The sex behind population control


As taboo as it is to talk about sexual pleasure in the bedroom, talking about population control can be even more contentious. We need to have sex to make babies — that’s obvious. But in a world that is running out of room and resources, we would do well to consider how many we have. And unfortunately, if we maintain silence around this essential topic, we will have too much global stress for sex.

In his book The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich discusses how population control is shrouded in controversy from past fears of racism, eugenics, colonialism, forced sterilization, forced family planning, abortion, contraception and sex. Earlier thinkers have not carved a smooth path to tackle this topic either. In 1974, Henry Kissinger advocated for the restriction of food aid to poor nations to curb population growth. Two years later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi forced millions of poor men to be sterilized to limit growth. Both were most likely influenced by sociologist Robert Malthus, who in 1798 painted population control in a biased and mathematical manner. His moral framework portrays how poor people who grow their numbers irresponsibly will be kept in check by natural selection via their own bad habits and addictions. Obviously, he did not live in Boulder or Aspen and account for all the rich people who also irresponsibly have bad habits and addictions — and who by the way, have much larger carbon footprints with consistent air travel and a car for each person in the family. Yet our problem in the West is not overpopulation, but rather, overconsumption. For instance, two American kids have the same carbon footprint as 337 Bangladeshi kids.

Yet solving overpopulation need not be done with eugenics, sterilization or starving. In Iran and some places in India, they are solving the issue by empowering more women to read. Research has shown that literacy rates directly correlate with fertility. In the Indian town of West Bengal, literacy is 60 percent for men and 33 percent for women. There, fertility equals four children per household. In Kerala, India, literacy is 94 percent for men and 88 percent for women, and fertility is below the replacement rate, at 1.9 children per household. In Iran, the fertility rate dropped from 7 in 1980 to 1.7 today. They attributed their success to education for girls, along with free access to birth control, and media and government mobilization around advertising the importance of contraception. Mother Jones magazine promotes literacy for women as a key element in reducing overpopulation. They state, “Whether we are a world of 8, 9.1 or 10.5 billion people in 2050 will be decided in no small part by the number of illiterate women on Earth.”

The irony is that the more educated we are, the less we are having children — thus contributing toward our own intellectual extermination. You would think more smart people would be eager to pass on their genes. But they prefer to play with the letter salads that come after their last names, like Jenni Skyler, Ph.D.: no husband, no kid, no pet, one plant (which I remember to water once a month). Am I, and the others who refrain from having kids, just shooting myself in the foot? Am I really just the façade of a smart person too obtuse to reproduce?

My colleague, Saj Gandhi-Razvi, disagrees. “Those without children can put more life energy towards their mission,” Razvi states. “Their voting influence may be lower, but their cultural influence is high because their life is not being chewed up by children.”

Then again, Razvi is a single psychotherapist with only two cats to account for. But his underlying point is that as a childless thinker, I’m still reproducing my ideas — my memes instead of my genes.

So as an educated environmentalist, I believe the solution lies in fewer people with fewer needs. Less shopping, more bikes and buses. Less plastic bags, more latex condoms. Less sex for purely procreation, more sex for just pleasure. And if and when you do decide to have sex for procreation, at least have a lot of fun doing so!

Jenni Skyler, PhD, is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist. She runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.