Exploring the World of Mail-order Marriages

Lawrence Lynch poses with his Thai wife Thapenee, in Kidderminster, England, in 2006. The couple, who run a U.K. mail order bride agency from their music shop, have arranged hundreds of Thai women for clients and now use the Internet to introduce Weste... Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

You can't buy a spouse on the Internet. There's no Amazon that will drone-deliver a blushing bride to your doorstep.

But, you can look for a bride online, if you're of the mind. Thousands of women on websites all over the world will gladly tell you what they desire in a man. They'll flirt. They'll mention family, commitment and, maybe, marriage.


And that can start you on your way to wedded bliss. Or not.

The mail-order bride business — object to the term, but there's no sidestepping it — is alive and well in the 21st century. For many brave enough to wade in, though, it can kick them right in the teeth.

Sometimes, the mail-order bride industry brings people together in holy matrimony, although the numbers are sketchy. And it may allow women in some pretty horrendous situations control of their future. But there are also stories of abuse or scamming, from both sides of the transaction.

So it's a complicated business, this mail-order marriage.

Much like love.

A New Frontier

When Marcia Zug, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, began researching her book, "Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches," she figured she'd expose the seedy side of the industry.

"I expected to find that modern mail-order marriages are fundamentally harmful and that these problems are long-standing," Zug writes in the introduction to the book, due in June. "I was surprised that this is not what I found. Despite significant risks, mail-order marriages are typically beneficial and even liberating for women."

In her book, Zug details the history of mail-order brides — English and French women who emigrated to help build the Virginia colony in the U.S., for example. French women known as the filles du roi (king's daughters) who came to New France (mostly Canada now) in the late 1600s.

Later, as the American West was being settled and a need for women there became acute, both men and women began to advertise for spouses. Zug found this in a Missouri paper, circa 1910:

Attractive women, not a day over thirty, would be pleased to correspond with eligible man. Not absolutely necessary that he should be young. Would prefer one with property, but one with a good paying position would be satisfactory. The young lady is of medium height, has brown hair and gray eyes, not fat, although, most decidedly, she is not skinny. Her friends say she is a fine looking woman. Object matrimony. Reason for this advertisement, the young woman lives in a little dinky town, where the best catches are the boys behind the counters in the dry goods and clothing stores, and every one of them is spoken for by the time he is out of his short pants.

In many ways, modern mail-order brides are not far removed from this ad: women in dire situations, taking charge of their lives for the promise of something better.

"The idea that men are buying women and that the women have no say, no free will, basically that they're trafficked [is not true] ... mail-order brides are very much, in most cases, in control," says Zug. "It doesn't mean that it always works out. But they know what they're doing in the sense that they believe that this is going to be something that offers them an opportunity to improve their lives."


Risks on Both Sides

Jonathon Narducci examined the mail-order marriage business in his 2014 documentary, "Love Me." The film follows a handful of men to Ukraine on a quest for women to marry. Ukraine, racked by social unrest and a foundering economy, is home to thousands of wannabe brides.

Some of the subjects in the film — the men, mostly, who often come off as unworldly, even fools — are deceived. Some are hurt. Most simply carry on, little better or little worse off for the experience.


That, Narducci says, is the reality of the mail-order marriage business.

"Everyone gets what they deserve. And I think that goes with all online dating," Narducci says. "All my friends that are single date online. And it doesn't work out very well. You want to know why? It's because people fill in the gaps. And when you don't speak the same language, you're filling in even more gaps, and you're filling in the gaps with what you want those people to be. You create the image in your head."

Why don't most mail order marriages work out? "You're filling in the gaps with what you want those people to be. You create the image in your head."
Jonathon Narduucci, Director, "Love Me"

Add cultural and age differences (most men are older than the women they meet), and you can see why these things rarely work. "That's why it's hard to feel sympathetic," Narducci adds. "I got over feeling bad for them a long time ago."

One particularly telling and painful story in "Love Me": Svitlana, a mother of two from Ukraine, agrees to marry Michael. They are married in Bali. He flies home, she and the kids head back to Ukraine to start the paperwork — and then she refuses to answer his emails. They have no contact for months. When he returns, she breaks it off.

It's awkward. It's something, too, that everyone should have seen coming.

There's a shot in the film of the couple on their wedding day. He, in a dark shirt and white tie, is smiling. Svitlana, in a white wedding dress and holding a bouquet, is turned away, her lips a grim line. She later says she knew, on her wedding day, that she could not marry Michael.

But she got a trip to Bali out of it, at least.

"I definitely did not use him. Maybe I didn't tell him everything I should have, which might be considered a lie. And I feel guilty about that," she says later in the film. "But I do think people must be smarter."


The Pitch

At least 2,700 mail-order marriage agencies operate around the world, with 500 or so in the U.S., according to a 2001 article in The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice. Most, if not all, have a website.

Mark Edward Davis wrote a book about international dating and later launched his own service, Dream Connections, which he runs with his Ukrainian wife Anna. Davis' site has the requisite pictures of alluring women, complete with profiles, like the one below.


"I hope to meet man, with whom we will have lots interests in common. I think, that respect, understanding. I also think, that man should be kind and generous." — 40-year-old Oksana

Some sites charge a monthly membership fee to browse for potential brides. Others are free to browse but charge you to email the women — the translation fee (inbound and outbound) can be $10 a pop or more. Of course, there's no telling how real these conversations are.

"The online dating scene, their business model, is designed to keep you on the website, feeding the meter, not finding a wife," Davis says. "I hate it."

Davis claims his site is different. Dream Connections sells tours to Ukraine, Colombia and Thailand, matching Western men with local women. The tours to Ukraine run about $5,000 — without airfare, drinks, most meals and tips. Davis claims to prescreen both men and women to ensure that their intent is marriage. Not sex, not having a good time, not finding a cook.

On tour, men zip through speed dates with help from translators, sitting down at tables with several women at a time. Coaching is available. One-on-one dates are arranged. In a week, maybe longer (Davis' tours are often nine days), a man can meet literally dozens of purportedly interested women.

If he feels like proposing, he can. If she feels like accepting, she can.

Does the mail-order marriage strategy work? Statistics are hard to find. Anecdotally, Zug and Narducci say the success rate is very low. The INS said in 1999 that between 4,000 and 6,000 mail order brides came to the U.S. each year. The Tahirih Justice Center — a U.S.-based group dedicated to protecting immigrant women and girls from violence — estimated 11,000 to 16,500 mail order brides, using 2007 immigration statistics.

But what percentage that represents of all the people out there trying to make matches is unknown. However, disappointment and disillusionment undoubtedly outnumber wedded bliss.

What's Love Got to Do With It?

The nagging question, especially for those who see mail-order marriages as a heartless transaction, is, what's love got to do with it. Doesn't love go together with marriage, as Sinatra once crooned?

Not necessarily. Stories of abuse in mail-order marriages abound. Scams, by companies peddling marriage and by both women (out for money or a green card) and men (out for sex and a submissive partner), are commonplace. The Tahirih Justice Center estimates that abuse rates in marriages between American citizens and foreign women are three times higher than in the general population. The estimate is not specifically pointing at mail-order brides and their spouses, but the group says it is a "close analogy."

The 2005 International Marriage Broker Regulation Act imposes regulations on the industry, such as requiring mail-order bride companies to do background checks on their clients before providing their contact information to the foreign women (and to share the results of the check with them).

So, does love have anything to do with mail-order marriage?

Zug pauses a long time before she answers. "It depends on what you think about marriage and love. Can these marriages lead to love? Definitely. Is this the way most Americans think of the order for love and marriage? Usually not."