The extraordinary sex ratio of our age

By Razib Khan | January 14, 2012 9:32 pm

The New Atlantis has a nice piece, The Global War Against Baby Girls. It’s relatively heavy on charts and maps, so I recommend it (yes, it has a particular ideological perspective, but that’s really not consequential, as I assume most readers do not favor skewed sex ratios either). There’s nothing too surprising in it (assuming you won’t be surprised by the finding that in many societies there is a correlation between economic development and higher rates of sex selective abortion). But it’s thorough and highlights the complexities of social dynamics well.

The author notes that Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner hypothesized that a sex imbalance should lead to an increase in the status and value of women. This is a classic expectation that systems go back to equilibrium, and dovetails well with what we know from biology, where sex ratios tend to cycle in a meta-stable manner around balance in many species. But the empirical reality is a little more murky. Instead of a rise in the “status” of women there have been regions of China where women are further commoditized, and turned into an item for purchase and sale. This is probably not what Becker and Posner had in mind, though it might follow the letter of their prediction if not the spirit. Additionally, social systems are complex enough that they may take a tortuous and circuitous route back toward equilibrium.

I will also add two points, one minor, and one not as minor. The author suggests that Vietnam is not a Confucian society, but a Buddhist one. This is somewhat misleading. Though not nearly as Confucian as Korea, Vietnamese high culture did mimic aspects of Chinese state ideology to some extent, including introducing a Confucian scholar-administrative element. Vietnam is arguably more Sinic than Japan, having been under Chinese rule, and being directly tributary, for much of its history. A bigger point is that sex imbalance ratios are a matter of class and globalization. As hundreds of millions of lower class Chinese men reach maturity without the means to enter into a monogamous relationship with Chinese women, they will do what marginalized South Korean men have been doing: look to Southeast Asia. This means that Southeast Asian men without means will themselves be lacking in partners. A similar phenomenon has occurred in India, where women from eastern states have migrated to Punjab to marry men who can not find partners in the local region. One can not understand the sex imbalance story without considering its entailment: the great migration of tens of millions of women from poor societies to the the lower rungs of wealthier societies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, International Affairs

Comments (16)

  1. Completely agree with the bigger point. So much research is centered on the minor point which sadly will not help improve conditions for female babies.

  2. “Instead of a rise in the “status” of women there have been regions of China where women are further commoditized, and turned into an item for purchase and sale. This is probably not what Becker and Posner had in mind, though it might follow the letter of their prediction if not the spirit.”

    Expecting a single specific outcome to prevail across a world divided by class and language and nationality, whether commoditization or increased autonomy, was probably foolish. Women who have sufficient capital–cultural, economic, and otherwise–may be able to negotiate better outcomes for themselves within their countries of birth than women who don’t have that. Cross-border migration, women heading from poorer to richer countries to marry men in those countries, may be economically empowering relative to what they might normally expect if they stayed in their homelands (an Economist report describing a Bangladeshi girl’s marriage into a Punjab community comes to mind), notwithstanding the personal shocks of immigration and the apparent relative importance of immigration for marriage in relatively lower-prestige classes and regions (marriages in rural South Korea involved foreign-born women to a considerably greater degree than in urban South Korea, for instance). Women being traficked may fare quite badly. Men with relatively little capital and relatively low status, especially in countries of female emigration, will be hard-pressed to find wives (as opposed to sex partners). Et cetera.

    The long-term effect on demographic trends will be interesting. Biasing births so strongly towards male births has the effect of raising the level of fertility required for net population replacement: barring mass polyandry or other unexpected things, ~2.1 births per woman wouldn’t cut it. The feminization of migration, between regions and between countries, has the potential of exacerbating population aging in specific areas. Meanwhile, the implications of high proportions of births in different countries being to foreign-born women is noteworthy. Et cetera.

  3. Techs

    Unfortunately I have read stories of poverty stricken married Chinese women with children being kidnapped and sold to new husbands. One husband tracked his wife down after a very long time, but she didn’t want to return as she now had new children she didn’t want to abandon.

  4. free thinker

    In a society with dowry system of marriage, a shortage of women undermines the system. In a society with a brides price system, a shortage of women strengthens the system. India’s dowry system is dysfunctional and has led to much abuse and suffering by women. I am in favor of undermining it.

