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Mara Hvistendahl Answers Your Questions

Last week, we solicited your questions for Mara Hvistendahl, recent podcast contributor and the author of Unnatural SelectionChoosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. Below, Mara responds to some of your questions, addressing everything from dowries to polyandry. Thanks to everyone who participated.



While there certainly are downsides, with unattached men getting into trouble and being rowdy, won’t a shortage of females help increase the value and position of women in cultures that have been historically resistant to providing them an equal place in society? In theory, they should be able to demand higher standards during courtship and, once married, the threat of divorce would ensure better behavior on the part of men. Of course, a shortage of workers is one of the economic prerequisites to slavery so I guess it can go both ways. –Mike B

A You just put your finger on the central question for economists interested in sex ratios. Soon after Asian countries began reporting skewed sex ratios at birth in the 1980s, scholars started speculating about how they would affect women’s status in society. One group of scholars took the position you describe above — that the value of women would rise as they became scarce. But others pointed out that supply and demand doesn’t quite work that way with people. The critical issue, they contended, was not scarcity but autonomy; in order for a woman’s position to improve in a meaningful way, she has to maintain control over her own body. And in many societies, women lack total autonomy, which means there’s a risk that someone—a trafficker, or even or her own parents—will try to exploit them when they become scarce. (As you point out, this caveat applies to labor shortages as well. Employers may not bother to increase wages when they can enslave workers instead.)

Now that the first generation shaped by sex selection has grown up, it’s clear that the second camp of economists is correct. Women born into areas with skewed sex ratios—typically wealthy or middle-class urban areas—now have a bit more bargaining power when it comes time to choose a husband. But women in poor regions are considerably worse off because of the sex ratio imbalance. As demand has mounted for females, Asia has seen a stark increase in bride buying, sex trafficking and forced marriage. In South Korea and Taiwan, so-called “marriage agencies” now help lonely bachelors find wives on one-week trips to Vietnam. (These are a little like Western mail-order bride agencies, but they are far more pervasive.) And the latest U.S. Trafficking in Persons report lists China’s sex ratio imbalance as a cause of trafficking in the region.

Q We often hear news reports from India about horrific family feuds having to do with the size (and contents of) the dowry given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family. With the new reality in some areas where women will be in high demand, do you envision a cultural change where the bride’s family won’t have to provide as much in a dowry (or perhaps not provide one at all)? Or maybe even a reversal where the groom’s family pays a dowry? –RZ

A That’s an astute question. Several Indian sociologists I interviewed mentioned that perhaps the one silver lining in this disaster is the fact that dowries are decreasing in the northwestern Indian states where sex selection has left many more men than women. But what has replaced dowry is bride-buying, which is hardly ideal, either. Asia’s bought brides are typically much poorer and younger than their husbands, and they are usually brought in from other countries or regions, so that they arrive not speaking the same language as their husbands. In India, as well as in other countries where bride-buying is on the rise, cases of spousal abuse are common. South Korean and Taiwanese activists have even set up shelters for abused foreign brides.

And dowry still persists symbolically in northwest India. One sociologist told me locals have simply adapted it to the times. A man might slip the parents of the woman he’s buying a little extra money—and then the parents hand the money back to him as dowry.

Q Seems like Asia may need to embrace polyandry – whereby a woman would have multiple husbands, but they would all be married only to her.

The only instance of this that I can recall is in a tiny Himalayan culture and is actually fraternal polyandry (a woman married to all the brothers of another family). It’s basically to prevent land division among the brothers.

Needless to say, the women come out badly in this arrangement too, as they now have to do all the housework for all of their husbands. –Jake

A You’re right; fraternal polyandry has been historically practiced in Tibet. But Tibet is no longer an isolated case. The spread you envision has already occurred. Fraternal polyandry is on the rise in places where it was never accepted. Cases of women married to several brothers have been reported in both China (outside Tibet, among Han Chinese) and India. Polyandry is by no means common at this point, but it occurs frequently enough that a Vietnamese trafficking expert I interviewed told me it carries a separate fee structure. (A woman who is expected to sleep with more than one man draws a higher price.)

Polyandry is perhaps one of the ugliest effects of the gender imbalance. In my reporting, I interviewed several bought brides and spent a good deal of time with the activists who strive to protect them. None thought it would be fun to marry multiple men.

Q  Have there ever been examples in history of skewed gender ratios among populations? If so, what caused the skewed gender ratios of the past? The only thing I can think of would be infanticide? If this has happened in the past, what happened to those societies? The increase in crime seems like a pretty serious problem. Did that repeat in the past? If so, did the increased personal aggression also manifest itself in increased societal aggression, a.k.a. war? –Douglas

A The world has never seen an imbalance on the scale of what we’re facing today, one of over 160 million missing women. We’ve also never seen sex ratios altered before birth; the power to shape reproduction in this way is only a few decades old. That said, history can teach us a thing or two about what happens when one sex significantly outnumbers the other.

At moments in the past, migration patterns have yielded populations in which men significantly outnumber women (think of just about any frontier zone). Female infanticide was also practiced at moments in Chinese and Indian history, though never on the scale of sex-selective abortion today. I don’t go so far as to say more men lead to more war, but a sex ratio that skews male does tend to increase the incidence of crime and unrest. Around the world, men are responsible for more crime and more violent crime than women—and young unmarried men are far more likely to commit crimes like murder than married men
of the same age. The example of the Wild West is telling. In 1870, males outnumbered females by as much as four to one in some western U.S. states. Murder rates soared, alcohol consumption raged and gambling houses and saloons flourished.

Q Trying to think freakonomically, and not having read Unnatural Selection yet, I would think that any argument about the consequences of males not having a “counterpart” in terms of numbers should need to account for how that plays out in countries (like in Saudi Arabia) where men are allowed more than one wife, and thus causing a shortage of women for other men without doing it by birth rate. Are the effects claimed for the shortage-by-prebirth-technology seen in these countries too? –Melissa

A There are a few parallels between Asia and North Africa. In recent years, a large proportion of young North African men have remained unmarried. (To be clear, the low marriage rate is because of high unemployment—a jobless man has trouble amassing the capital necessary to attract a wife—not polygamy.) In Egypt, for example, at last count fully 50 percent of men age 25 to 29 were unmarried. That’s a huge number in a society that is very focused on family. Some scholars contend such low marriage rates have left a population of easily influenced young men—and helped contribute to the Arab Spring protests earlier this year.