Unnatural Selection: Link between sex ratios and violence

Mara Hvistendahl is an award-winning writer and journalist specialized in the intersection of science, culture, and policy. A Beijing-based correspondent for Science magazine, she has also written for Harper’s, Scientific American, Popular Science, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, and other publications.

Her book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men discusses what happens in a world that has skewed the natural ratio of men to women.

There are over 160 million females “missing” from Asia’s population. That’s more than the entire female population of the United States.

From the website:
There are over 160 million females “missing” from Asia’s population. That’s more than the entire female population of the United States. And gender imbalance—which is mainly the result of sex selective abortion—is no longer strictly an Asian problem. In Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Eastern Europe, and even among some groups in the United States, couples are making sure at least one of their children is a son. So many parents now select for boys that they have skewed the sex ratio at birth of the entire world.

Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live,” she writes. “Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent.” As examples she notes that high sex ratios were at play as far back as the fourth century B.C. in Athens—a particularly bloody time in Greek history—and during China’s Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century. (Both eras featured widespread female infanticide.) She also notes that the dearth of women along the frontier in the American West probably had a lot to do with its being wild. In 1870, for instance, the sex ratio west of the Mississippi was 125 to 100. In California it was 166 to 100. In Nevada it was 320. In western Kansas, it was 768.

“Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live. Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent.”

There is indeed compelling evidence of a link between sex ratios and violence. High sex ratios mean that a society is going to have “surplus men”—that is, men with no hope of marrying because there are not enough women. Such men accumulate in the lower classes, where risks of violence are already elevated. And unmarried men with limited incomes tend to make trouble. In Chinese provinces where the sex ratio has spiked, a crime wave has followed. Today in India, the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income but sex ratio.

A high level of male births has other, far-reaching, effects. It becomes harder to secure a bride, and men can find themselves buying or bidding for them. This, Ms. Hvistendahl notes, contributes to China’s astronomical household savings rate; parents know they must save up in order to secure brides for their sons. (An ironic reflection of the Indian ad campaigns suggesting parents save money by aborting girls.) This savings rate, in turn, drives the Chinese demand for U.S. Treasury bills.

And to beat the “marriage squeeze” caused by skewed sex ratios, men in wealthier imbalanced countries poach women from poorer ones. Ms. Hvistendahl reports from Vietnam, where the mail-order-bride business is booming thanks to the demand for women in China. Prostitution booms, too—and not the sex-positive kind that Western feminists are so fond of.

The economist Gary Becker has noted that when women become scarce, their value increases, and he sees this as a positive development. But as Ms. Hvistendahl demonstrates, “this assessment is true only in the crudest sense.” A 17-year-old girl in a developing country is in no position to capture her own value. Instead, a young woman may well become chattel, providing income either for their families or for pimps. As Columbia economics professor Lena Edlund observes: “The greatest danger associated with prenatal sex determination is the propagation of a female underclass,” that a small but still significant group of the world’s women will end up being stolen or sold from their homes and forced into prostitution or marriage.
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Book Review in the Wall Street Journal

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