State of the art

DefiChine lies at the intersection of a range of research issues developed at the crossroads between demography, sociology, and economics: Studies on the consequences of a numerical imbalance between the sexes on the marriage market; analysis of the changes in perception of gender roles, of sexual behaviours and the role of subjective norms in specific contexts; the study of the practices governing union and family formation; and male bachelors’ specific living conditions.
While the state-of-the-art in each of these fields is fairly well documented, no link has yet been formed between them.

DefiChine, which has the original feature of being positioned at the intersection of all these various fields, is part of an innovative theme that has not been the subject of any survey or in-depth study to date.

Other examples in the world

At certain periods in their history, many countries have had a sex imbalance in their marriage markets. Henry (1966) for example, examined to what extent human (mainly male) losses during WW I in France had altered matrimonial behaviours. He also observed that despite the severe shortage of men, most women did ultimately marry, largely by reducing the age gaps between spouses and a rise in the number of marriages with immigrant men.

Vietnamese women also faced a shortage of potential spouses in the 1970s as a result of demographic growth, the civil war and male emigration (Goodkind 1997). Currently there is a shortage of potential spouses in the Afro-American community in the US because of a sharp increase in mixed-race marriages between black men and non-black women (Crowder, Tolnay 2000). The marriage markets in other countries have also been affected by a shortage of females. In Portugal at the end of the Middle Ages, the sex imbalance in adults was attributed to a preference for sons resulting from the primogeniture system, together with female hypergamy that led to an increase in male singlehood especially in the lower social classes (Hudson and den Boer 2004). The white community in 19th century Australia also suffered a shortage of females due to differential migration with considerable consequences on male marriage (Akers 1967). In Europe, the rural exodus that massively concerned women, led to an increase in male singlehood in some rural regions (Bourdieu 1989).

But in these cases, the numerical imbalance between the sexes on the marriage market only concerned a limited population. Furthermore these were one-off events and the impact on matrimonial behaviour and society was offset by various compensatory mechanisms. The situation will be different in China where the male surplus on the marriage market will reach between 10 and 15% of the corresponding male cohorts for several decades (Li et al. 2006). This change is therefore a textbook case because of its scale and significance, and its lasting impact on society and individuals, both men and women.

Gender roles in Chinese society

Women’s status and gender roles in China are well documented and the issue of gender equality is widely debated in research (Angeloff, Lieber 2012; Croll 2000).

It is noteworthy however that recent studies all agree that the situation of Chinese women is special in a number of ways. Paradoxically, their equality with men, constantly asserted by the regime since it came into power in 1949, is negated by the major economic transformations of the past 30 years. In particular, it is being challenged by traditions currently being revived, such as arranged marriages, female infanticide, excess girl mortality, growing discrimination in employment, etc. which are the causes or symptoms of a devalued status of women, and thus of the shortage of women (Angeloff, Lieber 2012; Attané 2013). However, at the same time some progress has been observed, notably in education and consequently in women’s negotiating power within the household (Wu 2010).

Thus the Chinese case, with all the social upheavals of China’s recent history, raises a number of challenges for the sociology of gender, since it calls into question the positive relationship traditionally observed between socioeconomic modernization and the improvement in women’s status. Through gender it is possible to understand all social relationships since it is found in all of them, and constructed and crossed with class and age relationships, etc. DefiChine therefore focus in particular on the gender/number relationship that has not yet been subject to in-depth empirical analysis. It will thus give evidence of how the numerical imbalance between the sexes, that will be increasingly acute at adult ages in the coming decades, can influence men’s perception of gender roles and therefore men’s behaviours towards women.

Sexual behaviours in specific contexts

As one of the most intimate areas of individual experience, sexuality is a specific aspect of relations between individuals, and therefore a legitimate subject of social science research. Contrary to what one might suppose, sexual behaviour is not universal and there are many differences between societies in this area (Bozon 2002). The organization of intimate behaviour provides original insight into how, in a given society, gender and class relations, and the social age system, all interact.

Since the 1970s, and especially after the 1990s, a growing number of socio-demographic surveys have analysed sexual behaviours using controlled indicators. However there are far fewer such surveys in the Arab countries and in Asia, including China, than in other parts of the world such as Europe, Africa and South America (Bozon 2003). While in the 1990s, the surveys viewed sexual practices from the point of view of health and risk, the surveys in the 2000s use sexual biographies as a way of looking at gender inequality (Heilborn et al. 2006; Bajos, Bozon 2008).

At the heart of the reflection of DefiChine is the biographical processes and socio-economic circumstances that lead certain men to remain unmarried and the consequences on their sexual lives, wellbeing and social relations.

Surveys on sexuality in China

In China even more than in Western societies, sexuality is still a very private matter. That is part of a social and cultural backdrop forged by simultaneous but complementary influences from Daoism and Confucian traditions, which still bear the imprint of austerity and the social control imposed by Communist ideology. The Cultural Revolution in particular, reinforced these controls and various aspects of people’s private lives, including sexuality, were strictly regulated and even highly stigmatized (Honig 2003).

That is why sexual behaviours in China were not studied before the country opened up socially in the 1990s. Since then, research has abounded, including work by Liu Dalin (1992; 2005), Pan Suiming (1993; 1997; Huang, Pan 2007), Li Yinhe (1991; 1992; 2004; 2008), Das Gupta et al. (2007), Huang Yingying (2011), the Shanghai Sexual Networks Survey conducted in 2007-2008 by Merli (who is a scientific partner in the project) et al. (Feng et al. 2010; Merli, Morgan 2011) and the China Health and Family Life Survey carried out in 1999-2000 (Parish et al 2007).

While Pan (2005) looked mainly at sexual behaviour associated with prostitution, most of the other surveys were devoted to sexuality in the context of social liberalization (especially in terms of sexual health or STIs/HIV/AIDS transmission, e.g. see Liu et al. 1998) but without any specific reference to male singlehood or numbers (i.e. the influence of the numerical imbalance between men and women in the sexuality market). Furthermore they mainly dealt with urban populations.

DefiChine investigates issues related to changing sexual behaviour and men’s propensity to change their practices and behaviour when the availability of female partners is reduced.

© IRD-Bernard Moizo