Mara Hvistendahl, "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men" (PublicAffairs, 2011)


The students in my undergraduate class on gender, sexuality, and human rights are a pretty tough bunch. They know they're in for some unpleasant topics: sex trafficking, domestic violence, mass rape in wartime. But when I have them read Amartya Sen's classic article on the effects of son preference - that stops them in their tracks. A hundred million girls and women simply missing from the planet due to sex-selective abortion, infanticide, and neglect of daughters. You can almost see the chill go through the room. Thanks to Mara Hvistendahl, I now need to revise that number upward. 160 million girls and women are missing in Asia alone, she writes in her new book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs, 2011). And the effects are grim. These include sex trafficking and sale of brides to meet the demands of the "surplus men" who can't find mates in their own communities, and they include high rates of violence in societies with a large number of unattached men. And the Western side of the story is equally depressing. Here we see Western population planners suggesting sex selection as a way to curb "Third World" population growth - and exporting the technology to make it possible. And we see pro-choice feminists completely at a loss for how to grapple with the issue. This is not a happy book, but it's an almost unbearably important one. You'll be glad you read it.

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Elizabeth Heineman

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