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Distinguishing A Baby Bust From A Sex Drought

Can government policy stop people from having sex?

Experience suggests it cannot. In highly repressive societies, policy can certainly make sex dangerous and drive it underground. Cultural norms and legal barriers can make it unwise or even dangerous to choose courses such as sex (or pregnancy) outside marriage, pre- or extramarital cohabitation, or even choosing to marry a partner of whom your family does not approve. But while individuals may be deterred, the government is unlikely to indefinitely stop adults as a class from pursuing their sexual and romantic desires.

What government policy can do, however, is deter people from starting families. A case in point: Japan.

Last month, the Guardian published an article by Abigail Haworth titled “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” The article, which uses statistics and anecdote to posit that Japanese young people especially have lost interest in sex, garnered a lot of attention; as of this writing, the article has been tweeted over 8,000 times and it attracted over 1,200 comments on the Guardian website.

The article also attracted critical attention from readers and other journalists. William Pesek, writing for Bloomberg, admitted that he had previously been influenced by similar studies, but is now skeptical of them. He especially critiques Haworth’s article for the direct link it makes between low sex drive and low birth rate, writing, “If low libido were strictly societal, why do the Czech Republic, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan have fertility rates as low as Japan’s?”

Nor is Pesek the only one to observe that setting up Japan as an exception is, at best, disingenuous. Kimie Takahashi observes that the tone of articles like Haworth’s is often patronizing and problematic from cultural and racial standpoints, adding, “It is not only this generation of Japanese that is opting out of starting families; the same is true internationally.” At Slate, Joshua Keating also points out that the Guardian article did not include international comparisons, and says that “Japan is a leading indicator of a trend [falling birth rates] rather than an outlier.”

One problem with the Guardian article is that it seems to conflate sex, long-term romantic relationships and procreation. But when the three issues are viewed independently, it becomes clear that while cultural pressures and government policy may influence sexual behavior to some degree, it is in the choice to marry and, particularly, the choice to have children where government policy exerts true force.

Japan is ranked 208th for fertility worldwide and is first in life expectancy. Keating observes that this dichotomy creates “something of a demographic time bomb.” There is no consensus whether, on a global scale, falling birth rates are good, bad or neutral; in Japan, however, the problem is complicated by a lingering resistance to immigration. The entire society recoils at the very thought of anyone moving to Japan except for temporary purposes. (In contrast, population projections for the U.S. over the next 50 years attribute 82 percent of projected growth to immigration.) If Japanese resistance to immigration remains entrenched, its low birthrate will create acute problems for the country’s economy in the relatively short term.

Many of Haworth’s critics do concede one major point to her article, namely that Japan’s exceptionally harsh stance on working mothers makes it nearly impossible for a career-minded woman to have a child without entirely abandoning her professional ambitions. The World Economic Forum ranks Japan among the worst in the world for equality for working women. Haworth points to social attitudes that demean working mothers, the barriers women face against professional advancement once they marry, and the lack of flexibility and childcare options available to working parents (especially women).

Other factors that likely contribute to Japan’s falling fertility rates include the cost of raising children in a country with a struggling economy, low rates of religious observance and, some writers suggested, high levels of stress and insecurity among those who would otherwise consider starting families.

Government policy generally does not create societal norms; it more often follows them. Japan’s postwar government did not invent the attitudes that are hostile to women with professional ambition or women who wish to return to work after having children. Those viewpoints are entrenched in Japan’s older generation, which clings to political and economic power.

Nor did Japanese government policy alone create the nation’s long economic decline since the 1980s, though it certainly has helped. An equally large factor is Japan’s inbred and highly protectionist business and banking culture. That culture has kept dead and sterile enterprises alive by funneling fresh loans to “zombie” companies, while starving entrepreneurial new businesses for capital. Large, established companies, usually based in Tokyo, dominate the Japanese economy, leaving young workers little chance to innovate.

While there will always be individual outliers, the chances are good that Japanese adults are having about as much sex as they want. I suspect they want it about as much as most folks do around the world. Having kids, however, is another matter.

Japan’s government does not need to waste much time worrying about what goes on in its citizens’ bedrooms. That energy would be better spent thinking about what does, or doesn’t, come out nine months later - and why.

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