Blogging Again: The Problem of Sex Selection

Recently the New York Times ran a story on sex selection of children in Asian-American communities.  The article outlines some disturbing findings from birth records and census data: Asian-American families are much more likely than others to have a boy rather than a girl if their other children are all female, and demographers are attributing this discrepancy to an increasing number of Asian immigrant parents who are selectively determining the sexes of their children.

The trend was found specifically in Indian, Chinese, and Korean families.  Families from those countries might prefer to have boys for a number of reasons: they have patrilineal cultures, in which the male children carry on the family name; raising male children is often seen as a good investment, since they are more likely to find gainful employment; and especially in India, raising female children, for whom parents may eventually have to pay a dowry, can be a financial burden.

There are several ways for couples to ensure the birth of a son.  In Asian countries, sex “selection” is most often accomplished by aborting female fetuses, or through female infanticide.  In the United States, families are more likely to use pre-implantation methods, such as sperm sorting followed by artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization, although sex-selective abortions are still performed.  Whatever the method used, sex selection is problematic.  For one thing, the desire to weed out daughters is misogynistic, and suggests that these parents have some unfortunate ideas about gender roles.  For another, the practice of artificially selecting a child’s sex amounts to treating the child as a vessel for the parents’ expectations, rather than as a person in his or her own right.

Artificial sex selection needs to stop, but the question of how to stop it is a difficult one.  My position as an advocate for total reproductive freedom is that it is unethical to regulate many of the technologies that are used to predetermine the sexes of infants.  In particular, a woman’s right to get an abortion must never be subject to any conditions.  That means that we can’t legislate an end to sex selection.  If we want to solve the problem, we have to address its cause: the underlying beliefs that give rise to the preference for sons.

That’s a much loftier and tougher goal than outlawing sperm sorting, and it’s not clear how to go about accomplishing it.  Certainly the US would benefit from more widespread education on gender issues, for everybody.  But would that be enough to change a set of beliefs that many people take as cultural norms?  What else can we do to get people — not just Asian-American immigrants, but everyone — to see their daughters and their sons as equals?

If you have any ideas, leave a comment.

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Fear and Boredom in the Bathroom!

Typically when I shower, I am stricken with fear.  I like to do my showering at a leisurely pace, but it’s inevitable that if I spend more than a few minutes on my ablutions, the water level begins to rise around my feet.  Then the panic sets in.  I am sure that if I let the water run any longer, it will overflow the threshold and run out onto the bathroom floor, soaking all my clean clothes and pissing off the other residents of my dorm.

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The beloved Shallow Goodale Shower

But the other day, all of that changed.  I realized that I was being stupid.  My fears had no basis in reality.  Unless the drain is clogged, there’s no reason to expect that a shower will ever overflow, for the simple reason that the rate at which water flows through the drain is proportional to the water level.  As more water fills the shower, its own weight pushes it out of the drain faster and faster.  If the drain is clear and reasonably large, the water should stop rising long before it overflows, because it will be flowing out at the same rate that it is coming in from the showerhead.  Since it’s IAP and I had nothing better to do, I thought I’d work out the math and measure the rate of outflow through my shower drain as a function of the water level. Continue reading

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When Not In Use: Amateur Semantics

In this post and many others I will talk about linguistic phenomena that I’m sure are well documented, but of which I’m sadly ignorant.  If you have an explanation for something I’m wondering about or know of any good references, please let me know!

Lately around campus there have been a lot of signs encouraging me to “Close your hood sash when not in use!”  I do not know what a hood sash is, exactly – I believe it is some sort of equipment that chemists use – but I do know that the signs are telling me to close the sash when the sash is not in use, rather than when I am not in use.  That’s interesting.  Consider the following sentences:

  1. “Close the hood sash when not in use.”
  2. “The robot closes the hood sash when not in use.”
  3. “Birds collide with the plane when flying.”
  4. “Collide with the plane when flying.”

In #1, “when not in use” clearly refers to the hood sash.  Syntactically, my judgment is that it could also refer to the subject, but that meaning would sound very strange.  In #2, however, the phrase could refer to the hood sash or the robot, with a slight preference for the robot.  For #3 I have only a slight preference for “when flying” modifying “birds” rather than “the plane,” but I have a strong preference for interpreting #4 as “Collide with the plane when you are flying.”

What’s going on here?  In many cases, the meanings of the words themselves may force a particular interpretation.  Perhaps #1 can’t be interpreted as “when you are not in use” because it’s unclear what it would mean for the subject of the sentence, who is presumably a person, to be “not in use.”  In #2, the subject is explicitly identified as a robot, and since it’s easier to imagine what it means for a robot to be “in use,” both interpretations become viable.

Looking at only 1-3, one could conceive of a simpler explanation: “when not in use” can refer to any noun phrase that appears explicitly in the sentence; since the subject in #1 is implicit, the interpretation “when you are not in use” is not prefered.  That reasoning falls apart when applied to #4, though.  My theory is that any interpretation that doesn’t conflict with the meanings of the words in the sentence is viable, but that it is always somewhat preferable to interpret a phrase like “when not in use” as refering to the subject of the sentence.

This probably is nothing deep, but it has me puzzled.

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Cruise Ships: A Study in Over-Consumption

My grandmother’s 80th birthday was this past week, and to celebrate my family went on a seven-day cruise in the Western Caribbean.  If you’ve ever done one of those things, then you know that the food on cruise ships is off the hook.  Four-course meals and monster buffets come flying at you from every direction, and since you pay for it all up front, it’s hard not to feel tempted, even obligated, to eat it ALL.  It inevitably turns into a week of face stuffing for everyone aboard (save the crew, who work like beasts).  I got my hands on some slightly nauseating statistics. Continue reading

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Dear Femblogs, an increase in reported DV is good news!

In the past week, Human Rights Watch and at least three major feminist blogs have posted somber reactions to this report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Here’s the gist of the hubbub, from HRW:

A new government report showing huge increases in the incidences of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault over a two-year period in the United States deserves immediate attention from lawmakers and the incoming administration, Human Rights Watch said today. The statistics show a 42-percent increase in reported domestic violence and a 25-percent increase in the reported incidence of rape and sexual assault.

Is this something that we should act on immediately?  Absolutely yes.  Is it bad news?  Absolutely not.  In fact, it’s pretty damned great.  HRW seems to have assumed that an increase in reported crimes corresponds to an increase in actual crime rates, and that is just straight up wrong.  Domestic violence and sexual assault are known to be massively underreported, for a couple of reasons: respondents to surveys are often uncomfortable admitting that they’ve been abused, and they are often unaware that something that has been done to them actually constitutes a violent crime.  This year, the BJS made two major changes to the National Crime Victimization Survey’s methodology for collecting information on gender-based violence.  First, they replaced “computer assisted telephone interviews” with interviews with real people, either on the phone or in person.  Second, they made an effort to describe sexual assault to respondents to ensure that they actually knew what it was.  I would think that those two alterations more than account for a 42% increase in reported DV and a 25% increase in reported sexual assault.  And really, we’ve always known that those additional 42%, and more, were being abused; now we have proof, and hopefully it will motivate policymakers to do something about it.  As for the actual crime rates, they probably did go up over the last two years, but my guess is that the increases were closer in magnitude to the increase in everyday plain vanilla assault, which rose by 3%.

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