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

One-line review: “‘Think clear’ about birth control, and you will remain here until you do.”

Short review: This book, a Pulitzer finalist in the non-fiction category in 2012, is a grim tale about the history, consequences, and the roles of governments, societies, and aid organizations in the race to slow down population growth and the catastrophic effects it has had on unborn girls and on society in general. The results have been uniformly disastrous, with the worst yet to come. As far as prescriptions go, the outlook is perhaps just as bleak.

The book is organized into three sections, “Everyone Has Boys Now“, “A Great Idea“, and “The Womanless World“, and each section in turn focuses on one specific aspect of the issue, whether it is the parents, the doctors, the economists, the geneticists, and so on.

Causes for the declining gender ratio can be traced to economic prosperity, but only to an extent. Religious and cultural explanations do not hold up to close scrutiny. The role of Western institutions and aid agencies has been largely unexamined, who played a pivotal role in funding early abortion programs in developing countries, and actually providing the cover needed by governments to actually suggest gender-based abortions as a way of controlling overpopulation. The consequences of a world without girls are myriad and dark. A surfeit of men leads to exploitation of women, where some are sold off as brides, others are kidnapped and forced into marriage, while others are kidnapped and forced into the flesh trade. Men, left to their own devices, are more prone to violence and crime, live shorter lives, and suffer disproportionately from depression.

If there is one lesson that can be learned from this book, it is perhaps that of unintended consequences. Even with the best and noblest of intentions the consequences of actions can sometimes be tragically unforeseen. In a problem as vexing and complicated as population growth, the decidedly hasty acts of governments and institutions have had the consequences of hastening the disappearance of over 160 million girls in the world. That more than twenty-five times the number of people who were done to death in concentration camps by the Nazis.

In my opinion, it is somewhat of an injustice that this book did not win the Pulitzer Prize, such is the lucidity of writing and the  importance of the book. This book must be required reading for international aid agencies, for governments around the world, not to mention people in the medical profession, and lastly parents. In the developing as well as the developed world – there are no blameless actors in this tragedy, except the girl children not allowed to be born, and those that have been born and are looking at a bleak future.

In summary, this is perhaps the best, and the most important, book I have read this year, and I cannot recommend this enough to all.


Review in detail

How do you even get to know in a society that the girl child is not being allowed to be born – either through infanticide or by the aborting of a female foetus? There are several ways in which this can be inferred, even without searching for physical evidence of the crime. The biggest piece of evidence is statistical. There is the historical and natural distribution of boys and girls that has held remarkably constant throughout history, some explainable and unexplained anomalies notwithstanding.

“For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ratio at birth. The ratio can vary slightly in certain conditions and from one geographic region to the next. More boys are born after wars. More girls are born around the equator, for reasons we don’t yet understand. … anything between 104 and 106 is considered acceptable”

The fact that

“more boys are born is itself a form of balance, neatly making up for the fact that males are more likely to die young.”

Another item is the gap between the first and the second child, especially if the latter child happens to be a boy – this means there is a strong chance that there may have been a girl foetus that was aborted somewhere along the way between the two births.

Also on hand as evidence is the ratio for second and third and fourth births. “In 1989, at the height of South Korea’s sex selection binge, the country’s sex ratio for first births was 104—just about normal. For second births it was 113, for third births it was 185, and for fourth births it was 209.” If sex-selective abortions were not taking place, there is no reason for the ratio for second and subsequent births to be so skewed.

This is important to remember, because,

“In 2007 South Korea reported a normal sex ratio at birth for the first time in over twenty years, becoming the only formerly imbalanced country in the world to wipe out sex selective abortion.”

Huh? This is terrific news, right? Gender imbalances can correct themselves over time, as nations develop and grow richer, right? Well, only partly true if at that. And remember that “Sex selection was always something Korean couples turned to for second or third births.” Therefore, “Doctors and demographers alike now cite the low pregnancy rate as the primary cause of South Korea’s balanced sex ratio at birth.

And this is very convenient for institutions like the World Bank and others that funded and encouraged gender-based abortions in these countries for decades.

“If Asia’s gender imbalance is on track to disappear, there is no need to acknowledge the role Western organizations played in causing it—like, for example, the $30 million the World Bank earmarked for population control in Korea during a period of entrenched coercion. And there is no need to delve into messy abortion politics and risk a difficult discussion about women abusing choice.”

