By Any Other Name: Mail-Order Brides and Sex Trafficking

I’m sorry for disappearing again.  The influx of trolls wasn’t that bad-only one comment really hurt, because it said I deserved it in a certain way.   I always felt that the only thing that would pull me away again would be being hurt again, and guess what?  That happened in a way.

My period hadn’t come for 80-something days, so I went the gynecologist to try to figure out if this was normal for someone coming off of the pill and maybe check my hormone levels.  I made it clear from the start I didn’t want a pap smear, and she didn’t say I had to have one, until I was already on the exam table.  I still said I didn’t want to but she said I had to, and I guess I froze up from there.  I haven’t felt that violated in years.  It feels stupid because it’s just an exam and they all say it doesn’t/shouldn’t hurt, but it did.  I felt, and still feel, like I was raped again. 

I’m not sure how to label it or anything-that word feels too extreme, maybe.  Just feels like it shouldn’t have happened, because I thought I wasn’t as “weak” as I was before, when I didn’t fight back.  But I still froze up, and didn’t fight really. 

I avoided radical feminist stuff for months-I didn’t read a single book or article.  I didn’t even talk about radfem issues, unless it was blatantly shoved in my face.  I can’t really explain why, I guess, but I think it maybe just felt pointless in a way, since I thought I was stronger for it and, look what happened?  I still let myself get hurt.  I knew the medical establishment was shit, yet I still let it win.  It’s not really the same, but I imagine it might be how Dworkin felt after she was raped the last time.  Knowing so much about the issues makes it worse for me.

Anyways, I figured I’d share the one thing I did write during this space: my term paper for Global Feminism.  It isn’t as radical or angry as I felt about the issue, because college (and liberal feminism) discourages that sort of thinking, but the approach I think couldn’t come from anywhere but radical feminism.  I started with the idea that marriage is basically prostitution, and you can see where it goes from there.    Warning: It’s loooong.  And by the way, I got an A.

        The “mail-order bride” industry, as it is known, has grown significantly since the advent of the internet and represents many of the forces of globalization.  Estimates on the number of marriages orchestrated by mail-order bride agencies vary and many suffer from methodological problems, but generally report around a few thousand marriages a year in the United States.   Concerns have frequently been raised about the exploitation involved in mail-order marriages, resulting in media and scholarly attention to the issue.  Reading the literature, it becomes apparent that there are connections between the mail-order bride industry and human trafficking.  Some of these connections are concrete, such as the use of mail-order bride services for recruiting victims, while other connections lie in the forces behind the trades and the people involved with it.

              In order to compare the mail-order bride industry to trafficking and argue that they are different manifestations of the same phenomenon, a definition of trafficking is necessary.  The UN defines human trafficking as involving “an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.”  Exploitation is defined broadly enough to apply to not just prostitution, but other forms of sexual exploitation as well, along with servitude or other practices similar to slavery (United Nations).  Similarly, “other means” is defined broadly, allowing it to include the “giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person” (UN).
            Trafficking women for sex and domestic labor has come along and expanded with globalization; likewise, globalization has also expanded the mail-order bride industry.  Mail-order bride services are driven by the same dynamics as trafficking organizations and their male customers hold power similar to traffickers.  The destination countries and source countries for the mail-order bride industry are nearly the same as those in sex trafficking—the only significant difference is the lack of Thailand as a destination and that the destinations are almost always Western (Seager 56).  For all of these reasons, mail-order bride services should be examined as either trafficking organizations in themselves or, at the very least, a way for traffickers to easily and obtain access to women for the purposes of exploitation without drawing much suspicion.  Similarly, prostitution, which feeds sex trafficking, and mail-order bride services work hand in hand ideologically and at times (or in some feminists’ view, all the time) in practice.

            On the demand side of the industry, are the men who wish to find a wife, who typically live and work in more affluent countries such as Australia, Israel, and the United States.  Not many studies have been done that investigate the motivations of men who seek out mail-order bride services; however, one mentioned in the research found that respondents were “roughly representative of the general population of men” (Jackson 498).  However, she uses this data to suggest that criticizing the motivation of these men “indirectly call[s] into question” the women who take the “obvious risks” of finding a husband through mail-order bride services (Jackson 498).  Firstly, she herself notes that such risks are not made obvious to women using the services: no criminal record history, medical check, or other information is sought from the male, but is from the woman, and as Jackson herself states, she might reasonably assume similar measures are done to filter out dangerous men (500).  Secondly, many feminists would contend that no matter the risks “chosen” by the woman, the bigger picture is what really matters: and that picture is the social forces, such as poverty, globalization, and inequalities that subordinate the bride to her husband (Belleau 603).

