Who Run the World? Boys!

I know you know about sex selection. It’s that thing that provincial, backwards people in Asia do where they kill their daughters because they only want sons. Or maybe that’s just what you’ve heard. In a recent piece in Foreign Policy, Mara Hvistendahl explores the role of the United States in sex-selection practices. She argues against an ethnocentric-WTF-is-wrong-with-these-people approach and tries to uncover what exactly led up to a 160 million person gender gap.

In her initial research, Hvistendahl looked for ethnic and religious explanations for male preferences. Instead, she found that western money and concern for population control helped spread sex selection to every corner of Asia. Her reasoning goes like this: “Thanks to advances in public health, people were living longer than ever before. Projections released by the U.N. Population Division in 1951 suggested what the sum of all those extra years of life could be: Rapid population growth was on the horizon, particularly in the developing world.” Population anxiety found support in and secured funding from all over the political spectrum, and the subsequent research seemed to show that Asian couples tended to continue having children until they have a boy. Finding a way to guarantee a son from inception became the holy grail of population control work, and the rest is history.

Only it’s not. History, I mean. It’s affecting us today in places from China to Capitol Hill. Hvistendahl discusses the dire implications on women who live in areas that were affected by population control measures. With a shortage of women, sex-trafficking and bride-buying are on the rise. “Feminists in Asia worry that as women become scarce, they will be pressured into taking on domestic roles and becoming housewives and mothers rather than scientists and entrepreneurs.” And it’s not just women who are suffering the consequences: Researchers at Colunbia University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong believe there is a relationship between the large number of males and an increase in crime rates.

Politically, historical involvement with sex-selection practices is coming back to haunt PP and UNFPA. Pressure from anti-abortion movements has made it difficult for organizations to provide legitimate care in both developing nations and the United States. In June, the UNFPA, along with other international organizations, issued a report reexamining sex-selection. While anti-abortion groups have been quick to point out that sex-selection could be prevented by outlawing abortion, the report recommends encouraging legislation that puts women on equal legal footing with men, ensuring personal security for women and providing access to information and education.

In cases like this (and this), it can be hard to know where to draw the line between humanism and imperialism. With western colonialism and misguided philantrophy leaving their ugly legacy all over history, some argue that we aren’t fit to intervene, while others believe it’s our responsibility. Hvistendahl falls in the second group: “if we continue to ignore that legacy and remain paralyzed by heated U.S. abortion politics, we’re compounding that mistake.

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Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

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  1. You know what would solve the world population and gender gap programs? Density-dependent homosexuality. Once population reaches an unsustainable threshold, BOOM, the majority turn gay and live happy, healthy lives enjoying same-sex relationships that research has shown to be more successful and emotionally satisfying.

    Okay, problem solved. What next?

  2. and that’s why we are as we are…

    It is well to keep certain customs and culture. But when it grates on the ridiculous you have to realize that we must discard

  3. “….Asian couples tended to continue having children until they have a boy”

    This is actually true, unfortunately. I know more than two couples, friends and/or relatives, that have two or more daughters before a much younger son. My mother told me, when I was older, that they all wanted a son. It is a kinda sad reality here in Taiwan. I am more hopeful about the younger generations though, myself included. ; )

    • To be fair, it happens in the US, too. (Don’t know if it’s as prevalent, but it definitely happens.) My aunt’s former husband pressured her to keep having kids until she had a son.

  4. When I lived in Korea all my teenage girls had horror stories about being propositioned to “go work in China.” This is evidently code for bride smuggling. Their fathers are even lured at the idea of getting huge sums of money for their daughters. They all talked about it like it was just a part of life. It made me sad, but all these girls were going to cram school not to become brides, but to become doctors, lawyers or whatever else they wanted. So, this is why you shouldn’t count Asian women out yet.

  5. My friend came out to his (massively homophobic, but still “you’re-my-son-I-love-you”) dad, and when I sat down to have a talk with him about it, he told me some story about a scientific experiment he did in college where rats were bred and bred, and, eventually, homosexuality emerged. He says it was an indicator that overpopulation caused homosexuality. Yeah, I didn’t really take the whole “being compared to lab rats” thing well.


  6. I’m too tired to come up with a better comment:

    This is effed up. The ‘control what you give birth to’ idea creeps the hell out of me. Just like Nazis do.

  7. This is really interesting. I did my senior project (in high school) on this issue and particularly what happened to female babies that were abandoned by their families and it was really sobering and probably changed my life.

    anyhow, thank you for this. what you talk about here is a crucial imperative element of understanding the situation

  8. I’d be interested to hear what more people have to say about the issue. I know the comments on the article and some of the other sites reporting on it were calling her out on her statistics and saying she was skewing the story, but from what CJ and Caitlin are say, it sounds like she’s not too far from the truth.

  9. i think it’s definitely true that asian cultures have ‘prized-son’ mentality, male heirs are very important when girls are married off into other families! ugh. i can only speak as a 2nd generation asian australian but i have friends whose brothers are given preferential treatment. this is becoming less common as immigrants become more westernised, i think, but at the same time not necessarily. and then not to mention how it is for asians in asia, it might be worse but this is where i start not knowing what i’m talking about.

    definitely population control is a big factor, that is what the one child policy in china is, obviously. 32 million more males under 20 than females! population control as a way to avoid famine and unsustainability, combined with prized-son mentality and ultrasound technology; i mean really it was inevitable. and then the consequences.

    there are so many factors – cultural traditions, population control, abortion, obviously we are seeing the results now. it will be very difficult to change things without looking at all of the factors – and some of them will be almost impossible to change in a short period of time.

  10. Two things from this Chinese girl:

    1. Two decades ago, my uncle was walking home from work when he noticed twin baby girls abandoned on the sidewalk. Although he is very much the old-tradition, must-have-sons type, he couldn’t bear to leave them there so he brought them home. He soon discovered that he didn’t have enough money to raise both of them, so he found a nice couple and gave one away. To this day, my cousin does not know she was a roadside baby, or that she had a sister (children generally don’t know they’re adopted in China). Also, my grandma sold her two youngest sons for money, and nearly sold my dad before she came into a small windfall. My grandmother was a “bought” baby, as families back then and in that area believed that infertility was cured by adopting a girl. I actually didn’t realize how much baby-tossing there was in my family until I just wrote this down, wow haha.

    2. I’ve been in Beijing for this week for the nation’s biggest English-speaking competition. SO MANY of the girls’ impromptu speeches (subjects are social issues) were this, no exaggeration: “I hope to study well and get a good job. Of course, the job market is very horrible but I know that if that fails, I just need to find a rich husband.” A sadly large amount didn’t even mention the studying well part – every girl, without fail, voiced her ABSOLUTE NEED to find a wealthy husband to “take care of him.” Only one girl, whose question was about men’s rights in marriage (wtf?) was a superfeminist who brought up Coco Chanel’s unmarried success, and said that she depended on her own self to become successful, because who are you if you are defined by a man (or any other person?). From what I’ve listened to and through conversations I’ve had with the contestants, no girl is worried about her future, because there are tons of rich men out there looking for a wife. They’re just worried about wrinkles and whatever. :/

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