Sex preferences among expectant parents: are they antifeminist?

Via Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Profs, we learn of a trend observed by Erin KLG at 5 Cities, 6 Women

[T]here’s a trend I’ve noticed lately that gets me as teary …. It’s this: when pregnant women – smart, funny, fierce women I respect – say they don’t want daughters. Some even take to their Facebook pages to rejoice, at approximately 20 weeks, when they find out it’s a boy instead of a girl – or, in the case of one person I know, updates her status to complain specifically about the disappointment of having a girl.

I find these women fall into two camps:

#1: “I don’t want a daughter because girls are harder to raise than boys.  Variations on this: “Girls are so moody and dramatic” or “Girls are manipulative and dangerous” or “Girls are easy when they’re young but watch out when they’re teenagers! Hoo boy!” or the ironic “Girls are too girly. I just can’t get into that stuff.” I cannot explain these women. I’m sorry. The best I can figure is that they dislike themselves, their sister, their mother, or someone else with a vagina, based on past experience, and the thought of producing another creature of the female variety makes their brain short and they say stupid things like, “Girls are just, I don’t know, harder on you emotionally.”. . . Really, you should pity these women. Show them kindness. Love them. But do not try to change them; you will not be able to reason with them. . . .

#2: “I don’t want a girl because the world is harder for girls.”. . .  When women say this, it usually comes from a place of personal experience, and their hope is to avoid being part of a process that inflicts more pain on another human being – that is, giving birth to a girl. I can understand that.

But it’s still problematic. Because when women pull out this old chestnut, they are not only saying that if they could, they would choose not to increase the female population, but that they would rather participate in the status quo because it’s simpler. Let me rephrase: they would rather have a boy because they are complicit in the fact that being a male in our society is easier than being a woman – and, by having a boy, they have no intention of changing this. By having a boy, they can breathe easier.

Have any of you observed a similar trend? (Is it because I resist the fB that I have no idea what pregnant women are thinking these days?  Most of my friends and family have the families they want–some of which include children, some of which don’t–so I’m just not a part of these conversations the way I was a decade ago.) 

I find Erin KLG’s comments interesting because a decade ago or so, everyone in my circle wanted girls.  “My circle” is mostly other academics, women and men alike, and it seemed to me that having a daughter was the preference of most people–again, men and women alike.  I assumed it was because it’s easier to raise a feminist daughter than it is to raise a feminist son–most of the people I know are just more comfortable raising someone to engage in resistance than to raise a member of the privileged group and train him to critique and reject that privilege.  (What can I say?  Most humanists I know identify with and cheer for the underdogs in history, myself included.)

Also, gender nonconformity is less of an issue with little girls than it is with little boys, in that boys get teased and bullied a lot younger than girls do for non-conformity.  Having a girl who plays dressup AND soccer AND wears jeans and tee-shirts WITH ruby slippers if she feels like it–well, it’s just easier to let girls wear and do whatever the hell they want to than it is to have to explain to your preschooler son why people are teasing him or refusing to play with him because he’s wearing a princess dress and fuchsia pumps.  More lesbian and/or butch little girls can take enjoy this greater gender performance flexibility, at least until late grade-school or the onset of adolescence, when these conversations are probably a little easier than they are with three or four year-olds.

Erin KLG concludes her post with some thoughts about sex preferences generally:

Sex preference of any kind seems problematic because the reasons behind it fall short. After all, when parents wish for a specific sex, what are they really saying – that they’re hoping for a collection of personality traits? That they’re hoping to have their gender expectations fulfilled? How are they thus limiting their future child? I appreciate that people want to create the families they want. Sometimes, this includes yearning for one specific sex over the other, the result of a long line of societal conditioning about what it means to be “girl” or “boy.” We’ve all been trained well.

But not wantinga specific sex is even more problematic. Why? Because in a bona fide patriarchy — where rape and assault statistics are too high; where sexism runs rampant across all institutions and in media; where sex trafficking and genital mutilation still exist; where we struggle with the wage gap and lackluster maternity leave; where body autonomy and sexual reproduction rights are constantly under fire; and where women fight for basic education and literacy across the world — when you hope you don’t have a daughter, you are one more voice joining millions of others in silencing women.

I know a lot of people who specifically didn’t want boys, and were happy expressing their preference for girls.  Most expectant parents have a preference for one sex over the other, but Erin raises an interesting question:  are sex preferences essentially antifeminist?  Is it OK to prefer a girl and not a boy, but not OK to prefer a boy to a girl?  (This is a question I’m sure many feminists of color ask themselves, given the danger of being an African American or Latino teenage boy and young adult versus being a white adolescent or young adult.)

57 thoughts on “Sex preferences among expectant parents: are they antifeminist?