            Because of the lack of studies examining men’s motivations in seeking mail-order brides, looking at the materials of the “matchmaking” agencies themselves or sites sponsored by them might provide some insight into their customer base, as they likely have more data to work with and an obvious incentive to accurately target their market, since their profits depend upon it.  Here is an excerpt from a site oriented towards helping men who wish to find a “good wife,” as they define it, using mail-order bride services:

Many men have found exactly what they desired in a woman from another country. How did they do this and what are the pitfalls involved in this process? This is where Goodwife.com can help out. This site along with our sister sites Planet Love and Russian Women Discussion are all about the search for this woman and how to have a happy and successful and long lasting marrige [sic] to a foreign woman. Are there any good women left in the West? Sure there are. Are they easy to find? Not on your life!

We, as men, are more and more wanting to step back from the types of women we meet now. With many women taking on the “me first” feminist agenda and the man continuing to take a back seat to her desire for power and control many men are turned off by this and look back to having a more traditional woman as our partner. (GoodWife.com)

It’s also worth noting this entire article was illustrated with 1950s pin-up girls and ended with a (possibly fake) article from Housekeeping Monthly. Mail order bride services, as well as their male customers, repeatedly emphasize their distaste for the “radically feminist” Western women and their desire for a more traditional wife (Belleau 596).  

            The gender ideologies of colonialism and imperialism are reflected in the language used to describe the non-Western women men seek for brides.  Just as the lands countries wished to occupy were portrayed as untainted by humanity, now foreign women represent the “last pure space untainted by modern life” and the materialism, individualism, and feminism it contains (Schaeffer-Grabiel 339).   Further, Western men who look to foreign women (especially those of Asian or Latina descent) for sex or courtship typically exotify their looks and personalities, just as colonists did in the past.  Sex tourism, for which many girls are trafficked, and the prostitution of non-white women in general are marketed by extolling their differences from Western women.  For example, Filipina women are described by one agency as “small,” “slender,” “hard-working” (So 405).

            Besides being trafficked for prostitution, women may be forced to work as domestic labor.  Unpaid labor such as housework and childcare is almost always assigned to the woman in heterosexual relationships and made invisible, and thus few discuss mail-order marriages from the angle of domestic labor.  Considering the men’s insistence on wanting a “traditional” wife, that women have traditionally been responsible for most to all of the housework, it is likely that they also desire a domestic servant.

            It must be stated that the men using these agencies are in all likelihood not seeking out abstinent relationships, and for this reason, the separation between sex trafficking and mail-order brides should be examined.  In practice, the separation, when mail-order brides are not outright prostituted, appears to be nominal and only occur due to the woman’s status as “wife.”   The idealized and traditional form of marriage typically casts the male as the bread-winner, and the woman as a subservient housekeeper and sexual servant.   Mail-order bride services, then, simply combine two forms of trafficking into one.  The major difference is that instead of having to service a number of men sexually as a prostitute does, a mail-order bride will only have one.  Sex is still being sold, but instead of being exchanged for money or drugs, the payment is room, board, as well as US citizenship.
            Besides wishing to seek a wife more traditional than the average “radical feminist” American woman, the Western men who use mail-order bride services appear to view themselves as better than the men from the woman’s homeland.  For example, in the past, the colonialists “thought they were improving the position of native American women – whom they saw as beasts of burden, items of exchange, sex objects, or slaves” by saving them from the tyranny of Native American men (Jackson 483).  Today, agencies assure men that the women want American men because prospective husbands in their homeland are horribly sexist and abusive, such as this agency: “In Russia, men who drink, sleep around, beat up their wives…those men are a norm” (Petrova).  Obviously, male violence towards women in marriage occurs in Western countries as well, but by sensationalizing the violence “over there,” men can feel assured that even though they may be exploiting women by using mail-order bride services, they are not as bad as foreign men. 

            Interestingly, although there appear to be little differences in motivations between sex tourists and men using mail-order agencies, there seems to be one major difference in their self-perceptions: the men who seek foreign brides not only see themselves as saviors to the women they marry, but also to their homeland, which as discussed before, is seen to be corrupted by Western women’s materialism and feminism (Schaeffer-Grabiel 344).  The other slight difference between johns and sex tourists, who use foreign women for casual sex, and men who use mail order brides, is the length of the relationship they seek to have, as men using mail-order agencies seek sex, domestic labor, and sometimes even a bearer of their children.   In this way, men who marry or propose to foreign brides may be more similar to traffickers than johns, since they have an ongoing relationship with the foreign woman.

            However, many of the mail-order bride industry’s practices are eerily similar to those found in brothels and areas where prostitution is legalized.  Women using these matchmaking services are subjected to questionnaires, medical and background checks, presumably to screen out women with STDs, disabilities, or criminal histories (Jackson 500).  Just as when prostitution takes place, only the women are screened: men, having the social power, legitimacy, and perhaps most importantly, the money, are considered above screening. 

