Nationalizing Sex: Fertility, Fear, and Power, by Richard Togman

Emma Rees is impressed by a wide-ranging study of how governments have encouraged and discouraged citizens to have children

August 8, 2019
Asian parents with baby
Source: iStock

The topsy-turvy logic of global capitalism is demonstrated by the fact that the same market-leading skincare brand that sells bucketloads of self-tanning lotion in the global north also profits throughout the developing world by selling skin-whitening creams. A similar kind of double standard is at play in Richard Togman’s impressive Nationalizing Sex. While anti-natalism (a concerted drive to limit population growth) was central to government policy in a staggering 82 per cent of developing countries in 2011, in the developed world, by contrast, the number of states “with policies explicitly designed to increase their fertility rates has more than doubled since the early 1990s”.

Togman argues that the discipline of demography, in its collection and scrutiny of population data, is highly political, “rooted in various mechanisms of power that are fundamentally driven by the discourses we use to frame our lives”. Both pro- and anti-natalist policies have almost always been too “one size fits all”, and too myopic, to be effective. There is little evidence of many of these policies working at all: “current models are immensely wasteful and nearly always result in failure”, as the concluding sentence of the book puts it.

The politically freighted idea of “population” is one that is imbricated with ideas of colonialism. One of Togman’s many lively case studies takes 19th-century India as its focus. The granddaddy of modern political economics and demography, Thomas Malthus, treated India as a bellwether in terms of population control. Malthusian political philosophy at one and the same time encouraged the colonisers to reproduce, but cowered in the face of what it regarded as an infantilised and sexually incontinent wider populace. The approach was supported by John Stuart Mill. “No one”, he wrote, “has a right to bring creatures into life, to be supported by other people.”

In Togman’s analysis it becomes apparent how Indian famines came to be welcomed by men such as Malthus and Mill as natural population controls – a view that persisted well into the 1930s. Gandhi expressed moral concerns about contraception, locking horns more than once with Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who, according to Togman, “would often remark that ‘India would have been a much more advanced nation if its population were about half its actual size’”.

“Over the course of this book,” Togman promises his reader early on, “I endeavor to maintain a stance of neutrality when it comes to issues of morality or ethics.” This stance of apolitical chronicler is neither realistic nor necessary. In a hefty volume such as Nationalizing Sex, one that has at its core inherently ethical questions around reproductive rights and the individual’s right to self-determination, such an endeavour is doomed to fail – and the book is actually all the stronger for that failure.

Overall, Nationalizing Sex is a remarkable achievement. The book’s scope is both global and longitudinal – here are densely packed pages of scrupulous research and engaging writing (kudos to Togman for calling his third chapter, on Enlightenment Europe: “To breed or not to breed, that is the question”). Most important, perhaps, it is not only a history that successfully synthesises diverse sources into a lucid whole but also a cautionary tale for policymakers everywhere who are kept up at night, not by doing their bit to reinforce pro-natalist discourses, but by questions about how to manage limited resources in an increasingly overpopulated and unfair world.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.


Nationalizing Sex: Fertility, Fear, and Power
By Richard Togman
Oxford University Press
296pp, £32.99
ISBN 9780190871840
Published 11 April 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The politics of reproduction

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