Photo: Mario Klingemann
By Eric Fish
June 14, 2013
Mr. Wu, a 25-year-old contractor from the southern coastal city of Fangchenggang (防城港), is getting worried. He’s wants to get married and settle down, but there aren’t many women to be found. And the women who are around aren’t very interested in him.
“Only when you have a stable income and an apartment do they consider dating you,” Wu says. “I know some female friends who are just 18, but their families have already arranged for them to marry much older, richer men.”
Many men in Fangchenggang are just like Mr. Wu – getting older with a shrinking pool of potential partners. But as bleak as things look now, it will get even worse in the future. For residents in the city under 4-years-old, there are now 153 boys for every 100 girls.
The situation brewing in Fangchenggang is one that the entire nation is facing. Because of China’s one-child policy and a patriarchal culture coupled with sex-selective abortions, the country’s gender imbalance grows by about a million men each year.
According to official figures, the nationwide ratio at birth peaked in 2008 with 120 boys born for every 100 girls. It’s been slowly declining since, but the damage is already done. According to Jiang Quanbao from the Institute for Population and Development Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong University, the number of surplus men aged 20 to 49 in China will pass 20 million in 2015 and continue to grow to around 44 million by 2040.
Absent some sort of conflict that thins out the number of males, lifelong bachelorhood is something tens of millions of these “bare branches” as they’re called in China will inescapably have to deal with. Unless some kind of outlet is found for them, a raft of destructive social consequences is expected to unfold. But this unprecedented crisis may boon several industries with the potential to mitigate it, from pornography and sex toys, to more outlandish solutions, like chemical castration and robots.
Separate studies have found that men with elevated levels of testosterone have a greater tendency toward violent and sexual crime, and that single men have higher levels of the chemical than their married counterparts. This is already starting to become apparent in China. A 2009 joint-study between Chinese, American and Hong Kong researchers found that from 1988 to 2004, every 1 percent increase in China's gender imbalance increased violent and property crime by 3.7 percent. French demographer Christophe Guilmoto has warned that the gender imbalance will continue to cause social instability and greater violence against women.
There’s also worry that large groups of restless single men could channel their frustrations into rebellion or violent nationalism. Women are marrying up the economic ladder, creating “bachelor villages” out of China’s most impoverished regions and leaving large groups of men already at the bottom rung of society to broom together in their frustration.
Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. Den Boer, authors of Bare Branches: Security Implications of Asia\'s Surplus Male Population, wrote in New York Times in 2004 that “Throughout the millennia in which son preference has been effected in China, India and Pakistan, the bare branches have been one of the most volatile elements in society, frequently causing great social instability through crime and violence, and when uniting in a common movement, an important threat to the government itself.”
They point to the Nien Rebellion, the Black Flag Army, the Boxers and the Eight Trigrams Uprising, saying they were instigated by droves of poor, restless bare branches wanting to take by force what was denied to them.
This could also move beyond China’s borders. Hudson and Den Boer argue that governments presiding over large male surpluses have tended to use nationalistic pandering to keep bare branches loyal, which results in “a swaggering, belligerent and provocative” foreign policy.
Having 44 million extra men is something unprecedented in human history, and it may take unprecedented measures to combat the fallout.
Pornography remains illegal in China on the rationale that it brings harmful psychological effects. After a series of highly-publicized sexual assaults, India may be heading in the same direction. In April, Indian activists submitted a petition asking the government to ban porn, saying that it corrupts people and causes sexual assault and sex trafficking.
The jury is still out as to whether there’s any scientific merit to that sentiment. Studies have been done using indirect measures like internet accessibility to establish a link between pornography viewership and sex crimes. One Norwegian study concluded that porn increased instances of sex crime by as much as 3.5 percent.
However, a study by Northwestern University came to the opposite conclusion arguing that rape in the United States has declined 85 percent in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. Internet trends in the U.S. show that a 10 percent increase in internet access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes, with no such correlation in other types of crime.
India has its own serious gender imbalance at 914 girls per 1,000 boys under 6-years-old. Perhaps by no coincidence, India ranked fourth in the world between 2004 and 2013 in Google searches for the word “porn.” New Delhi, which had roughly 1.2 million more men than women in 2011, had the world’s highest percentage of searches for the term in 2012.
Such statistics are hard to come by in China, which blocks searches for pornographic terms. But Katrien Jacobs, a Hong Kong-based sex researcher and author of People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet, says that in spite of its illegality, there’s a very developed porn industry in China. And contrary to trends in most countries, it’s young, not older men that are the heaviest consumers.
China had 564 million internet users by the latest figures in 2012 – less than half of the population – meaning the poorest are still mostly disconnected. As the internet trickles down to the men most affected by the gender imbalance, it will bring with it access to pornography. What effect this will have on gender imbalance complications remains to be seen.
According to Mr. Wu, the contractor from Fangchenggang, some men in his town are already finding ways to obtain porn. “I think some single men use it to ease their loneliness,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing.”
Katrian Jacobs agrees, saying, “If they can just watch movies and get pleasure out of it, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. Is it better for them to be starved of any sexual stimuli?”
