Peaceful Rise of the First Gay Superpower Since Sparta?

In this week’s Economist a shocking story Gendercide: The War on Baby Girls. In a nutshell, 100 million baby girls aborted, killed or neglected and rising.

Most people know China and northern India have unnaturally large numbers of boys. But few appreciate how bad the problem is, or that it is rising. In China the imbalance between the sexes was 108 boys to 100 girls for the generation born in the late 1980s; for the generation of the early 2000s, it was 124 to 100. In some Chinese provinces the ratio is an unprecedented 130 to 100. The destruction is worst in China but has spread far beyond. Other East Asian countries, including Taiwan and Singapore, former communist states in the western Balkans and the Caucasus, and even sections of America’s population (Chinese- and Japanese-Americans, for example): all these have distorted sex ratios. Gendercide exists on almost every continent. It affects rich and poor; educated and illiterate; Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Christian alike.

Wealth does not stop it. Taiwan and Singapore have open, rich economies. Within China and India the areas with the worst sex ratios are the richest, best-educated ones. And China’s one-child policy can only be part of the problem, given that so many other countries are affected.

In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus. In societies where four or six children were common, a boy would almost certainly come along eventually; son preference did not need to exist at the expense of daughters. But now couples want two children—or, as in China, are allowed only one—they will sacrifice unborn daughters to their pursuit of a son. That is why sex ratios are most distorted in the modern, open parts of China and India. It is also why ratios are more skewed after the first child: parents may accept a daughter first time round but will do anything to ensure their next—and probably last—child is a boy. The boy-girl ratio is above 200 for a third child in some places.

This is awful but what has it to do with the topic of KOW’s interest, war? The Economist article spells it out in a sentence ‘In any country rootless young males spell trouble…’ but really I think this is a true statement that is worth examining in much more detail. In general it seems to me that the strategic studies community pays insufficient attention to sex. More people should read Malcolm Potts’ book Sex and War (you can get a flavour of his thesis in this fascinating Ask a Scientist lecture). I had the pleasure of chairing a presentation by him here at King’s a year ago; a lot of the things he said have really stuck with me. Incidentally, as far as I know this is the first academic book that has a companion T-Shirt (available from their site):

I want one!

All this makes me wonder whether unless China becomes the first gay superpower since Sparta (Footnote: I should credit Prof Chris Coker at LSE for this particular formulation mentioned to me in a bar in The Hague a year ago or so) its continued ‘peaceful rise’ becomes questionable. Are massive demographic sex imbalances such as this completely new? I think so (I welcome enlightenment/correction in comments). It’s quite an experiment we’ve embarked upon. Wonder how it will play out over coming decades?

So, you budding strategists scanning the horizon for the threat beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, think about sex more!


31 thoughts on “Peaceful Rise of the First Gay Superpower Since Sparta?

  1. Formerly Grant says:

    I can’t speak on whether large numbers of young men will cause a move towards war (especially given the fact that women don’t have many major roles in much of Asian politics), but I can say it’s very bad for those nations in the long run. Few women mean a lack of young people in the next generation.

  2. CorentinB says:

    If you read French, then you should read some of Gaston Bouthoul’s writings, a French sociologist. His approach to war (which he called “polemology”) remains, as far as I can tell, quite unique, and he studied a lot that link between the proportion of young men and the propensity to use force. Apparently some of his works were translated.

  3. JeffL says:

    There was a similar article that made the case for male violence, due to the near absence of women in many locations, in the American “Wild West” of the 1800’s. This article appeared in American Heritage magazine I believe, yet in balance, it is fair to say the West has been overcharacterized as violent by Hollywood.

  4. Laleh says:

    Not to be too much of a pedant, but do you mean “sex” or “gender”? Or “sexuality”? They three things are not all the same and don’t necessarily follow from one another either.

    • David Betz says:

      I must admit this is an area of debate that I don’t normally intrude in. Generally I regard anything with ‘gender and war’ in the title roughly in the same way someone with a severe nut allergy would regard the offer of a peanut butter sandwich. So I wasn’t aware of these distinctions. I use sex in the dictionary sense of 1. categorization of living things in accordance with their reproductive function and 2. sexual instinct, manifestation of. The sexuality bit implied in the title was sort of a joke. They’re going to have to find release somehow. Who knows maybe the Internet will come to the rescue and we’ll all dispense with physical partners in lieu of more attractive virtual ones.

