News & Politics

Boy or Girl? Why Do More Americans Prefer Male Children?

We need a global overhaul of the way we value girls and women.

If you were to have only one child, and could choose its sex, would you prefer a boy or a girl? If you secretly thought “boy,” or had the guts to say it out loud, then you’re not alone.

A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans prefer boys over girls, by about 40 percent to 28 percent, while about one-quarter had no preference. Perhaps not surprisingly, women reported a greater preference for girls while more men preferred boys, but men did so to a much higher degree. Age, education level and political leanings of respondents were also recorded, with a curious result: young, lesser educated men were the biggest champions of baby boys.

But what does it all mean? Sometimes a poll is just a poll, but sometimes it’s more. This same poll was taken 10 times since 1941 with nearly identical results each time. The lives of women have changed tremendously over the past 60 years, yet there seems to be something fundamentally askew. Are boys “easier” to raise? Do prospective parents want to shield their hypothetical daughters from a life of cat calls and glass ceilings? Is it a safety net thing? Sheer whim?

I think the cause for alarm here is not necessarily in the varying gender preferences of men and women, but the extremes to which those preferences can manifest. While sex-selective abortion is not a major issue in the US (yet, or that we know of), the line between theoretical preference and active discrimination is fine.

Since Amartya Sen framed the issue of “100 million missing girls” more than two decades ago, it has gathered momentum as a shocking, shameful and somehow unstoppable epidemic. Sex-selective abortion in India, neglect and abandonment of baby girls in South Korea, female infanticide in China -- the stories are sad and gruesome, with very real demographic effects. The issue is once again very much on the radar with Mara Hvistendahl’s new book on sex-selective abortion, adding a spark to the kindling of abortion issues in the US.

However, one major flaw in our approach to understanding and addressing the issue of “missing girls” is the way it’s been “Asia-ized.” Hackles-raising investigative reports on “the war on baby girls,” often create a diametric opposition between the value of girls in Asia and the value of girls in our own society. However, these latest Gallup poll results should bring the issue of sexism – even in-utero sexism – back home to roost. Girls are under-valued all over the world, albeit with vastly different cultural manifestations.

Instead of being cast aside, neglected or strangled as infants, here in the US we sexualize our girls, or challenge them to stay at once young and innocent while being sexy and achieving great things. We expect them to be powerful, and we heap onto them the unrealistic expectations of the “girl effect,” that they, alone, can change the world.

Hypothetical gender preference is one thing, but is sex-selective abortion next for the US? Why or why not? What is that tipping point, and are we in danger of reaching it? As many have pointed out, laws prohibiting sex-selective abortion, or even abortion more entirely, will do nothing to address the core contributing factors. In short, this isn’t about monetary value, it’s about human value.

Asia’s missing girls have often been attributed to economics, since having a daughter is at once more expensive and less lucrative. Yet a recent study in India showed that wealthier and better educated Indian women are seeking sex-selective abortions.

All of this points us back to the drawing board to consider the ways in which we are contributing to social environments that predicate such choices. And the question also remains: how do you affirm and convey the human value of girls without either commodifying or essentializing them? These are dire questions, since this problem doesn’t seem soon to fade. In its cover issue on “gendercide” last year, the Economist proclaimed gloomily that “technology, declining fertility, and ancient prejudices are combining to unbalance societies” – as if any which way society turns, toward modernization or away, the prognosis doesn’t look good.

We need a global overhaul of the way we value girls (and women), an enlightenment of epic proportions. A first important step is to converse honestly about our pre-conceptions of gender. In the US, let’s discuss openly the ways that sexism has been rooted out and the ways in which it remains. Let’s include ourselves in global finger-wagging about missing girls, and as we advocate for an end to sex-selective abortion in India, look equally critically at the more subtle but perhaps equally pernicious ways that girls in the US are being mistreated.

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