Gender disappointment and cross-border high-tech sex selection: A new global sex trade

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The starting point for this chapter is the moral and emotional investment people have in sex and gender, and how this is shaped by science, technology and social life. It involves the most fundamental of questions, that of the sex of a baby and the ways in which the biology and genetics of sex have become a commodity in global bioeconomies. The desire to influence and select the sex of a future child are ancient, yet now new reproductive technologies allow us to accurately manipulate human potentiality to ensure an embryo of the desired sex is implanted in a woman’s womb. Recent developments of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and MicroSorting sperm present the ability to sex select as a biomedical technique. This apparently objective scientific procedure conceals implicit moral assumptions that are refiguring how genetic sex traits and families are imagined and reproduced. This chapter is about the intersection of these possibilities within a global bioeconomic market in which technologies and people travel across the globe. The advent of cross-border reproductive travel within the context of global capitalism raises a range of possibilities as people travel to circumvent restrictions of medical procedures in their home countries. A range of clinics - from Thailand to North Cyprus to California - offer sex selection services for nonmedical purposes. Sex genes have become one of a myriad of commodities in this trade. Taussig, Rapp and Heath (2005: 201) note that within ‘a marketplace of biomedical free choice’ such as the medical travel trade provides, genes and their technology become alienable ‘objects of desire’ allowing people to remodel and reimagine the self, and their children, in new ways. In this chapter I explore some of these new imaginings and the political economy supporting their fulfilment. In describing this trade as a ʼnew global sex trade’, I use deliberately provocative terminology designed to reflect the commodification of biological sex traits, and the foundations of this trade in gendered social constructions and expectations. This chapter is informed by work completed for a broader anthropological study of the use of ARTs in Thailand. It draws on seven months’ fieldwork in 2007-8 in three private clinics and two public infertility clinics (Whittaker and Speier 2010), and builds upon a larger body of work across the last 16 years concerning reproductive politics. In this chapter, I draw primarily upon media and internet sources concerning sex selection. In doing so, I did not directly participate in these sites, choosing instead to observe the public texts and narratives posted to these sites, consistent with my aim of discerning the social construction and discourse framing sex selection. At no point did I intrude into private closed forum sites or pose as a woman seeking sex selection (see discussion in Garcia et al. 2009). I treat this trade as a ‘global assemblage’: a conglomeration of material technologies, infrastructure, institutions and discourses arisen with the movement of technoscience and biomedicine across the world (Collier and Ong 2005: 4). This assemblage includes the internet chatrooms and websites, cybercommunities, technologies of PGD and MicroSorting, the locations, clinics, laboratories and staff providing the service, academic literature and the marketing of sex selection. Below, I explore the imaginative space or ‘framing’ (Goffman 1974) of the technologies, starting from internet chatrooms, marketing materials, clinic interviews and academic discourse, united by their discussion of PGD and MicroSort technology. My aim is to uncover some of the implicit moral assumptions embedded in the science and technology of PGD, and to explore how various visions of sex, gender, reproduction and the family rationalise its use. I first outline the various technologies now available for sex selection. I then move to explore the discourses of a new pathology of ‘gender disappointment’ within internet sites and forums on the subject. Such web forums draw disparate people together and reinforce the use of sex selection technologies as a means of ‘curing’ overwhelming desires for a child of the sought gender and to ‘balance’ one’s family. Such sites also present information for couples wishing to travel overseas to avail themselves of sex selection services, and form part of a globalised marketing of reproductive travel for people wishing to circumvent restrictions on procedures in their home countries: a new global sex trade. Affordable international travel allows women to travel in pursuit of a high-tech solution not allowed in their home countries. In the final part of this chapter, I present a case study of a debate within Australia around such travel by Australian couples.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTechnologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health
EditorsLenore Manderson
Place of PublicationUK
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781136328787
ISBN (Print)9780415673297
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes

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