  5. Well, agree with CorentinB: Bouthoul is a good point to start.
    In addition, it seems to me that such sex imbalances are quite new in History with regards to this scale (the most populated country on Earth). To other less important sex imbalances, consider French early settlements in Canada at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This was followed by the most important fertility rate never seen in Modern History once the first women sent to “Nouvelle France” following Richelieu’s decrees.

  6. Tom Wein says:

    Laleh, it’s a fair point. Perhaps if we all paid more attention to the area, as David calls for, we’d be more sensitive to these sorts of nuances. The issue, of course, straddles all 3 – this idea of sexual frustration is sexuality, and men alone being more violent (an assumption which I think requires a little more examination, as JeffL implies) clearly comes under gender, while Formerly Grant’s point about demographics has to do with reproduction, which involves both sexuality and sex.

  7. Phil Ridderhof says:

    If I recall correctly, the original rise of the Taliban was supported by the fact that many were male orphans rasied in an environment without women (this is probably a simplification). Also, Ralph Peters asserts that a measure of a society’s progress is its treatment of women–the more that women are equal, the better the productivity and vitality of the entire population.
    Not to go all communist on this, but the devaluation of women also reflects a devaluation of work in the home and raising children–because its normally not paid work. It appears that these cultures that are racing towards capitalism don’t see women as equal in the workforce and also don’t necessarily understand the value of the work women traditionally do in the home.
    I believe that the sex/gender demographic trends in western states may be different. I’m sure someones do the comparison inter-relating trends in age, and sex/gender.

  8. An interesting overview of the role of young men in armed violence (aptly titled: “Angry Young Men”) is at

    I do not know if an unbalanced gender ratio will make the countries affected more prone to violence, but it will certainly make life much harder for women there—as the Indian movie Matrubhoomi chillingly describes (

  9. Alma – I don’t think I could bear to watch that film.

    And education is a funny word and a funny concept in this setting. More educated in what? A degree that allows you to take part in a globalizing economy, but doesn’t challenge any societal assumptions about anything?

    Anecdotally, for some educated Indian women, gender ratios have made life a little easier because the women get to be more choosy in choosing partners (that may be a function of the changing roles of women in society more than anything else. I don’t know. My knowledge isn’t academic (and how!) – it’s the stuff of a gossipy and highly self-regarding diaspora. So, in other words, kind of made-up.)

    China’s aging rapidly, too, right? Wonder how that factors in?

  10. “In fact the destruction of baby girls is a product of three forces: the ancient preference for sons; a modern desire for smaller families; and ultrasound scanning and other technologies that identify the sex of a fetus.”

    And a fourth – that it is acceptable to abort a fetus of any gender. I DO NOT want to bring up the abortion debate here – that is not my point in making the above statement. I was just stating, well, the obvious. Culturally, you couldn’t have the phenomenon without that assumption, idea, whatever.

    (I hope this doesn’t take the thread too far off the discussion points, but the best thing about blogs is the chance to say what some people don’t want to say in the class room for fear of standing out.)

  11. Cincinattus Jr. says:

    “And a fourth – that it is acceptable to abort a fetus of any gender.

    In sympathy with your observation about blogs giving the opportunity to say things that are not, if i may paraphrase, “PC” in the classroom, I would fix it as follows:

    “And a fourth –to abort a baby of any gender that it is acceptable in a totalitarian and atheistic nation that has no qualms about trampling individual human rights (anyone remember that recent unpleasantness at Tiananmen Square or the poignant metaphor of the life in the PRC provided by the robotic performances by thousands of Chinese at the recent Olympics?).

    • Formerly Grant says:

      I’d suggest that we have a bit more observation of China. Yes it is totalitarian, but that hardly explains the imbalance. Russia was also totalitarian as the U.S.S.R and I don’t recall reading anything to suggest that they had the same problem. India is a type of democracy, but it has the exact same problem.
      On atheism be careful how you say that. Roman Catholicism is permitted in China*, and China’s populations in general are heavily influenced by Confucianism**. Also if simple lack of religious faith was all that was required we should be seeing a similar trend in Europe.
      On trampling human rights you are correct, but the party isn’t forcing people to abort female embryos and female embryos alone. The One Child policy was developed because China was facing a massive population boom without the ability to feed them. Of course China might begin to face a need to drop that policy in order to have more female children, but for the time China has avoided mass starvation. Also Tienanmen Square and the Olympics don’t have much to do with the matter.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      If you will note I was commenting specifically on Madhu’s point (and especially including his qualifier about the freedom of a blog when compared to the ironically stifling atmosphere that permeates so many institutions of higher learning nowadays) rather than on the broader subject of the thread. I stand by my statements having a family member who has been a missionary there for some years and having done a great deal of study of the extent to which “religion” is permitted (key word) in the “new” PRC . In addition, my point was directed at the ruling elite of the PRC (“politbureau” in pre-PC parlance–excuse the alliteration). Again, claiming the protection of the blogosphere from accusations of heresy against the prevailing view (at least at my uni) that would have us all raising our collective (quite fitting in this context) voices in a paean to the new “enlightened” capitalistic China.