  1. @ Ruth and @Indyana – alas no! I have actually seen these “gender reveal!” parties showing up on my facebook thread. There were cupcakes with the reveal inside somehow. I don’t know. They make me throw up in my mouth a little bit. First of, sex not gender, folks! But mostly, how creepy is it to make such a big deal out of a fetus’s sex organs? We found out our babies’ sex, mostly to help us decide a name and because we couldn’t think of any compelling reason to wait but I can’t imagine trying to make people excited about a faux reveal! (Also, dear facebook acquaintances who also made a huge deal out of your big fat heteronormative wedding, you are really not that important.) The whole thing is super disturbing.


  2. But mostly, how creepy is it to make such a big deal out of a fetus’s sex organs?

    I agree with you that it shouldn’t matter, but it matters a great deal. Sex identity is intrinsic to our notions of humanity, so of course it’s a big deal. I’m sure many if not most of you who have lived in big cities have been on subways or public spaces in which trans people have been ridiculed. I remember one incident distinctly, in which some young men were trying to humiliate/intimidate a transwoman by asking in loud stage voices, “What is IT? Is IT a man or a woman?” Pronouns make us persons rather than objects, and those young men were clearly objectifying her by calling her an IT.

    I think too that for a lot of expectant parents, knowing the sex of the fetus is important for imagining more about the child. Again, yes, children are individuals and most probably won’t live up to their parents’ wild sex-specific fantasies, but still: it’s difficult to individualize a child (for example, by choosing a name) if you don’t know the sex, as most (although not all) names in our culture tend to be sex-specific.


  3. People around me seem to be much more like Historiann’s friends in the OP than like the boy-preferrers. When I was pregnant, I told people only that I was irrationally afraid of having a boy, because he would kick me in the shins and tell me girls are stupid and vindicate every bit of self-hating misogyny that I possess; alternately, he would just be Stewie from Family Guy. I hadn’t spent a lot of time around babies, so Stewie seemed plausible. I also had marginally more confidence that I could navigate the gender-role minefield with a girl than with a boy. My family was full of girls, so I had more sense of them as differentiated individuals than I did with boys — masculinity was super-mystified for me. The idea of stating any of this as a rational preference, with pride and composure, on Facebook, is completely alien to me. Are other people more likely to transmute fears and fantasies into “positive preference” than I was? I mean, the main thing we “preferred” was that our kid would not have needs that it would be practically and emotionally difficult for us to meet, all things being equal. Most gender-related needs, other than “profound misogyny/misandry,” seem like things we can probably handle. A really extroverted, hyperactive, insomniac kid who is indifferent to books would be a bigger challenge, but that’s all it would be — a challenge.

    Fundamentally, though, I don’t understand what it is that women who prefer to have boys are preferring. That is, I know what they say, but I don’t understand how the fantasy is *experienced*.


  4. I wonder if the women that Erin KLG discusses are the type who instinctively look for male approval, and will do so even from their infant and toddler sons.

    Creepy. But at least we have confirmation as to where male supremacy comes from, I suppose. It’s all in the training.


  5. the type who instinctively look for male approval, and will do so even from their infant and toddler sons.

    Yeah, my vague theory was some expression of extreme heterosexuality. I kinda wish they offered classes in Straightness Studies, because there is a lot that I just don’t get…


  6. So I’m really late to this post, and don’t know if anyone will see it, but I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation.

    I’m currently pregnant with my first, due in 3 weeks (!) and do not know the sex of the baby. I decided not to find out because I wanted to get to know my child without imposing too many gender-specific expectations on hir before ze was even born. Most of my friends have been impressed that I went this route- many respond “I could never have done that.” No idea why not.

    I am part of a pregnancy board. It’s one of the most democratic experiences of my life. There are women and some men from every walk of life and all over the world. They range from very wealthy to very poor, from age 13(!) to mid-40s. All colors, religious persuasions and general life situations. The only thing we have in common is that we are expecting a child in May 2012. From conversations with them (which has been incredibly eye-opening) I have discovered that many women don’t care about the sex of their baby, but that SOME do. They are often criticized for their preference; other women remind them that they should be grateful to have a healthy child. Other women offer solace and a reminder that they will learn to love that child no matter what. So, I can surmise that sex-preference is a real thing, but not generally acceptable. Most women seemed thrilled about the sex of their baby. However you can find support groups for those women who are unhappy with it. AND there is a large market for those who want to pre-determine the sex of their next baby.

    Oh, and gender-reveal parties are a real thing, although not common.

    On a side note, I have successfully introduced hir and ze into my university’s Faculty Senate Constitution.


  7. Pingback: Tuesday Teasers: Stuff I’ve Been Reading [#7] - The Pursuit of Harpyness

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