The Sanctity of Mail Order Marriage

Amanda’s got an interesting post on how a new act—the International Marriage Broker Act—has been attached to the Violence Against Women Act in an attempt to help protect women who find themselves in a violent marriage after marrying an American man through a mail order bride service (and how it won’t help nearly as much as providing equal opportunities to women throughout the world would).

Mr. Shakes came to America on a fiancĂ© visa, the same provision of the immigration code under which mail order brides emigrate. We decided to do our visa application on our own, although the traditional way is hiring an attorney who, for a sum starting around $1,500, will put together the entire package for you. It was a huge undertaking; the paperwork is voluminous and the forms can be confusing. I had to do a lot of online research, and in the process, unavoidably came across legions of mail-order bride sites, brokering relationships on the back of misogynist assumptions (of both the foreign brides-to-be and the American woman to whom they are meant to provide an “antidote”) and a significant status disparity between the two parties. It was disturbing stuff.

One of the requirements Mr. Shakes and I had to meet as part of the visa application was proving we had met in person at least once in the previous two years. No problem for us; we traveled back and forth as often as we could. But the requirement wasn’t designed for couples like us; it was designed for men who were importing mail-order brides, women they had never met face to face at all. The requirement, however, doesn’t do much for legitimizing these marriages. The marriage brokers advertised quite plainly on their sites that, after choosing a bride, men could make a quick trip, have a dated picture taken with her, and that was that. Some of them even included in their fees the option of having one’s pictures taken with multiple women—in case Choice #1 didn’t work out, Choice #2 could be seamlessly substituted.

Not all men treat mail order brides as chattel. I did see personal websites of couples who went through marriage brokers and seemed to have developed a genuine relationship. Usually older men who, by their own admission, were awkward or shy or unattractive, and who felt a mail order bride was their best hope. Younger women who, by their own admission, just wanted a better life, and felt like they hit the jackpot by meeting such a wonderful guy. Stories of their wedding, her job hunting, their children’s births. Pictures of happy families.

But those are by far the exception and not the rule. Those guys aren’t marriage brokers’ bread and butter. Their bread and butter are angry, bitter misogynists, hostile toward independent women, in search of a compliant, submissive wife-servant, all wrapped up in a beautiful, exotic package. That her friends and family will be thousands of miles away is just the cherry on top—all the easier to control you, my dear. Mail order marriage is a business, with enviable profits, and the brides are product. A mail order bride is as likely to meet a man she loves as a hooker is to be swept off her feet by Richard Gere.

In most cases, sadly, mail order marriages are little more than legal human trafficking, a state of affairs that most brokers barely bother to try to spin otherwise. Thousands of women enter the country this way every year, and yet when was the last time a Constitutional amendment was proposed to criminalize this farce of marriage?

I can't imagine that the sanctity of marriage advocates really believe these are healthy marriages. Instead, I suspect they just don't have much interest in preventing a practice that sublimates women more handily than anything their 30+-year push to legislate deference has managed to accomplish.

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