  12. frenchconnection says:

    Sparta wasn’t a ” (male) gay power” but above all a militarist state. Of course pederasty was common specially in the military (and otherwise) but this was common everywhere in archaic Greece. Besides Spartans practised chaste pederasty to the difference from other Greeks.

    Spartan women enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. And many women played a significant role in the history of Sparta, even militarily. Marriage was mandatory and nothing points out towards a skewed gender ratio.

    The myth of “gay Sparta” probably comes from the cult of nudity (both male and female) in athletics which differed with the habits of Athens where women were heavily clothed. Since those “olympic” exercises have been widely represented on pottery, imagination has done the rest. Another reason is that the modern male gay community has probably needed an historic reference.

    • Sparta, like all of Ancient Greek cultures, was not gay, it was bi-. There was that pederastic relationship between older and younger men, created because it was men who lived in the public, and this was a means of training and education.

      But what makes Ancient Greece so radically different than our time is ideals of beauty. For the Greeks, the male body was the acme of beauty, whereas for us, it’s the female body. This is why there was this “cult of nudity” for men in athletics (women quite often were clothed, depending on time/place). Men saw their own bodies as the utmost in beauty. Some historians argue that this is why homosexuality emerged in Ancient Greece, others say it was the other way around (a chicken/egg conundrum, I guess).

      I’m not so sure about the stature of Spartan women, at least in this sense, as they were certainly not equals of men. Spartan women certainly did have more status than women in other city-states, but let us not forget that the word “misogyny” comes from Ancient Greece, too.

  13. ZI says:

    The Sacred Band of Thebes was most certainly gay , and they were quite dangerous too. Apparently each man fought side by side with his lover, it was believed that the soldiers would fight harder for their lover.
    These days we have the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, go figure….

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Ironic that Phillip II is reported by Plutarch to have said when viewing the corpses of the Band after they died in place at Chaeronea, “Perish any man who suspects that these men either did or suffered anything unseemly.”!!

      As to your point about “DADT” there are of course the small matters of 1600 years difference and slightly different cultures involved, but I suppose given the apparent headlong rush in our current government to embrace (sorry, I could not resist) homosexuality as perfectly normal and acceptable in the US military, such time and cultural differences are fast eroding. Perhaps we will next consider returning to hoplitic warfare.

    • frenchconnection says:

      The Sacred Band of Thebes were SOD and no more than 300. They actually beat the s**t out of the Spartans (vanquishing an army that was at least three times its size) at Tegyra in 375 BC.

    • Actually, there is no real proof that any Greeks other than the Spartans (the originators, Solon took the practice with him to Athens) and the Athenians were involved in pederasty. Historians assume that the Thebeians and others practiced this as well, but without proof, no one can say for sure.

      But there is a subtle homophobia in this discussion that concerns me, like we have to prove that bi-sexual Greek men could also be fearsome warriors. They were, it’s as simple of that. Not because they were bi or anything like that, but because these men were warriors. That’s what they did. Who they slept with was tangential to that.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      With respect (and continuing to avail myself of the blogoshere’s protection noted elsewhere in this thread that emboldens me to speak out against the oppressive blanket of PC speak that is epidemic at least in US higher education), I reject the term “homophobia” generally since it is a coined term with an intentionally pejorative connotation (it is instructive in this connection that the term is reported to have first been used in the aptly named “Screw” magazine). I take your point that there may be those who equate homosexuality with effeminacy but if the intent of your post in this respect was to assign “blame” for such a view, I would ask what would likely be the cause of this equation of perception in the first instance?