Anyway, moving on with the review…

Is religion, culturally regressive traditions, or race to blame for gender imbalances? No, Not really. Both Confucianism and Hinduism reserve the most terrible of fates for those who kill fetuses. As does Christianity condemn abortions. Nor does culture account for these imbalances. You have gender imbalances in regions as dispersed as India, China, Vietnam (“which wasn’t supposed to be patriarchal enough to avoid having girls“), the Balkans, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and so on. Easy, stereotypical explanations will have to go out the window. They won’t do.

For all the hand-wringing over Asian cultures obsessing over the gender of the unborn baby, it was Acu-Gen Biolab, a US company that came out, in 2005, with a kit priced at $275, called “Baby Gender Mentor”, advertised as “99.99 percent accurate” at predicting sex at five weeks. Go figure. It is another matter that the company had to file for bankruptcy after a spate of lawsuits.

Rising economic prosperity is a big causal factor in gender imbalances. As is education. Paradoxical but true – “According to India’s 2001 census, women with high school diplomas and above who gave birth over the previous year had 114 boys for every 100 girls. Among illiterate women, by contrast, the sex ratio for recent births was just over 108—still skewed, but much closer to normal“. There is a link to technology too, as expected. Rising economic prosperity and the concomitant access to technology go hand-in-hand – “sex selection typically starts with the urban, well educated stratum of society. Elites are the first to gain access to a new technology“.

Overenthusiastic governments, coercive regimes too have played a role. The role of Western governments and elitist institutions turns out to be hitherto mostly unexamined, and more ominously, more critical in the disappearance of 160 million girls that previously thought.

A researcher who figures a lot in the early sections of the book is “Christophe Guilmoto, now a senior fellow at the Institut de recherche pour le développement in Paris. …  In 2005 he calculated that if Asia’s sex ratio at birth had remained at its natural equilibrium of 105 over the past few decades, the continent would have an additional 163 million females.” Even before that, however, it was Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, who had written an essay in The New York Review of Books, titled “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing“, which had served as a “wakeup call” for western governments and researchers. Some were so aghast at the number “that they concluded it must be the result of girls going unregistered“, while others went for the fashionably and stereo-typically acceptable but egregiously “false accounts of female infanticide and widespread abandonment of girls in India“. “Others dreamed up still more fanciful explanations.”

Even “Asian scholars working on the ground, meanwhile, talked to average people extensively and then offered up narrow conclusions that explained sex selection as the product of local practices and traditions. In India they looked at the convention of dowry, which made daughters expensive; in China they focused on the one-child policy, which meant parents had limited chances to have a son.

Fertility, or more accurately, rapidly dropping fertility rates, is one cause behind this gender imbalance. “In the late 1960s, the average Asian woman had 5.7 children. In 2006 she had 2.3“.

This means that as family sizes go down, the chances of a girl being born diminish rapidly after the first birth. How so? “… very few abort because of the fetus’s sex during the first pregnancy. We know this because around the world the sex ratio at birth jumps abruptly with birth order. In 1989, at the height of South Korea’s sex selection binge, the country’s sex ratio for first births was 104 – just about normal. For second births it was 113, for third births it was 185, and for fourth births it was 209” – such high ratios are as clear an indication as one needs to know that gender-based abortions have been pervasive for second, third, and fourth births.

Women empowerment has also contributed to this epidemic. Paradoxical, again, but not really so when you think about it. “women are hardly immune from a craving for status, even if it comes at the expense of their own kind. … Development, remember, was supposed to improve the lot of women—and in many areas it does. But when it comes to reproduction, the opposite happens: women use their increased autonomy to select for sons.

Why did fertility rates drop? Why did they drop so fast? What was the technology that aided this decline? Who were the actors in this drama? One explanation for large family sizes, that the author does not include in the book, could be high rates of infant mortality through much of history, till the advent of vaccinations. High infant mortality rates meant that most families tended to go for safety in numbers, knowing that the chances of one or more of their children dying before they achieved adulthood were high. Entrenched ways of thinking would take decades, if not longer, to fade away.

Drops in fertility rates did not arise solely because of rising economic prosperity. The alarm bells about the dangers of over-population were raised first not in developing countries, but in developed countries. And the means to deal with this “population bomb” were developed in the developed world, and then thrust down the throats of the developing world, aided, by more than willing governments.