            Other parallels between prostitution and mail-order bride agencies go beyond financial ties and have to do more ideology and presentation, such as how the matchmaking process occurs.  There are striking similarities in the process of arranging to meet a prostitute and matchmaking for a potential bride, especially in regards to the language used.  In mail-order bride services, hundreds of women and their profiles are listed, allowing a man to find out their age, height, weight, hobbies, other relevant information, and also usually has a few pictures of the woman.  The man is thus able to choose from hundreds of beautiful and primarily young women, who he is assured by testimonials and the agency itself, are willing to love, cherish, and support him. Correspondingly, one escort agency says “The Las Vegas Escorts look forward to serving you” and that their escorts are “exotically beautiful and skilled in the art of pleasing a man” (Las Vegas Escorts).

            The rhetoric used to defend the trade also mirrors that used in prostitution: IMOs justify themselves by arguing they simply serve as a meeting place for “consenting adults” (Belleau 603).  Of course, such arguments inevitably ignore the forces of globalization, colonialism, and capitalism that drive women to sign up for these agencies.  These inequalities are further erased when men are portrayed as helpless victims to scammers in the media, which creates “assumptions and accusations that the U.S. men are at a disadvantage” (So 402).  This not only erases the power dynamics in the relationship, it also reverses them: the non-white, most likely poor, and isolated woman is using her “exotic beauty” to make men fall in love with her and give her a green card.  Similar narratives of men having “losing control” and being “helpless” to their sexual drives can be found when men discuss prostitutes or even dating.

            For the most part, mail-order bride services are not regulated by the law in any way, shape, or form, in Canada and the United States (Jackson 481; Belleau 597).  All “regulation” thus takes place in the immigration policies of the man’s country.  In the United States, the bride is essentially a conditional resident on the whim of the husband, although some changes in the late 1990s allowed for exceptions to the rule requiring joint applications for permanent residency if she proves “her good character, her good faith in getting married, the battering or extreme cruelty to which she and her children are subjected by the husband, and the extreme hardship that would result if she were deported to her country of origin” (Belleau 599).  A woman whose partner has assaulted her may also apply for permanent residency under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Act of 2000, but it faces the same problems as earlier legislation (Belleau 600).  Considering that even women born in the United States who are native speakers of English have enormous difficulty reporting male violence, let alone having it proven in court, it is unlikely any of these exceptions provide concrete help for abused brides.  The single act passed in the United States that specifically deals with the mail-order bride industry only requires agencies to disclose information on immigration laws and procedures to the brides they recruit, with fines for a failure to comply.  However, there is no evidence that this law is being enforced or having an impact on the business practices of international marriage companies (Jackson 481).

            Traffickers often maintain control over their victim(s) by keeping their documentation and threatening them with deportation.  Because the bride is essentially dependent on the man for her citizenship, a husband holds comparable power to that a trafficker has over his victim: both can threaten deportation over the woman’s head, and both probably provide the woman with her first impression of the legal system.   Further, depending on the level of fluency she has in English, he may assert himself as her interpreter, limiting her ability to speak honestly with law enforcement, doctors, and lawyers if she even manages to reach them, which is quite a task in a foreign country.

            Despite the fact that the study congress ordered of marriage organizations showed links between them and trafficking organizations, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) report on the industry  “did not link the increase in fiancée petitions and “missing” fiancées to possible sex trafficking and made no further inquiry into the troubling issue” (Jackson 503).  In addition, the INS “conducts no investigation of applicants for fiancée or spousal visas, not even routinely examining its own files to see if an applicant previously petitioned for another person” (Jackson 500). While the United States purports to be anti-trafficking, their repeated failure to even examine the issue critically and to not act on the knowledge they have shows little concern for exploited immigrant women.

            Overall, the traffic in women and the mail-order bride industry have much in common.  Direct connections exist between the two, as noted in government reports, yet no precautions are taken to try and protect foreign women who marry Western men.  In addition, the colonialist narratives, exotification of non-white women, and ideologies enacted by the men are the same as those which create the demand for sex trafficking and sex tourism.  Women in these marriages suffer the same disadvantages as trafficked women: separation from their family and friends, a language and cultural barrier, lack of experience with legal institutions in the country, and dependence on another for immigrant status.  The narratives of the men seeking foreign wives suggest that they seek a “traditional wife,” whose role essentially combines domestic and sexual servitude, while the power dynamics of the “traditional marriage” these men seek leave him with control over the woman economically, legally, and socially.  These inequalities and similarities between the mail-order bride industry, human trafficking and prostitution raise the question as to whether mail-order marriages constitute a form of trafficking by UN definitions, and evidence suggests that this is the case.  (Had to deradical it a bit for my “feminists-shave-their-legs-now-WEDONTHATEMEN” women’s studies teacher.)