    • Fine, reject the term. Of course it’s pejorative, it’s a word designed to describe a bias or dislike of gays and lesbians. What else would the word be, but pejorative. Others have suggested a term such as anti-gay. Either way, a term is necessary for the concept, and it disingenuous to dismiss the concept and the term as PC-speak in academia (if this is indeed what you mean).

      Either way, all I’m saying is that there is this latent equation of homosexuality with effeminacy, and that is what it is, it is an unnecessary stereotyping. I’m assigning no blame, I’m merely pointing to it.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      Again with respect, there is a difference between having an “anti-homosexuality” (to paraphrase your term–I also reject the term “gay” as it is also an artifice but I know my acceptance or rejection of terms is neither here nor there in your view) perspective and being “anti” (continuing your phrasing) the individuals who consider themselves to be homosexuals. From the tenor of your post I suspect you will also dismiss out of hand this distinction but there it is in any event. Also for what it is worth, I can assure you that I am not being disingenous as you allege as I try to take maximum advantage of such fora to express my opinions without fear of the retribution that is usually visited on anyone who dares question the prevailing view at least on my campus that homosexuality is no different morally than heterosexuality.

    • John says:

      without fear of the retribution that is usually visited on anyone who dares question the prevailing view

      Cincinattus Jr., may I compliment you on the way you have appropriated the tactics of victimhood, formerly associated with proselytisation of homosexuality.

  14. Alex says:

    this could be seen in a supply-demand perspective. i don’t want to be mis-interpreted

    in the past, as there were more men dying in war throughout centuries, or during hunting back in primordial ages, or any other lifethreatning activity delt by men, women had a lower value because the ratio would be something like women3:1men.
    in this sense, it reduced the price of women, they were in no position to bargain a husband for instance. it reduced their importance in society, they had to struggle amongst themselves, lowering their own standards just to get hold of a husband (and that was very important).
    so these news could mean that women in asia are becoming a rare “commodity”.

    • el-belle says:

      Do you have a source for the statistic? I’m curious because I always assumed that give the rate of maternal mortality the proportion of woman in the population would drop steady once they reached a marriageable age. To me this suggests a ratio that changes over time- in a 15-25 year old block woman might outnumber men, only for that to reverse in the 25-35 block,which might change the evidence supporting your supply/demand story in interesting ways. However, I don’t have demographic information to support that view… can anyone point some out?

  15. I’ve seen the “excess unmarried males = aggressive violence” construction in a number of places in recent years, often specifically referring as David does to the potential impact on China’s purportedly peaceful rise. As I understand it, the whole thing is predicated on the idea that unmarried, often unemployed young men will have few other options but to turn to violence. Presumably the government will recognize this and present opportunities for that violence and unemployment to be turned to “constructive” ends by offering them a uniform and a firearm.

    But this fails to explain exactly how the male surplus is going to result in a more aggressive foreign or security policy, so far as I can tell. After all, we’re not talking about a band of pirates here, but a uniformed military. The PLA already has something like two and a half million active service members, with more than 10 million young Chinese coming of military age every year, and yet the PRC has managed to stifle most aggressive, expansionist ambitions.

    So even if we imagine that there’s a surplus of men, and that many of these men won’t find wives or jobs, and that many of these jobless, wifeless men will be angry, and even further that many of them will be pressed into national service… so what? Isn’t this what we’d prefer, rather than millions of twentysomething Chinese running around in the Western deserts plotting the overthrow of the government, inflaming the insurgency in Xinjiang, running off to Pakistan, or just about anything else?

    I’m curious if anyone can point me to a study (beyond what Alma has already helpfully provided) linking joblessness and scarcity of wives to aggressive, violent foreign policy. Ideas?

  16. Brian says:

    I first saw mention of the Chinese gender imbalance issue over 20 years ago (I think it was in the Economist then too). Liek “Gulliver”, I don’t see this translating into an aggressive foreign policy for China or India, but I do see it as the potential root cause of a lot of internal trouble, particularly crime. The great and growing disparity in wealth between urban and rural populations in these countries is well-known, as well as their respective governments’ lack of ability to do much about it. This will in turn contribute to the breakdown of social discipline and fragmentation of an increasingly desperate, materialistic and “me first” culture.
    The Chinese government can get as paranoid about external enemies all it wants. But its real enemy is within.

    • Cincinattus Jr. says:

      “The Chinese government can get as paranoid about external enemies all it wants. But its real enemy is within.”

      Partly explains why the government reacted as it did at Tiananmen Square.

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