And thus begins this very sordid chapter in the tragic epic.

As Western powers saw Asian, African, and Latin American countries gain independence, they also started to see the ghost of communism lurking in every such country. And for reasons best explained only by these Western intellectuals, they saw a correlation between over-population and communism. Somehow, the equation went somewhat like this: population = poverty; poverty = communism; communism = evil; therefore control population growth. Hence, to combat communism, it became necessary to “convince” these countries to cut down their population growths.

“”We are not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control,” Moore and Clayton once confided to Rockefeller. “We are interested in the use which Communists make of hungry people in their drive to conquer the earth.””

Hugh Moore was the millionaire inventor of the Dixie CupJohn D. Rockefeller III was heir to the Rockefeller family fortune, while Will Clayton was former undersecretary of state.

The India Connection

Since India is home to the world’s second largest population (currently more than 1.2 billion), and also an underdeveloped country – at least in the 1950s and 1960s (and the 1970s and 1980s too; it now proudly calls itself a “developing” country) it was a basket case of socialism, statism, and dynastic rule, it has been and was the focus of the kind attentions of several development agencies. But the story, it turns out, begins even earlier. How far back do we need to go? To the good old days of the British Raj, when the sweet air of Imperialism pervaded the subcontinent, and the writings of the scholars of the Raj left no stone unturned to find evil in the colony’s culture, its religion, and its people. Where they could not, they manufactured it.

…British military historian John William Kaye, who succeeded John Stuart Mill as secretary of the East India Company Political and Secret Department“, was one such luminary, and he had “infinite energy for detailing Indians’ faults, and he devoted an entire chapter of his book to female infanticide.” What brings a wry smile is the author’s observation that “But England’s imperialists took care to distinguish India’s baby killings from the abuses that occurred on their own turf. “In this Christian country, it is to be feared that the dark crime of infanticide is painfully on the increase,” Kaye wrote of England. “Still it is only a crime – incidental, exceptional. In some parts of India it has been, for many generations, a custom.”

Q.E.D. Our evil is an aberration, yours is a custom – you have got to love this line of thinking.

What would have been most depressing to Kaye, the eminent historian, however, would have been the concession, “in his curmudgeonly way that there was no link between infanticide and the Hindu faith: “It is almost the one exceptional case of a barbarous custom, that has not the sanction expressed or implied, by precept or example, of the monstrous faith which these people profess.”

At least let us be appreciative of the gleeful choice of the epithet “monstrous faith” applied to Hinduism. Like the exception that proved the rule.

But this is not the end of it. No. Had the Indian summer-heat-induced delusional ramblings of the distinguished colonial gentleman remained just that, things could have been dismissed as not relevant to the present. However, ignorance, when combined with racism, led to some rather tragic consequences in the Indian subcontinent that was ruled by the British for two hundred years.

“Marriage practices change over time, of course. Bride-price and dowry have long fluctuated with economic cycles. But the colonial surveyors treated the Indian marital practices they encountered as if they were static, … As time went on, the idea that some castes and tribes had always killed girls evolved into doctrine. The report that accompanied the 1901 census, which found continued evidence of girl killing, explained that some castes had a tradition of female infanticide dating to “olden times.” The 1921 census went one step further, classifying India’s castes into those that killed their daughters and those that didn’t. …Western officials, philosophers, and writers were swept up in a search for proof that the darker, southern inhabitants of the world needed to be civilized. …No custom was too obscure, no native crime too sensational.”

“Flabby analysis of subcontinent history persisted well into the twentieth century. According to the historians Barbara and Thomas Metcalf, the idea that “because India was ‘timeless,’ the village and caste organization of colonial or even contemporary India was a guide to its historical past” remains one of the central misperceptions in histories of India.”

If overpopulation was a concern for the British colonialists, they have to be lauded even more for their humane concern for the subjugated natives. When Sir Winston Churchill was not gorging on seven-course meals and diverting food grains from a famine-stricken Bengal for his citizenry, you had equally distinguished luminaries dishing out equally genocidal prescriptions. “In the courses on political economy Thomas Malthus gave at Haileybury, a college set up by the British East India Company to train colonial officers, he taught students that aiding the starving during Indian famines would boost overpopulation.