  5. April Brown

    I lived in a region of Uzbekistan for a few years (Karakalpakstan) where the dowry system was reversed – even in the still practiced case of bride stealing (nabbing a girl off the street and forcing a marriage), her family eventually gets compensated. The more educated the girl, the more the man’s family owes her father. So even though boys are still touted as being much more important than girls, families tend to favor girls once they have at least one boy. The boy is expected to care for his parents in their old age, and the girls provide income through marriage. Thus, fathers try to get their daughters at least through university before they get stolen or consenually married.

    This is a region that’s quite poor and uses abortion as birth control as a matter of routine, and has done so for a long time (under Soviet rule). Still, you see a pretty good balance of girls and boys, with the girls almost universally being better students, better wage earners, and all around more valuable to a stable society than their brothers, who grow up feeling entitled and being spoiled.

  6. Jason Malloy

    Bare Branches and Unnatural Selection are the go-to references for sex ratio and social pathology in popular writing, however neither one provides a fair summary of the research literature which supports something closer to the Becker and Posner view: the value of women tends to go up, and men tend to behave better.

    Mara Hvistendahl, Valerie M. Hudson, and Andrea M. den Boer are so clouded by the horror of Sexist Genocidal Abortion that they can’t sift through the facts impartially. Or even acknowledge that there are competing theories. Anything outside of DOOOM (War! Crime!) could jeopardize Western resolve against the scourge of (pro-choice) sex selective abortion.

  7. Tom Bri

    Even in Japan, where the sex ratio is normal, certain classes of men, those in rural occupations and fishermen, have had to resort to importing brides, typically Filipinas. Japanese women choose against men with 3-D jobs, dirty, dangerous and difficult.

    It will be interesting to follow events in China. The Chinese women I have known, well-educated and intelligent, were quite strong-willed. At least for this class of women I can see them using their increased value for their own benefit. The poor, uneducated and less intelligent…

    A question for you all (if Razib will permit), do you have moral qualms about mass female infanticide/abortion? As opposed to the question of abortion in general.

  8. #8, that question is fine. my issue with sex selective abortion has less to do with morals and more to do with social stability (if i was forced into sex selection, i’d probably choose female for a variety of reasons for my offspring). but, i don’t object if parents with brown eyes but who are heterozygotes want to select for blue eyed children either, necessarily (i think this is far less of a social problem than sex selection for obvious reasons).

  9. Is there any evidence that bride importation has become widespread enough to slow population growth in poor areas? That would be a great way to reach ZPG, from the POV of watching liberal heads explode.

  10. Justin Giancola

    6. Curious, what had you living in Uzbekistan?

  11. April Brown

    Justin –

    I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer with my husband, (we finished our term of service just before Uzbekistan kicked out Peace Corps and a bunch of other Western organizations, due to jitters about the various revolutions around the former Soviet Union in the mid 2000’s). Interesting place – Karakalpakstan is up near where the Aral Sea used to be, and the city of Nukus was a ‘secret city’ under Stalin. Unwanted/slave ethnic groups were dumped there to work in a chemical weapons factory, so about 30 percent of the city is ethnically North Korean. Some of my students spoke German, because their grandparents were prisoners of war from WWII who had gotten sent to the labor camps and never made it back home.

  12. sestamibi

    Also refer to the “Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question” by Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord. 1977 I think, maybe 1983?

    Personally, I think public policy should strive for an optimal sex ratio of about 91-95 (males per 100 females). Under such conditions even the lamest of bachelors has a fighting chance of finding a mate, and yet women’s numbers are not so overwhelming that they gain political and economic control and screw up society.

  13. Sandgroper

    @8 Tom – yes, both very strong moral and social objections. Which might be confusing of me, because I am generally pro-choice. I can think of several good reasons why a woman might want to abort, but I feel strongly that gender should not be one of them.

  14. Tom Bri

    #14, Interesting. So Razib thinks abortion for what look to me to be trivial reasons, like eye color, is fine, if I am reading his comment right. But you, who generally are pro-choice, don’t like aborting for choosing an offspring’s sex.

    I am trying hard not to turn this into just another internet-abortion thread. I am curious as to what motivates people to choose different places along this continuum.

  15. Guttentag and Secord (1983) theory states that the when men outnumber women , women will be encloed in represive sex roles as ment treat them as scrce goods. Conversely , t0 the extent that females outnumber men (early Christian Society) women will enjoy greater power and freedom. Paraphrased from Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity (p101) referencing Guttentag, Marcia and Paul E. Secord. 1983. Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

    I don’t have a dog in the hunt. I just remembered the reference from an interesting book.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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