An inside look at the 'mail-order bride' industry in America — it may not be what you expect.
You'd be surprised to learn how some relationships (maybe in your own social circles) came to be.
Mail-order brides are still around.
You thought mail-order brides were a thing of the past? A tired old trope relegated to downtrodden damsels in distress in ramshackle countries, preyed upon by any schmuck who could pull together the money to swoop up the bride of his choice?
You may be surprised to learn that international marriages facilitated by brokers and dating tourism sites are more common than you'd think, and they're not always the tawdry affair they get painted as.
As with most things in the world, these relationships are more nuanced and multifaceted than they seem at first glance. Sure, horror stories of fraud and abuse abound, and we'll explore those, too, in this two-installment glimpse into a world of which most of us have only started to scratch the surface.
Those gold nuggets were pretty, but they weren't much for companionship.
How did placing an ad for a wife or husband even become a thing? There are instances of the practice as early as the 1800s, when American frontier life was lonely for men trying to blaze a trail in the unsettled West.
The discovery of gold in the Western frontier led a mass migration of eager, optimistic men hoping to strike it rich. But the extreme lack of ladies was kind of a drag (at least for the heterosexual among them). American men in the West would take out ads in East Coast papers (and sometimes in other countries) and write letters to churches, all in the hope there'd be some available unmarried woman who was up for adventure and blazing a trail herself.
And sometimes women would place their own ads:
"A winsome miss of 22; very beautiful, jolly and entertaining; fond of home and children; from good family; American; Christian; blue eyes; golden hair; fair complexion; pleasant disposition; play piano. Will inherit $10,000. Also have means of $1,000. None but men of good education need to write from 20 to 30 years of age."
— excerpt from "Hearts West: True Stories of Mail Order Brides on the Frontier."
Once he'd sufficiently wooed her via their torrid pen pal affair (can you imagine how long they had to wait for the mail?), often the man would propose via letter and if the woman accepted, he'd pay her way to the West.
As usual, at some point, a clever entrepreneur noticed the trend of women with limited opportunities craving a chance at a new life and the men looking for [beautiful] women. And thus the "mail-order bride" — or as more gentle (and probably accurate) people would call it, "international marriage" — practice took off. It would become, over decades, a booming industry.
Flash forward to 2015.
Things look very different. Instead of being compelled to marry a man based on a few letters and a picture, technology has created a new dynamic. Consider it Match.com but on steroids and with higher stakes. And to be clear, the term "mail-order bride" is a loaded one — hotly contested at that. The connotation is ugly: that a woman is a commodity to be selected nearly at random or based on shallow measures and bought and sold with little agency of her own over the transaction. While there are disreputable agencies engaging in those practices out there in the world, in this piece, we'll be focusing on more reputable outlets. Such outlets typically eschew the term "mail-order bride" for obvious reasons.
There are two segments to differentiate between in the international relationship market — dating sites and marriage brokers. The latter is responsible for more of the tawdry concepts the media portrays, like picking out a wife based on broad criteria and paying a sum for a broker to arrange your union. But the former, dating sites, are an entry point into international marriages that often fall more on the side of the conventional, and with outcomes that may surprise you. Too often, though, relationships arising from international dating sites get conflated with "mail-order brides."
Truth is, international dating sites are a lot more like regular online dating sites than you might think.
That's a distinction that Anthony Volpe is quick to make when speaking about it. Volpe is the CMO of AnastasiaDate, one of the most popular sites in the world for men who wish to meet Russian women. AnastasiaDate began in 1993, when an American man and Russian woman, who met and married through a matchmaking agency, decided they wanted to facilitate relationships for others in the same way. Now they run similar sites for men who wish to meet women from all over the world: AmoLatina, AsianBeauties, and AfricaBeauties.
He makes the case that AnastasiaDate probably has more in common with a traditional online dating site than it does with an international marriage broker. He insists that the company is agnostic toward what kind of relationship two people embark upon once they meet, and AnastasiaDate is interested only in serving as a communications platform to serve many different relationship goals. Volpe breaks those goals down into four camps; human warmth and connection, flirtation and escape, serious relationships, and marriage.
I asked him about the commoditization of women that can happen, as demonstrated in the international dating documentary "Love Translated" — in it, men continually say after a nice date with a gorgeous woman that they're going to keep looking to see if there's a better option before they settle. Volpe balked a bit at that. "If we start with the presumption that whatever someone's ultimate goal is in dating — flirtation, escape entertainment, human warmth, serious relationship or marriage — they want to have the best experience possible. When people are presented with choices, the more choices they have, in some cases, the better."
In some ways that's true. One has to stop and wonder if the seemingly endless choices can be paralyzing to someone who might be seeking idealized foreign romances out of an inability to connect in everyday spontaneous situations. But on the flip side, one also has to wonder if that dynamic is any different on AnastasiaDate than it is on, say, Tinder, or if both of those examples are just emblematic of how technology can amplify the shortcomings that can just be an aspect of human nature.