A heady concoction of sloppy research, recidivist racism, an abiding faith in the impeachability of imperialism, and an equally visceral contempt for the natives all combined to produce colonial interventions of such stupendous stupidity that the tragic consequences are being borne by the colonies even today. “Imprecise and wrong-headed categories became exact and prescient with time. “The prescription for these societal ills was, almost without fail, intervention.

When, after independence from the British colonialists, Indian researchers started to pore over the “meticulous records in archives in Bombay” (now “Mumbai”) and Delhi, what they found was:

 “no less than remarkable: the British tax collection drive that occasioned Jonathan Duncan’s discovery of female infanticide had actually helped cause the crime. … In 1793, as it consolidated its power in the interior, the East India Company overhauled India’s system of land administration, introducing stricter, more delineated property rights. The new order was essentially medieval feudalism transported to India, where such an arrangement had never before existed. Women had once held property rights, but now they were excluded from owning land.” (Metcalf and Metcalf, Concise History, 91.))

Apart from the burden of dowry that daughters entailed, “with taxes higher than before, having a daughter could mean losing the family land. … The choice these families made, to kill rather than accept diminished status, was hardly noble. It is important, however, to note that they made it in the face of rapid change – not because of tradition.

“But as the British tightened their control over India, female infanticide spread to other groups. First it worsened among the Rajputs, spreading from the top-ranking subcastes to less powerful ones. Then in 1795, when the first land reforms were introduced, the Rajputs lost 40 percent of their land. To make up for the loss they began demanding higher and higher dowries from the castes below them. Female infanticide then trickled down, catching on among lower castes as well.”

It would take the British colonialists almost 80 years to unveil “the Female Infanticide Act in an effort to abolish the practice they had unwittingly encouraged.“, which also helped cement the taint that Indians practiced infanticide, and that too to such an extent that it required a special law to curb it. Here’s a tip of the hat to the venerable old empire.

Moving on, and to more modern times…

Speaking with Dr. Puneet Bedi at Delhi’s Apollo Hospital, the question that arises is, “What if the indiscriminate elimination of girls was planned—not by individual parents thinking only of themselves but by some larger force? And if the Indian and U.S. governments and leading Western organizations played a role in that planning?

And thus begins a new chapter in this book.

 “Following the 1952 Conference on Population Problems in Colonial Williamsburg, Western activists had seized on the idea that if a family planning approach worked in India, with its mushrooming, impoverished population, it might work anywhere in the world.”

“In 1975 the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country’s most prestigious medical school, unveiled India’s first amniocentesis tests at its government teaching hospital.”

Since Indians wanted boys, if the abortion of female fetuses was somehow facilitated, then these under-developed nations could stop breeding more of their own kind. Problem solved. Thus the help of our Indian medical professionals was enlisted to set India on the path of redemption.

“Shortly after the amniocentesis tests began, several AIIMS doctors published a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics explaining the project as an experimental trial with potential to be introduced on a larger scale. Indian couples clearly desired sex selection, wrote Dr. I. C. Verma and colleagues. And that interest, if tapped more widely, could be a boon for India – and the world: In India cultural and economic factors make the parents desire a son, and in many instances the couple keeps on reproducing just to have a son. Prenatal determination of sex would put an end to this unnecessary fecundity. There is of course the tendency to abort the fetus if it is female. This may not be acceptable to persons in the West but in our patients this plan of action was followed in seven of eight patients who had the test carried out primarily for the determination of sex of the fetus. The parents elected for abortion without any undue anxiety.” (C. Verma et al., “Prenatal Diagnosis of Genetic Disorders,” Indian Pediatrics, May 1975, 384.)

To understand how Western institutions and governments financed this sex-selective abortion orgy, you have to go back to “the mid-1960s, when Sheldon Segal, head of the Population Council’s biomedical division, headed to Delhi for an overseas post. … the World Bank wielded so much power in India that it could determine the duties of Indian government cabinet members – and recommended that the colonel (Lieutenant Colonel B. L. Raina, the former Army Medical Corps officer who had become India’s director of family planning. Before Segal arrived, Raina had been responsible for both population control and maternal and child health) give up the maternal health focus and make population issues his “unconditional first priority.””

