effect of father absence, which remains relatively uncommon in Korea, while adjusting for potential confounders using Cox proportional-hazard models. 
Results: Self-reported age at first nocturnal ejaculation was on average 13.8 years, falling within the range known from other societies. Unlike previous findings mostly for white girls, we did not find evidence that Korean girls in father-absent households had a younger age at menarche. Boys in father-absent households reported having their first nocturnal ejaculation three months earlier on average, and the difference was evident before age 14.
Conclusion and implications: The association between father absence and pubertal timing appears sex- and age-dependent, and these differences may further interact with cultural norms regarding gender roles. Our study also highlights the utility of the recalled age of first ejaculation for male puberty research, which has lagged in both evolutionary biology and medicine.

Keywords: Korea, South, age at menarche, ejaculation, family environment, father, life histories, puberty
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.