Works Cited

Belleau, Marie-Claire. “Mail-Order Brides in a Global World.” Albany Law Review 67 (2003):       595-607. Print.

Jackson, Suzanne H. “To Honor and Obey: Trafficking in “Mail-Order Brides”” The George         Washington Law Review 70.3 (2002): 475-569. Print.

Las Vegas Escorts. “Las Vegas Escorts.” Las Vegas Escorts. Las Vegas Escorts, 20 Oct. 2010.     Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.lasvegasescorts.com/&gt;.

Petrova, Elena, and Nina Jones. “Why Russian Women Want to Leave Russia.” Russian Brides     Cyber Guide. Elena’s Models. Web. 6 Dec. 2010. <http://www.womenrussia.com/why-   russian-women-want-to-leave-russia.htm>.

Schaeffer-Grabiel, Felicity. “Planet-Love.com: Cyberbrides in the Americas and the          Transnational Routes of U.S. Masculinity.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31.2 (2006): 331-56. Print.

Seager, Joni. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. 4th ed. New York: Penguin          Group,             2009. Print.

So, Christine. “Asian Mail-Order Brides, the Threat of Global Capitalism, and the Rescue of the   U.S. Nation-State.” Feminist Studies 32.2 (2006): 395-419. Print.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Human Trafficking.” United Nations Office on         Drugs and Crime. United Nations. Web. 3 Dec. 2010.   <http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-            trafficking.html?ref=menuside>.

“Welcome To Goodwife.com!” GoodWife.com. Web. 4 Dec. 2010. http://www.goodwife.com.

8 responses to “By Any Other Name: Mail-Order Brides and Sex Trafficking

  1. hey ms.c. so glad to see you again!

    first i wanted to tell you that i am sorry about what your doctor did to you. i once had a female MD/NMD give me a shot that i didnt want, and i told her i didnt want it and i was actually really sick and didnt have much fight in me, and she injected me anyway. it was some stupid naturopathic froo-froo shot too, like b-vitamins or something that probably did absolutely nothing. that was my first indication that female docs werent that unlike male. so yeah.

    anyway, about your post, it really sickens me that you had to dumb it down for your WOMENS STUDIES CLASS…god this makes me so angry i can barely speak. BUT. it turned out really good, and you made your point. i wrote recently that i think that this whole fun-fem business is really only to covertly rationalize het partnerships, which resemble sex work (the accordion techno post). your teacher probably shit several bricks while she read it, i mean imagine! modern marriage meeting the criteria for human trafficking under the UN guidelines?? holy shit thats awesome. but giving it an A was a no-brainer, even for her.

    While the United States purports to be anti-trafficking, their repeated failure to even examine the issue critically and to not act on the knowledge they have shows little concern for exploited immigrant women.

    YES. they care about trafficking in women, and prostitution, on paper only, and EXACTLY as much as the men who make the rules care about the fact that their own relationships with women resemble prostitution too, and that they are either the johns or the pimps or both. it really couldnt be more obvious. well done.

  2. Pingback: Links: January 16, 2011 « Against All Evidence

  3. I can see your point and I have also seen escort services using mail order brides and other bidding options in other countries to get their girls. It is a sad thing when a woman is forced into anything especially sex. Men should stop to think when they use these services if the women are prisoners made to do this work. Some mail order brides aren’t in it for themselves to come to the states while others are. Many are sold. Not too mention the underground society that actually sells and tortures women.

  4. The other slight difference between johns and sex tourists, who use foreign women for casual sex, and men who use mail order brides, is the length of the relationship they seek to have, as men using mail-order agencies seek sex, domestic labor, and sometimes even a bearer of their children. In this way, men who marry or propose to foreign brides may be more similar to traffickers than johns, since they have an ongoing relationship with the foreign woman.

    Bloody brilliant.

    I wish I hadn’t made the mistake for going onto GoodWife.com though, that place made me fucking sick.

    I can see why you got an A ;)

  5. Many excellent points Ms Citrus.

    In this way, men who marry or propose to foreign brides may be more similar to traffickers than johns, since they have an ongoing relationship with the foreign woman.

    They are both, both trafficker and john.

    I did read a few bits and pieces over at that goodwife site. I noted that the page of “Do’s and Don’ts” was written by an immigration attorney, so hardly impartial.

    The aims of these guys is clear from the pictures that they use on their website – sexy, busty, etc – basically they want a whore who does dishes (and in high heels and sexy lingerie!). It is no co-incidence that they feature both photos and articles from the 1950s – they want to live in a fantasy world where the wifey was a non-complaining servant/whore. It was many womens dissatisfaction with this role that gave birth to feminism in the 60s and 70s, so these guys are deluded if they think their mailorder bride will be forever content fetching his slippers and pipe. Dream on boyz.

  6. linking on the HUB.

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