Volpe offers one way that his company differs from sites like Match.com — its verification system. He assures that on the women's side, they have partner agencies who confirm their identities via ID or passport. Vexingly, on the men's side of things, they only need a credit card for verification, which calls into question exactly how even-keeled the dynamics really are. If both sides' interests aren't equally protected, are both genders really whom AnastasiaDate considers its customer — or is one set actually more the product?
Josh and Ekaterina's story offers a glimpse into a success story for international marriages.
AnastasiaDate was kind enough to introduce me to a happy couple who married after meeting on the site. Their names are Josh and Ekaterina, who goes by Kate. Josh and Kate seem to have a pretty normal, if a little old-fashioned, kind of relationship. They connected in 2012 through the site, after Josh had decided that the dating pool in Akron, Ohio, wasn't "high-quality" enough.
"It didn't seem like in my immediate locality like in Akron, there was ... I mean, there were some quality people there but it was a lot harder to find. On AnastasiaDate it was a lot easier to see higher quality people."
They got serious quickly, marrying about a year later in Ohio with a small ceremony (Josh's parents are deceased and he has little family) and moving to the Northwest shortly after. In Russia, Kate was a physical therapist, a degree she was able to get for free. It afforded her an independent lifestyle with a modest apartment she was content with; she wanted her free time and money to go to traveling. She was on AnastasiaDate, she says, not to try to solve financial troubles (as the stigma around international relationships implies) but because she was really looking for a life partner. Josh says Americans are so convinced that this is the best country in the world that they often think people are just desperate to come to America no matter what, but depending on what you're valuing, in some ways, life in Russia is better. Kate agrees.
Is their relationship one of equals?
When it comes to being on even-footing financially (and economic parity often lends itself to equity in relationships, like it or not), some dynamics from America's financial model actually put Kate at a disadvantage now that she's here. For instance, she would love to practice physical therapy here, but to get an American degree, she'd have to take a loan she'd potentially be "paying back for the rest of her life" and it would take another six-seven years to earn the degree. To compound matters, it puts her at the heart of a conundrum many couples face when it comes to child-rearing. Josh and Kate are considering having children soon, and in the traditional values they both appear to hold dear, Kate's education would definitely take a backseat while she takes on the role of primary caretaker for their future kids. She's able to achieve some financial equity in the partnership via her work in translating, but Josh is the main breadwinner as a programmer analyst.
Still, Josh is sensitive to Kate's situation (being Russian in America, with a certain amount of dependence on him) and wants to make sure she's an equal partner in decision making. In his words:
"We make decisions together. The way I look at it, if someone's not happy, eventually they're going to leave. You don't want to put someone in a position where they feel like a prisoner or they don't have a say because if you do that eventually they're not going to want to stick around."
And Kate is pretty clear about how she likes to carry on with their relationship. Here's how she explains it (in pretty darn good, though not perfect, English):
"[It's a] cultural difference. In my country it was natural when you wake up a little bit earlier than your husband you make breakfast and you have breakfast together, for example. It's just natural for me. So I don't feel discriminated or something like this. I like this."
Kate and Josh's story is incredibly interesting, and they're not alone.
There are other great international marriage stories, including ones that did originate from marriage broker agencies that people would be tempted to refer to as "mail-order," where the couples feel secure and the marriages do what the best marriages do — make each other add up to more together than they could have been separately.
The more you know about international marriages, the more questions it raises about American dating.
One interesting thought rabbit hole that came out of talking to Josh and Kate and Anthony Volpe revolves around the contrasts between American dating culture and international dating culture. Josh pointed out that in American relationships, often times people kind of bounce from one experience to the next, not knowing exactly what it is they're looking for, and probably still hurting from the last relationship they had. He thinks for international dating, you have to know yourself better than that and get pretty clear about what you want. It stands to reason, if one is going to spend thousands of dollars on travel to meet someone (and isn't obscenely wealthy) that one would want to be pretty efficient about it and not waste their efforts.
And the questions to explore here are almost endless. What is the motivation for men on AnastasiaDate to seek foreign companionship? Is the draw an idealized hope of a woman with "old country" traditional [read: non-feminist] ways of thinking who won't challenge them — as they're finding some American women inclined to do? And how can that result in tragedy for women who might be easy targets for abusers? And what about when the woman only wants a green card or to scam a man out of money? In the follow-up article, we'll explore some of the caveats and nightmare stories from international dating and marriages.
But, in the meantime, it's worth giving your preconceived notions about international marriage arrangements another think.
Just like anything, there are shades of gray, nuances, and extremes of both good and bad experiences. Technology is more often than not a tool, and how good or bad it is depends on the person using it. When you think about it like that, international marriages don't sound so different from marriages that start from Tinder.