Pornography may be banned, but any major Chinese city is likely to have scores of perfectly legal sex shops. And they’re likely to be doing quite well.
According to Shanghai Daily, vendors at the 10th annual China International Adult Toys and Reproductive Health Exhibition in April reported that the sex toy market for men is booming. They said sales had increased 30 to 40 percent over the previous year, thanks largely to the growing gender imbalance.
Lin Degang (蔺德刚), founder of the sex toy company Spring House (春水堂) in Beijing, says he’s doing even better with 60 percent annual growth. Artificial vaginas are currently the best sellers for men.
“For those single men, sex toys are substitutes for sex partners,” Lin said. “Physically, they can help greatly because the product designs and materials have been improving so that they can bring the feeling of actual sex. This kind of physical relief can certainly help with the anxieties and loneliness single men feel.”
Another company trying to capitalize on China’s sex toy boom is the U.S.-based RealDoll, which sells highly realistic full body sex dolls. Made with silicone and a flexible internal skeleton, it’s one of the most convincing substitutes for a real partner on the market. But at about 40,000 yuan ($6,517) a piece, it’s far out of reach for rural residents, who make only about 6,300 yuan per year on average. The price is also well beyond what it would cost to buy a real wife from Southern China, Vietnam, Myanmar or North Korea through agents or traffickers.
“Chemical castration” isn’t as harsh as its name might suggest, but it’s no cup of tea either. The preferred terms are anti-androgens or anti-libidinal drugs, which reduce a man’s testosterone level to that of a prepubescent boy through pills or injections. The treatment effectively kills sexual desire and makes men temporarily impotent, but can cause other side-effects like liver damage, hair loss, reduced bone density and lowered muscle mass.
In 2007, a trial began at Whatton Prison in Nottingham, England where sex offenders could voluntarily sign up for testosterone-lowering treatment. Volunteers largely gave positive feedback and reported “a significant reduction in sexual preoccupation, arousal and masturbation,” according to The Guardian.
Such medications, in theory at least, could be presented to China’s general population of hopelessly single men (to be used voluntarily or otherwise) in order to reduce the added violence and sexual exploitation the gender imbalance is expected to bring. This would arguably be quickest and easiest fix, but would undoubtedly be the most controversial.
Don Grubin, the forensic psychologist who coordinated the Whatton prison trial, says using these medications to lower the testosterone of the general population would be a particularly bad idea. “Medicalising the problem is neither a viable nor a realistic solution,” Grubin said. “These drugs have significant side effects. But more importantly, whoever was chosen to get them (and who would do the choosing?) faces a predetermined, asexual future.”
Danny Sullivan, assistant clinical director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, agrees, saying these drugs are rarely used for anything except sexual violence related to very high sexual drive and deviant arousal. “I think responses to increasing rates of offending ostensibly associated with gender imbalance will be social, cultural and correctional rather than medical,” Sullivan said.
There are medical alternatives to “chemical castration” with similar, but less severe effects. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac, which are usually used as anti-depressants, have often been used to dampen men’s sexual desire. And they don’t cause impotence or have especially harsh side-effects. This is what was used in most cases during the Whatton prison trial. But again, using it on the general public as a means of reining in violence and sexual exploitation is a completely untested proposition with uncertain social side-effects.
The last best hope for giving China’s lifelong bachelors the contentment that could offset destructive social consequences might lie in future technological development.
Improving sensory technology coupled with rapidly developing artificial intelligence may bring a fully convincing artificial substitute for a lover in the not-so-distant future.
David Levy, an artificial intelligence expert and author of the book Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships, predicts that robots fully convincing intellectually, emotionally and physically to the point that humans would accept them as spouses will be available by 2050. Famous inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has an 86 percent success rate in technological predictions over the past two decades, estimates this will happen by 2029.
However, robots able to convincingly perform just the sexual functions of a human could be available much sooner than that. While the price for this technology would inevitably be out of reach for rural men at first, Levy estimates that an advanced sex robot will eventually be available for just $1,000 (6,133 yuan).
“Having a robotic sexual partner will satisfy the natural urges of many men and therefore help to reduce the incidence of rape and some other crimes,” Levy says. “It will certainly provide some of the answer but clearly not all of it.”
An alternative that should arrive even sooner lies in haptic suits – snugly fitting outfits with hundreds of sensors per square inch that, when accompanied with special goggles or contact lenses, can give the user a completely convincing virtual reality experience with sight, sound and touch. Ray Kurzweil and nanotechnology expert Michael Anissimov both predict this technology will come to maturity within the decade. This wouldn’t just provide a realistic sexual experience, but countless other physical experiences ranging from sports to combat that may help release other, non-sexual frustrations.
In addition to these possibilities, other proposals to deal with the gender imbalance have been made including legalized prostitution, gay marriage and polyandry – the practice of one woman marrying multiple men. All would entail a serious departure from prevailing Chinese norms and be very controversial. But with the risk of serious social instability, the government is unlikely to take anything completely off the table.
Liu Jingyue contributed to this report