Giving money to countries like India with “no strings attached was a bad idea“.  “At the 1952 Colonial Williamsburg meeting, Rockefeller Foundation representative Warren Weaver had cautioned that India was in danger of becoming ‘nigger rich.'” Such concern for India and Indians was heartwarming, and we as a nation should remain eternally grateful for that solicitousness displayed. Not that such attitudes were the exclusive preserve of such people. Indians were not going to be left behind. “The racism and eugenic logic of the population control movement resonated with India’s upper classes, who feared a high birth rate among the poor.

Sheldon Segal could well have been a modern day politician, and a very successful one at that. He wrote in his memoir that sex-selective abortions at AIIMS “shocked and upset” him. “What he neglected to mention is that shortly after his stay in India he went on the record promoting sex determination as an effective method of population control.

A natural, and logical, extension of government-funded sex-selective female abortions was, you guessed it, forcible sterilizations of “poor men“! Our beloved leader, the greatest of great Indians, Shrimati Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, declared a state of Emergency on June 25, 1975, her brave son and equally passionate lover of democracy Sanjay Gandhi took charge of this noble mission of sterilizing Indians, and his loyal bureaucrats set about fulfilling the lord-and-master’s dictats. “Nearly two thousand men died from botched operations. … By the time democratic rule was restored, 6.2 million Indian men had been sterilized in just one year – fifteen times the number of people sterilized by the Nazis.” This goes on to show what a determined government and dedicated bureaucracy can do. No wonder there are some who wish and long wistfully for those halcyon days of yore. If you think I am joking, funnily enough, I am not. “As late as 2001, the anthropologist Barbara Miller found that many Indian intellectuals remained loath to criticize sex selective abortion because “it serves as a quiet way to deal with ‘overpopulation.’

Western experts later distanced themselves from the excesses of the Indian Emergency, but records from the time show that many advisers supported, if not cheered, India’s fling with despotism.

Much of the general population’s notions and fears about overpopulation, and more specifically, overpopulation in poor, underdeveloped countries, countries like India and China were informed by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, “The Population Bomb“, where he wrote with prose designed to elicit revulsion from the Western reader, about his family trip to India (where else) and where they experienced the horrors of a poor nation breeding like rabbits, and “People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.“, and worrying, as any self-respecting intellectual would, “Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened.” And why wouldn’t they be? “Indians, he implied, were “multiplying like rabbits.”” And where would these starving, poor, defecating, urinating, teeming millions “turn but to America’s wealth?

“Among the policy prescriptions described in The Population Bomb was an increase in funding for sex determination research. “[I]f a simple method could be found to guarantee that first-born children were males,” Ehrlich wrote, seven years before doctors at AIIMS introduced sex determination to India as a family planning tool, “then population control problems in many areas would be somewhat eased.””

Even before Ehrlich’s literary, scientific, and social masterpiece was published, “sex determination as a method of population control” was probably first espoused in October 1967, at a conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the “American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development” to “explore cutting-edge research in family planning.

Such research and such methods were categorized as being “high” in ethical value by none other than “Berelson, the Population Council president who had chaired the 1967 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development meeting“. Ensuring “child health” by killing the child off in the womb itself must surely be one of the most ironic ways to fulfill a mission statement.

“Others displayed more foresight. In 1973 British microbiologist John Postgate predicted dire side effects, particularly for the women born into a society awash in testosterone, of widespread sex selection.”

“the list of abortion’s early champions reads like a directory of the Republican Party. …

The legalization of abortion abroad, then, came about with support from both sides of the American political spectrum.”

As opposed to the view propagated in the press that people from Asia tended to be “morally pragmatic, entirely unbothered by the termination of a pregnancy and free from the ethical hand-wringing that surrounds the beginning of life in Judeo-Christian countries” the truth was, again, different.

“Throughout Asia, abortion was frowned on. Where it was performed, it was a hushed, shameful affair. … But resistance to abortion wasn’t merely the outgrowth of religious baggage. It also stemmed from popular notions about femininity. Across Asia in the mid-twentieth century, cultures rewarded women for becoming mothers.”

Elsewhere in Asia similar population control efforts were underway, with or without Western interventions, financing, and coercion. “By 1977 doctors in Seoul were performing 2.75 abortions for every birth—the highest documented rate of abortion in human history.

