American woman, stay away from me

Does looking for love in the Ukraine help American men "become like American women"?

Published July 21, 2006 12:00AM (EDT)

This weirdly captivating feature in the June issue of Harper's, which recently went up online, examines the strange, often grim world of the modern mail-order-bride industry. Writer Kristoffer Garin joins a group of guys traveling to Ukraine with marriage-broker group A Foreign Affair, and uses the experience to offer a backgrounder on the business, including trivia tidbits (Louis XV shipped such "casket brides" to Louisiana colonists) and surprising statistics ("Today, it is estimated that well over 100,000 women around the world are listed on the Internet as available for marriage to Western men").

There's plenty that's cringe-worthy in this industry portrait: Garin observes that international marriage brokers don't generally screen their clients for abusive histories, and there have been several high-profile cases in which American husbands murdered their foreign brides. Garin's tour guide boasts that Ukrainian men are so scarce that "more and more Ukrainian women are turning to lesbianism." Tour operators and prospective grooms use livestock-speak to describe the tour experience -- as one participant puts it, it's "like an alpha-male wolf having the sheep brought in." Even the cross-cultural exchanges that seem more mutually respectful also seem pretty sad; participants "made a point of saying how intelligent their dates were," Garin writes, "even if their outing had only lasted for half an hour and had taken place without a common language between them." And despite these attempts at meaningful connection, the element of economic transaction is pretty inescapable: "The more miserable the place, the more capital a visiting man will have to leverage against his prospective wives," Garin observes.

But what's weirdest is the tour guide's repeated through-the-looking-glass promise that his underappreciated American male customers will wind up being treated like American women. Not because they're getting kinky (or because they're taking a pay cut, yuk yuk), but because they will finally feel objectified: "Over here, you're the commodity; you're the piece of meat," he tells the group. "Take everything you know about dating and throw it away. After a few days, you guys are going to become like American women."

Being treated like meat isn't intended to prevent bride seekers from commodifying others, though. In fact, becoming like an American woman apparently means being able to dismiss potential partners according to astonishingly specific criteria: "A woman you would have killed to have lunch with back in the U.S., she'll be wanting to go out with you, but you'll start noticing little faults -- her ankles are too big, you don't like the shape of her earlobes," the tour guide promises. After a few days in the Ukraine, one participant vows, "I won't marry another American woman."

Ultimately, the chief appeal of the mail-order situation doesn't seem to be an inversion of American gender roles, but a retro approach to them. "Wherever the women come from, such websites as A Special Lady, Chance for Love, and Latin Love Search tout their traditional values, their submissiveness, their willingness to put husband and family ahead of themselves," Garin writes. As for the prospective grooms themselves, "what most imagined they would find in Ukraine [was] a fusion of 1950s gender sensibilities with a twenty-first-century hypersexuality." Such a deal we have for you, women of the Ukraine! Jerry Hall's mom must wish she'd trademarked her famous maid in the living room / whore in the bedroom line when she had the chance.

Garin's piece is a compelling read, and is intended as an industry snapshot rather than a representative look at gender relations in the U.S. or Ukraine. Still, the piece has me praying that economic and social conditions in Ukraine improve dramatically, so that women no longer need to line up to win $100 playing goofy party games with sweaty tourists.

I remain confused by the "become like American women" bit, though. Sure, certain men -- certain people, even -- may really enjoy hanging out in countries where old-fashioned gender mores predominate. But since when is enjoying the attentions of financially strapped vixens like being an American woman? And what does it say that these guys are shelling out their vacation funds to become like American women ... in the company of ladies who are also interested in becoming American women? It's enough to make one's head spin. I for one had no idea that American womanhood was so desirable.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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