Saturday, August 06, 2005

In which the author introduces his perspective

Until I return to my computer Monday, this will be it for the weekend, a couple excerpts from Cash on Delivery: The Mail-order bride industry exploits women, another simple-minded, one-sided article on the issue I hope to more fully explore. It first appeared in the November 2002 issue of Perspective, Harvard-Radcliffe's Liberal Monthly. The author, Mae Bunagan, calls "the Mail Order Bride" business "one of the most sexist and degrading businesses operating today."

Proponents of the industry claim that the women are not at a disadvantage in these transactions because they have willingly given their information to be placed in the catalogues: “There is no such thing as a ‘mail order bride' or ‘mail-order bride company!' In reality, it is the ladies who do the choosing by selecting which men they wish to respond back to.” However, even if women “voluntarily” enter these situations, they make the decision as a last resort out of the need for money and a better life-not only for themselves, but often for their family as well.

Bunagan believes countries around the world should "outlaw this industry and make participation in it a crime," or at the very least force governments to "hold mail-order bride companies accountable for the marriages that they engineer." In addition:

These companies should be required to provide support services to help women adjust to their new countries or protection if they are abused. The companies can pay for language classes, help women develop marketable skills, and provide a shelter to which they can turn to if they are abused {author's note: All of which should prove so costly that only the Sultan of Brunei will be able to afford to meet and marry a foreign-national through the internet.)

Even the strictest regulations, however, fail to address the fundamental problem of the mail-order bride industry. It is a form of sexual exploitation that is no different from prostitution. In fact, it may even be worse than prostitution because the marriage contract and immigration laws give it a more permanent nature. Impoverished women surrender their lives and sexuality because they hope to obtain economic security-but their dreams for a better life often turn into the cruelest nightmares."

Now, I'm proud to veer away from the mainstream when it comes to politics. I've voted for enough third-party candidates to form a support group. But if Bunagan's views represent the left, I'll be glad to fall off the political spectrum on this one, because her recommendations strike me as wrong on so many levels. First, she'd have the government establish a Bureau of Marriages to determine the proper way of meeting a spouse. National dating services would be okay, she says, but not marriage agencies. "Dating services," she explains, "attempt to create relationships of equals, while the power dynamic in the mail-order bride industry strongly favors the men." If this is so, tell that to the young woman who just posted her bio on looking for her chance to leave Anywhere, Oklahoma. And then realize that you're being as xenophobic as Pat Robertson, asking us not to erect a wall to keep out "The Mexicans," but one to stop thousands of foreign-born nationals from emigrating to the United States in the only way available to them, through marriage.

Second, by holding marriage agencies accountable for the marriages they "engineer," Bunagan would not only institute a culture of fear and suspicion, but she'd have third-parties held responsible for the actions of others. Under this logic, if I introduced Female X to Male Y and Female X killed Male Y, or vice-versa, the family of the deceased could hold me accountable. It's the sort of high-minded, soft-in-the-center thinking that can only be bred in carpeted rooms with dim lighting and a portrait of Charles William Bellingham III hanging over the fireplace. Government can't eliminate all risk from our lives; it shouldn't even hope to do so, as this would be akin to eliminating our free will and shuttling us into the channels that lead to the "proper choices" and the "good life." That theory on control was tried in the 20th century, and the color it flew was red.

Finally, while Bunagan acknowledges there is no data on the nature of abuse by men who marry "mail-order brides," she says "there is reason to believe the incidence of abuse is high." She defends this by saying "American law enforcement officials agree abuse in these relationships can be expected based on these men's needs for control." Expected? That's a very all-inclusive word, suggesting abuse will be borne of every relationship. And yet despite calling out every person who may marry in this way, she fails to name a single "American law enforcement official" to substantiate her claims. So unless Bunagan went before the Secret Policeman's Ball and called for a voice vote, I don't know where that "reason to believe" exists except inside her own head. What evidence of abuse she does provide can be found in published newspaper reports:

One such tragedy occurred in March 1995. Timothy Blackwell originally met Susana Remerata after seeing her picture in a catalog called “Asian Encounters.” The two wrote to each other for a year, then met in the Philippines and got married. Soon after their wedding, Tim became abusive and tried to choke Susana on more than one occasion. Ultimately, Tim shot and killed his pregnant wife and two of her friends in the King County Courthouse in Seattle, Washington, as their divorce proceedings were about to begin. Another tragedy occurred in Seattle, this one in September 2000. A thirty-eight year old man named Ingle King, Jr. strangled his 20-year-old wife, Anastasia, to death. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that in her diaries, Anastasia wrote that King withheld her college tuition, restricted her time with friends, sexually assaulted her, and threatened her with deportation or death if she tried to leave.

But if this were reason enough to outlaw the internet marriage agencies, you could also find proof enough to outlaw the institution of marriage itself. Murder happens everyday, in every sphere of life.

I had hoped to keep my perspective quietly off to the side throughout all of this, and I may still, perhaps even going so far as to delete this post. But I've been reading a lot of literature on the "mail order bride" phenomenon lately, much of it written from an American feminist perspective, and there seems to be one fatal flaw woven throughout: an absolute inability to consider the point of view of the Ukrainian or Russian woman coming to the United States. The feminist perspectives I've read begin to show concern for a woman upon her arrival to the United States; I've seen not a single line devoted to what that foreign-national's life is like now, or how it can be improved outside of a marriage arranged through the internet.

If you're curious, I don't know where I stand on this issue. I know at least one internet marriage that seems to have proven successful, this one involving a former landlord, and I've also heard of other happy endings. But I know there is abuse out there, and what's more, I know it doesn't always get meted out by the man upon the woman; I've been told by people in Ukraine that many "mail-order brides" know the divorce laws of the fifty states better than any attorney specializing in the unholy side of holy matrimony. If anything, my preconception is this: it's a complicated issue, no less so than Stalin was to Churchill: "a riddle wrapped within a mystery inside an enigma."

That's why I'm going to Ukraine, so I can speak from first-hand knowledge rather than a political platform. I want to see Ukrainian village life to get a better understanding of the culture the women leave behind; already I've heard that American men offer Ukrainian women "more respect" and better treatment than their Ukrainian counterparts. But I also don't want to pigeon-hole the Ukrainian man as abusive, overly-demanding, or alcoholic; I want to speak with those who've lost their lovers to western men with whom they can't compete economically, and to speak to the others left behind -- daughters, son, mothers and fathers, friends. There are a lot of stories to tell, I'm saying. I'd like to tell them all.

That said, I'm glad I ripped into Senator Santorum the other day, because that should show I'm not of his camp. And I certainly hope I'm not called an "MRA," or a men's rights activist, a term I first saw used here. Because there are elements of the feminist arguments with which I strongly agree. For one, if a man has a history of abuse or violent crime, he should be required to present this information to the woman he plans to marry. A marriage should be no different than a gun; perform a background check, maybe advise the parties involved on how to best prepare for the bedroom or the firing range, and hope for the best. But still, I believe it's wrong to call for the elimination of a form of marriage because it may lead to abuse, especially if you refuse to consider the culture of abuse and deprivation that these women are possibly leaving behind. If you do that, it seems you might cause more harm than you hope to prevent.