“As family planning organizations made inroads in new nations, Western advisers became bolder. Some even extolled abortion as preferable to birth control. “Early abortion is safe, effective, cheap and potentially the easiest method to administer,” wrote IPPF medical director Malcom Potts in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1976. “To call it ‘a second best’ or ‘a back-up method,’ as is so often done, is to believe a mythology … which runs directly counter to the needs of women, the welfare of existing children and the future prosperity – or maybe survival – of mankind.”

Steven Mosher (Amazon), an anthropology student in Stanford University’s PhD program, who was later expelled by the University, ostensibly due to pressure from the Chinese, and who later went on to become a strong proponent for chipping away at abortion rights and saw banning pre-natal sex-based abortions as an incremental step towards an outright ban on abortions, documented coercive methods on display in an agricultural commune in the Guangdong province in China in 1981, where he heard a pregnant woman being told by He Kaifeng, a commune cadre and Communist Party member, “You are here because you have to ‘think clear’ about birth control, and you will remain here until you do.

Such coercive methods did not go unrewarded by the international community. “In September 1983 the organization (United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA) jointly awarded Qian Xinzhong, the former People’s Liberation Army general charged with administering the one-child policy, and Indira Gandhi, who had overseen both India’s mass sterilizations and the AIIMS sex selection experiments in the 1970s, with the first United Nations Population Award.

Yeah, go figure.

Let us now turn to the consequences. The first is quite straightforward – lesser number of girls. That was simple. But there are several other consequences, mostly unintended, that have arisen as a result of these missing 160 million girls.

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

If you don’t have enough girls of marriageable age in your community, village, town, province, or country, what do you do? There is a wealth of choices. The author lists some: remain single, marry younger and younger and younger girls, turn to homosexuality, employ the services of prostitutes, engage the services of male prostitutes where there aren’t enough girls left even to kidnap and coerce into prostitution, buy brides, kidnap girls and force them into marriage, get a single girl married to several men, and so on. Each alternative is more enticing than the other, and surely society and men cannot be complaining about such an embarrassing wealth of options.

“For a mere $10,000, a man could buy a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, hotel, meals, transportation, and a wife. … Scholars call them marriage migrants; locals simply say foreign wives; you might think of them as bought brides.”

“In South Korea over a thousand international marriage agencies have registered with the government.”

“Marriages to foreigners accounted for nearly 11 percent of all 2008 weddings in that country.”

How bad is the situation getting? Or “better”,  I should say, since society and nations and international agencies have been worked in concerted tandem to kill off girls for so long, not deliberately, obviously. “By 2013, one in ten Chinese men will lack a female counterpart. By the late 2020s, a projected one in five men will be surplus.

Some economists have turned their ever sharp brains to this problem, and some, like Gary Becker, have posited that the situation is actually not so bad for the girls that do survive. Because, according to the laws of demand and supply, more demand and lesser supply will lead to an appreciation in the value of women. Right? Please say yes. No? Why? Because, as other economists and management gurus will tell you, if there is so much value attached to something, then surely someone will try “to capture it.” Value appropriation is taught in almost every class in business school. Why should that not hold true in the real world too? Too crude for your liking? Well, you can’t hunt with the hound and run with the hare, or something to that effect, I could say.

“Asia’s thriving sex trade cannot be blamed on the gender imbalance alone. In recent years economic growth has also brought more personal and social freedoms, relaxed sexual mores, and a hyper-commercialization of nearly everything. Combine those three and you get a continent-wide realization that sex sells.”

So, while the author concedes that gender imbalances are not the sole cause for the rise in prostitution, she also offers historical evidence to back up the claim that “historically prostitution thrives in places where men outnumber women.”

For example, “In nineteenth-century France, brothels flourished in the wake of industrialization, which spawned an urban migration that left cities full of men.

“A similar trade is flourishing in India, which, like China and Vietnam, has a long history of human trafficking. The flow of women from poor areas in the east to the male-dominated northwest began centuries ago, says Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi who studies the issue.”

“Parents of daughters in some corners of the world face an unenviable choice: sell their girls to traffickers and send them off to join the female underclass, or guard the girls closely to protect them from kidnappers.”

Men, if left to their own devices, perpetrate all sorts of indignities on women. But they are too large-hearted to restrict their attentions to women only. It is an entire society that bears the burden of their numbers.

