Objectives and research questions

© IRD "Montoroi, Jean-Pierre"


The numerical sex imbalance is not totally a new phenomenon in China. The works of Ho (1959) and Lee and Wang (1999), in particular, attest to the historical presence of a skewed sex ratio in some areas. While Lee and Wang (1999) attribute some specific marriage practices (namely that of "tong yang xi" which consists in adopting a daughter to marry the family’s son) to the relative scarcity of young women of marriageable age in some areas, no study has yet analysed empirically the consequences of such a large-scale and long-lasting sex imbalance on individual situations, perceptions and behaviours. However, this unique demographic situation and the impact it has (and will have to a larger scale in the coming decades) on Chinese society and its various players is of interest to social science for several reasons.

Marriage, union formation and mate-selection process

Spouse availability of each sex can affect union formation (Goldman, Pebley 1989; Henry 1969; McDonald 1995), as for instance, in Pakistan during the second half of the 20th century (Sathar and Kiani 1998).

In China, marriage remains a very widespread practice, but will be increasingly jeopardized by the sex imbalance in the marriage market. Adjustment mechanisms have therefore to be put in place to adjust to the reduced availability of female partners. A first assumption is that this situation will result in earlier marriage for women and/or later marriage for men, and therefore a greater age gaps between spouses, and in an increase in marriage migration and in "involuntary" male bachelorhood, with inevitable implications for individuals, both men and women.

Another research assumption is that the shortage of women on the marriage market, with a greater demand for women on the part of the men, is likely to affect mate-selection process. As explained by Fan and Li (2002), mate selection in China is still pragmatic and involves evaluation of a potential spouse’s attributes, such as age, education, occupation, income, economic ability, physical characteristics, health, family background, etc. Considering the hypergamous principle that husbands should be somewhat ‘superior’ to wives in terms of the above-mentioned attributes (Fan and Li 2002), men from the less disadvantaged socio-economic groups, who are mostly of rural origin (i.e. those living in rural areas and the rural migrants in cities) are the least attractive in these regards, as demonstrated in previous studies (Li at al. 2010; Yang et al. 2012; Das Gupta et al. 2010).

Therefore, an assumption is that these men have to escape the prevailing sexual stratification system to reach a potential female spouse or partner, and that in the medium-term, social norms governing union and family formation might therefore be relaxed.

In addition, the shortage of women is expected to exacerbate the inequalities between male social groups, since access to women could be transformed into an indicator of men’s socio-economic status, in the continuity of what has been evidenced by Osburg (2008) among the masculine elite in urban China in the reform era.

Gender roles

A concern is about the impact of numerical sex imbalance on women’s status and gender roles as perceived by men. Some authors defend the idea whereby when there are significantly fewer women than men in a given society, their value and therefore their power, increases and consequently can benefit women’s emancipation (Collins 1974; Guttentag and Secord 1983), notably through hypergamy. Others believe on the contrary that when women become rarer, men have a greater hold on them (South and Trent 1988). For Osburg (2008), if women practicing hypergamy expect upward social mobility, men seek in return a physically attractive partner, whose value as a sexual object would be increased.

While the current numerical sex imbalance is the direct consequence of the low status of women in Chinese society (Attané 2013), we suggest that men’s perception of gender norms may be affected by the shortage of women, and that there might be a polarization of men and women roles within family and society. This trend could be further accentuated by the expected increase in average age gap between the spouses given that it "is currently reported to be a factor in women’s status and an indicator of inequality within the couple, as well as in women’s role and position in society" (Barbieri, Hertrich 2005).

Male sexual behaviours

Marriage is still highly valued in China. Social norms still strongly influence behaviours, and most young people continue to consider that all adults must marry and that there are no alternatives to that (Evans 1997).Heterosexual marriage thus remains the prerequisite for marital-type cohabitation and family formation. Most often, it is also the legitimate framework for sexual activity (McMillan 2006). Thus in contemporary Chinese society there is a rift between married people and unmarried ones (Zhang and Zhong 2005).

The personal and family life of single men in particular, is impacted by singlehood and differs greatly from that of married men (Li et al. 2010; Attané et al. 2013). Yet, prolonged if not permanent singlehood is imposed on an increasing number of men as a result of the growing shortage of women.

There have been attempts to gauge the impact of this shortage on the frequency of male singlehood (Li et al. 2006; Tuljapurkar et al. 1995), but its consequences on men’s personal situations are little known. Yet, this situation may lead to unintended situations, affecting notably men’s life plans, sexual activity and limiting their possibilities for forming a family.

In addition to the "marriage market" studied in demography, the situation in the "sexuality market" (Collins 1974) must be considered. An assumption is that, like the marriage market, the sexuality market can arguably be affected by the reduced availability of female partners for heterosexual intercourse, this leading to a transformation of male sexual behaviours.

Given the social norms mentioned earlier, we suggest that the reduced availability of potential heterosexual partners influences the sexual activity of single males by restraining and/or diversifying it, especially in increasing the frequency of masturbation and sexual intercourse involving casual partners. There also might be an increase in recourse to commercial sex and in men’s sexual relationships with other men, a larger number of sexual relationships before marriage, and a subsequent relaxation of norms governing sexual behaviours.

Men’s living conditions and social networks

Poverty has proved to be a dual factor of exclusion in rural China. First, as observed in other societies, it excludes from marriage the poorest section of the male population (Bourdieu 1989). Although this is nothing new in China, the economic reforms, the growing shortage of women and the increasing cost of marriage for men have made the problem more acute. Second, poverty also appears to be a cause of sexual exclusion, as unmarried men with access to active sexuality are more socially and economically advantaged than the others (Li et al. 2010).

Therefore, we suggest that poverty, combined with involuntary bachelorhood and infrequent if not non-existent partnered-sex, may act as a triple factor of exclusion and, given the stigma still attached to those who remain single in China (Ebenstein, Jennings 2009), preclude the acquisition of social recognition and the development of social networks traditionally brought about by marriage and family life.