A recent New York Times article broke the story that a preference for boy children is leading to an unlikely preponderance of boy babies among Chinese-Americans and, to a lesser but still notable extent, Korean- and Indian-Americans.

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Explaining the trend, Roberts writes:

In those families, if the first child was a girl, it was more likely that a second child would be a boy, according to recent studies of census data. If the first two children were girls, it was even more likely that a third child would be male.

Demographers say the statistical deviation among Asian-American families is significant, and they believe it reflects not only a preference for male children, but a growing tendency for these families to embrace sex-selection techniques, like in vitro fertilization and sperm sorting, or abortion.

The article explains the preference for boy children as “cultural,” as if Chinese, Indian, and Korean cultures, alone, expressed a desire to have at least one boy child.  Since white and black Americans do not show a n unlikely disproportion of boy children, the implication is that a preference for boys is not a cultural trait of the U.S.

Actually, it is: In 1997 a Gallup poll found that 35 percent of people preferred a boy and 23 percent preferred a girl (the remainder had no preference). In 2007 another Gallup poll found that 37 percent of people preferred a boy, while 28 percent preferred a girl.

I bring up this data not to trivialize the preference for boys that we see in the U.S. and around the world, but to call into question the easy assumption that the data presented by the New York Times represents something uniquely “Asian.”

Instead of emphasizing the difference between “them” and “us,” it might be interesting to try to think why, given our similarities, we only see such a striking disproportionality in some groups.

Some of the explanation for this might be cultural (e.g., it might be more socially acceptable to take measures to ensure a boy-child among some groups), but some might also be institutional. It occurred to me that only economically privileged groups have the money to take advantage of sex selection technology (or even abortion, as that can be costly too). Sex selection, the article explains, “cost[s] $15,000 or more.” Chinese, Korean, and Indian Asians are among the more economically privileged “minority” groups in the U.S.

Instead of demonizing racial/ethnic groups, and without suggesting that all groups have the same level of preference for boys, I propose a more interesting conversation: “What enables some groups to act on a preference for boys, and not others?”

By the way, on a discursive note, sex selection is called “family balancing” by some clinics. What an excellent example of re-framing!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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