“…while today it may be politically incorrect to suggest that gender and violence are linked, crime statistics show that this particular stereotype is irrefutably true.”

“By applying complex formulas to this finding, Edlund and her colleagues found a clear link between a large share of males and unlawfulness, concluding a mere 1 percent increase in sex ratio at birth resulted in a five-to six-point increase in an area’s crime rate.”

The same holds true in India also. “The best way to predict whether a certain part of India has a high murder rate, indeed, is to look at its sex ratio. Even a high poverty rate doesn’t correlate as strongly.

“Scientists have long known that married men have lower levels of testosterone than single men and that fathers have lower levels of testosterone than childless men.”

The numbers speak.

“… the contrast is stark: bachelors between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-five are three times as likely to murder another man as a married man of the same age.”

And why look at modern society along? Even three thousand year old tales, apocryphal though they may be, tell similar stories.

“While the tale of Rome’s origins is apocryphal—we know that if Romulus existed he was probably not raised by a she-wolf—it nonetheless suggests that anxiety about the pernicious effects of a shortage of women appeared early in Western civilization.”

And lastly, we turn to the USA.

But to truly understand the history of single men and violence, we might look at America.

To say Americans have a fascination with guns would be a gross understatement. According to a Wikipedia article an estimated 44 million gun owners were said to possess just under 200 million firearms. This fascination with guns can be traced back all the way back to the days of the Wild West, so incorrectly romanticized in movies.

“Recently, however, historians have put forth another explanation: the United States is torn by violence today because the geographical and industrial frontier zones that shaped so much of American identity were predominantly settled by men.”

“A sex ratio map of the United States in 1870 looks like one of China today. In a large swath of America, including most of the land west of the Mississippi River, there were over 125 males for every 100 females in the total population. California had a sex ratio of 166. In Nevada it was 320; in Idaho, 433. Western Kansas counted an astounding 768 males for every 100 females.”

As with modern societies today that display gender imbalances, a surfeit of males resulted in a surfeit of prostitution. The justifications were quite ingenious though.

Many western towns openly tolerated prostitution in the belief that access to prostitutes would prevent men from assaulting “respectable” women.

Other consequences were just as similar – brides were bought or “loaned” from Native American tribes.

Today, there is a new technique, “Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD”, available for sex-selection, and “is an add-on to in vitro fertilization, which an increasing number of Americans now use to have children. Once the woman’s – or a donor’s – eggs have been retrieved and fertilized with a man’s sperm and the resulting zygotes have completed the cell division that yields eight-celled embryos, a single cell is removed from each embryo and tested for defects, disabilities, or a propensity toward certain diseases. … But lab technicians can also identify sex chromosomes and separate XY embryos from XX ones, thereby screening for sex…

So, let’s see how to frame this. Gender can be detected before birth. Gender can  also be selected using this technique. “And like doctors in Asia who perform sex determination tests and sex selective abortions, America’s practitioners of sex selection say refusing to do it is not an option. … Only the language surrounding America’s breed of sex selection is different. Americans don’t talk about gender preference. We say “family balancing,” a term that implies couples have an inherent right to an equal number of boys and girls. We talk about “gender disappointment…

But there is a BIG difference, surely one can see that. In Asia and elsewhere girls are being aborted because they are “expensive”, and societies prefer boys. But in the West people want girls. That is so different, right? Sure. Why not. But think about it. “But when it comes down to it these reasons have one thing in common: Americans who select for sex are intent on having girls because of preconceived notions of how a girl will turn out.

In the final analysis, this book is an important book for the simple reason that it forces us to abandon long-held misconceptions about gender imbalances in developing nations. It also sheds light on the role of Western interventions, and should be cause for re-examining the uncritical eye with which Western analyses and so-called expert opinions are consumed by people. What works for the West may not work for India. What the west thinks may be because of its own selfish reasons, and we ought to be more critical in examining prescriptions dished out than we are. None of this, however, should deflect from introspection into our own mores and attitudes towards the girl child and women in general, which are in dire need of correction and improvement.

Book info:
Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: PublicAffairs; Reprint edition (May 1, 2012)

Language: English
ISBN: 1610391519, 978-1610391511

Buying info: AmazonKindleFlipkartFlipkart e-bookPowell’s

The views expressed are the personal opinion of the author.

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.