Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl

PublicAffairs, 2011

Unnatural Selection presents a history of sex selection practises, the political or cultural desire to control populations, the methods of sex predetermination, and how these lead to the current gender imbalance crisis beginning to be felt in Asia, Eastern Europe and around the world.

This is a very topical book for me, as I begin to consider the kind of world my own daughter will inhabit as she grows older.  What will it mean to be a girl or woman in the coming years, as the problems Hvistendahl outlines rage unchecked?  How will she be treated at school, at a prospective workplace, or in society as a whole?  Will this be a good world for her?  How does this problem integrate with all the other crises she will have to deal with - be they economic, political, environmental or whatever?  

I found that the author doesn’t fully satisfy me as to the big “why” - why do families all want boys so badly?  Is this a self-evident truth that I am missing (seeing that I am immensely happy with my only child), or are the causes as diverse as the cultures manifesting this problem?   If people want children of a specific gender because they have preconceived notions of how successful they could be (based on gender and position in society), perhaps how this manifests is situationally dependent on the society they live in.  Hvistendahl does mention some customs and practises such as male inheritance, the practise of marrying daughters “up,” and the issue of dowries and so on.  In any case, the potential variation of answers makes the first question below a good question that should stimulate discussion!

This book should lead to a lively discussion, although the book itself may be a bit challenging to read.  It is quite dense, being a full cultural study of the historical and political background that leads to the growth of sex selection around the world, and how the idea of population control and abortion technologies were introduced into societies initially resistant to these concepts.

Discussion Questions
  1. Unnatural Selection documents the rise of sex selection, and the favouring of boy children over girls.  Why do so many wish their babies to be boys?
  2. Why do human societies throughout history seek to control reproduction?
  3. How successful have attempts to control populations been (either to reduce or increase populations)?
  4. Is this a local problem?  What common factors are shared by countries sliding into significant gender imbalance?
  5. If individual families just want to have “balanced families,” how does this collectively contribute to a gender imbalance? 
  6. What happens to societies when there is a “surplus of men?”
  7. Have you noticed any effects of a gender imbalance in your experience?
  8. How do perceived gender roles in a given society contribute to gender imbalance?
  9. How can human civilizations rectify gender imbalances?
  10. Is this a problem that can be solved?

1 comment:

  1. We did this at a recent Book Club; here's my post from my personal blog.

    Our annual non-fiction pick for Book Club was inspired by a book review at my staff meeting. And with a very preggers Cyn around, who wouldn't want to read about "choosing boys over girls and the consequences of a world full of men"?

    Enter Mara Hvistendahl's Unnatural Selection. What began as a cultural study of why certain cultures continue to covet males over females turns into a statistical nightmare that reveals humanity's dirtiest secret: our technology has surpassed our ability to control the repercussions of using that very same technology.

    The crux of Hvistendah's is this: parents, even in modern-day societies, still have a "son preference' which leads to many families having babies until they have a bouncing baby boy. (Do a quick, informal survey of your own: who many families do you know that have the older-girl-younger-boy makeup? Look at single-child homes: how many are single boys versus single girls? How many families do you know where the son is the youngest of the brood? It's fascinating.) In fact, this trending towards having as many kids as possible until you have a son is what led to the one-child-rule in China and the scores of abandoned female babies in other countries.
    Enter technology: amniocentesis and ultrasound. Now parents may choose to find out about any birth defects their children may have; and, if that defect happens to be the lack of a Y-chromosome, they often elect for late-term abortions.

    Let me be very clear here: Hvistendahl is not anti-abortion. The right to choose to abort a baby in the first trimester for a number of reasons (health, rape, age, etc.) is a separate issue from choosing to terminate a viable fetus well past the doctor-recommended 12-week period. It is this blatant sex selection that is now having alarming results, with ratios of boys outnumbering girls in many places as high at 150-100. That's a lot of frustrated men with absolutely no potential for a mate. What's a guy to do?


    That's when the real scary begins. In this world, with few females, women are prized and commodified. They are abducted, forced into polyandry or prostitution, used as bartering chips and are generally in grave danger. (Would a world with significantly more females be better? Not really - that's where harems come in). Men with no mates take greater risks, join cults and gangs and terrorism cells. In essence, we become lawless.

    An absolutely riveting read that should spur tonnes of conversations. Much debate around whether sex-identification was neccessary or a luxury? And if it is a luxury, can the choice be taken away from parents in a democratic society? Many of us went home and asked our hippie-era parents about it and had interesting reactions. I think this is the perfect book for an intelligent Book Club.