Thursday, June 23, 2011

A World of Testosterone? On The Preference For Sons And Sex-Selective Abortions

Mara Hvistendahl's new book, called Unnatural Selection, was reviewed in the Guardian some days ago:
Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl charts how the trend towards choosing boys over girls, largely through sex-selective abortions, is rapidly spreading across the developing world.
While the natural sex ratio at birth is 105 boys born for every 100 girls, in India the figure has risen to 112 boys and in China 121. The Chinese city of Lianyungang recorded an astonishing 163 boys per 100 girls in 2007.
The bias towards boys has been estimated to have caused the "disappearance" of 160 million women and girls in Asia alone over the past few decades. The pattern has now spilled over to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, the Balkans and Albania, where the sex ratio is 115/100.
The unnatural skewing towards male populations has become so pronounced in recent decades that Hvistendahl, a writer for Science magazine, says it has given rise to a new "Generation XY". She raises the possibility that with so many surplus men – up to a fifth of men will be single in northwestern India by 2020 – large parts of the world could become like America's wild west, with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence.
Hvistendal's book is about the role Western organizations and objectives may have had in all this. Richard Dawkins wrote a blog post based on the Guardian review:
I'm sure Hvistendahl is right when she says, "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live", and when she compares it to the American wild west "with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence."
But is she right to blame Western science and governments for making sex selection possible? Why do we blame science for offering a method to do bad things? Science is the disinterested search for truth. If you want to do good things, science provides very good methods of doing so. And if you want to do bad things, again science provides the best practical methods. The ability to know the sex of a fetus is an inevitable byproduct of medical benefits such as amniocentesis, ultrasound scanning, and other techniques for the diagnosis of serious problems. Should scientists have refrained from developing useful techniques, for fear of how they might be misused by others?
Hmm. Science may try to be the disinterested search for truth but we shouldn't just assume that all science has reached that ideal. Which is not to argue against Dawkins' basic point: that it is the desire not to have daughters which drives the sex-based abortions.

Hvistendal responds to Dawkins' post, pointing out that the book is not critical of science as such but of certain goals the science was put to:
What do I actually say in my book? I point out that early research into sex determination techniques like amniocentesis and ultrasound went ahead for various reasons. With amniocentesis, scientists were intent on helping couples at risk of passing along to their children sex-linked disorders like hemophilia. With ultrasound, the focus was on monitoring high-risk pregnancies. But beginning in the 1960s a separate group of scientists proposed pushing along research into sex selection—not simply using existing techniques, but actively funding new work—for a reason that had nothing to do with avoiding disease or improving maternal health.
These scientists were interested in sex selection’s significance in the developing world, where studies had shown many couples wanted at least one son. The idea there was not simply to help parents achieve the family composition of their dreams; it was to stop couples in countries like South Korea, India, and Taiwan from continuing to have girls until they got a boy. To quote from just two of the papers and books mentioning this approach at the time:
“A type of research which would have a great effect on population control would be that related to the discovery of methods for sex determination. It has been suggested that if one could predetermine that the first offspring would be a male, it would have a great effect on the size of the family.” – William D. McElroy, BioScience, 1969
“[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males, then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.” – Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, 1968

The debate about all this is fascinating, and you can follow it at the link to the Dawkins post.

What I wish to write about here is a slightly different question: What would a world with many excess men look like for women?

The usual arguments about this are of two types. The first type is the American wild west argument quoted above: "large parts of the world could become like America's wild west, with excess testosterone leading to raised levels of crime and violence." Never mind that the American wild west is to some extent, at least, a mythical place, created by novels and movies; we get the point of that comparison.

This argument implies that life would be less pleasant for everybody in such a society, not just less pleasant for women.

But it certainly would be less pleasant for women, because they would be subject to kidnapping, sale and reduced freedom of movement, given that they are now valuable commodities in scarce supply. Prostitution would rise and forced childbearing would rise. Women might be excluded from all aspects of the society that are not about sex or reproduction because of their lesser numbers.

Sounds dreadful, right?

The second type is almost the exact reverse. It argues that scarcity would make women more powerful. This resembles economic thinking: If you sell a scarcer product you can dictate the terms and get a higher price. Translated into societal terms, women's status should rise with their scarcity. They could seek better terms in marriage, and those could include more control over their own sexuality, the timing of children and more freedom to work, for instance. Heterosexual men who are not willing to accept these terms would remain without wives.

Neither view seems quite right to me. One is too pessimistic, the other one too optimistic. But I'm afraid that the first one is closer to reality, at least in the short-run. Not perhaps the wild west aspect, but the impact on women in general. The reason is in the lower general status of women and in the identity of those people who have the power of decision-making when it comes to women's lives.

As long as women are valued only as bearers of children and as providers of sex, the abundance of men will not necessarily improve women's relative position in the society. And as long as women cannot make choices about their own lives, the people who do have that right will react to the increasing scarcity of women the way owners of valuable antique vases would react to their increased scarcity. It is not the vases who decide when they will change hands, it is their owners.

The debate about sex-selective abortions leaves the underlying reasons for women's lesser lives unchanged: Girls and women are not wanted. That's its main problem. Banning sex-selective abortions probably wouldn't work in any case. But suppose it did. Women would still be pressured to produce sons, daughters would still not be wanted. Dowry murders would still take place.

Perhaps this is better than the mythical wild west alternative. But it is definitely worse than trying to raise the value of daughters to equal the value of sons in countries with strong son preference.

This is not an impossible task. Focus on those aspects of the society which support male domination: Increase the earnings power of daughters, provide safety nets for old age independently of the existence of a son or two, work to decrease sexist norms and traditions and so on.