And the winner is . . . Edmonton!

by Angela

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Edmonton takes the prize for the least charming place to live in Canada right now. Why? Because besides glamourizing domestic violence in order to sell a hair cut, an inglorious Edmonton radio station has decided to run a Win-A-Wife contest. Yes, you can win your very own mail-order Russian bride. A similar contest was run in New Zealand some time ago and was thoroughly criticized so some top-notch misogynists in Edmonton decided that they’d like to import that contest to Canada.

Now let’s be clear about this, you don’t actually win a wife. What you win is the chance to pick a few potential wives from a catalogue and then hope the person you pick really likes you. So, potential Russian wives, let’s see who’s in the running for your, um…, affection:

Misogynist #1: Bob Doyle

He’s looking for a smart, pretty wife with a dry sense of humour (I hope he speaks Russian). The stupidest thing he’s done in the hopes of scoring is to pay for a hotel, cover the bed in flower petals and a bottle of wine (I can see why he didn’t score, I mean, who’d want to lie on a bed covered in wine) and then…Nothing happened! Poor baby, he doesn’t seem to realize that his sense of entitlement may have turned his date off. The worst sex he’s ever had was with a girl who didn’t shave… he’s just saying. He tells us that one of the benefits of having a wife is he has someone to rub his back. What a charmer!

Misogynist #2 RedRandy (we can already see where this is headed)

He’s single but horny and he thinks the benefit of having a wife are food companionship, which I suspect is just a nice way of saying he wants her to cook for him but he’s nice so he’ll at least let her sit at the table, and “doing it.” Awww shucks! He’s such a gentleman he can’t even say sex.

Misogynist #3: Zantolas

He’s single-ish (i.e. will cheat for sex), he wants a good-looking girl who can pour a drink (he says he’s not picky but it’s unclear whether he’s referring to the girl or the drink), and he doesn’t know what the benefits of being married are since…he’s been married!??!

Misogynist #4: Best Looking

For him, the top three benefits of having a wife include having someone to make fun of and not having to cook.

I could go on but this gets old fast.

These candidates are a little frightening, and this is after the radio station so kindly filtered out the “no-hopers.” I’m not surprised to find there are worse prospects out there but it would have been nice to see The Bear have higher standards. Whoops! Sorry! I mistook the people running this contest for HUMAN BEINGS.

After fuming about this contest for a few days, I started to think about how, in some ways, the process might not seem so different from online dating. There’s no question that presenting this contest in terms of winning a wife commodifies and objectifies women, women are talked about as though they are objects to be traded, bought, or won. Yet, if the contest was billed as your chance to meet your future wife, would that be problematic and, if so, why? These Russian women appear to be making a choice so is it really any different from any other internet dating site? Looking through a catalogue of women doesn’t seem to be much different from browsing the women available in an online dating forum. So where does the difference lie?

The most common answer is often that the economic status of women in Russia is pretty bad and, as a result, these women are being exploited. Their need for financial stability might make arrangements like the one’s offered by Volga Girs (the company which runs this service) seem appealing. Yet this could happen in Canada as well. It’s conceivable that someone who is financially insecure would look for a partner who is financially secure without the relationship being exploitative and one way to do so would be through an internet dating service. Therefore, it’s conceivable that the Volga Girls are not being exploited and are simply pragmatic.

Clearly the economic status of these women, while definitely a factor, is not the only reason these arrangements are problematic. There are a number of additional factors that contribute to their exploitative nature: (1) the social status of these women in Russia, (2) the expectations of both men and women entering these arrangements; and (3) the legal status of these women when they get to Canada.

The average age for a woman entering a first marriage in Russia is 22 and women over that age may feel pressure from peers to get married for fear that, if they wait too long, they will never be able to marry and have a family. This is illustrated on the Volga Girl website where they ask and answer the question about why these women want to enter into such an arrangement:

a good and loving man is considered gold in Russia. It is very difficult for a mid-20s and older lady or a previous married lady to find a good man to marry in Russia. There is definitely a shortage of eligible males in Russia with 10 million more women than men. Thus, some ladies are adventurous enough to seek their happiness with a foreign man. These ladies are not anxious to leave their homes, families and culture but they will do so to have a family of their own and a good and loving husband.

Whether it is likely or not that these women would find partners if they stayed in Russia, the belief that they wouldn’t obviously plays a role. Even here, it is not uncommon for women to be told that, after a certain age, they are doomed to a life of solitude with a large number of cats.

Since Russian culture is fairly traditional with respect to gender roles, many Russian women feel that they have insufficient opportunities to build a career. They probably view North America as a place where they can have both family and pursue a career, especially if they’ve been exposed to North American pop-culture. This can be a powerful motive to enter into such an arrangement.

One of the startling points that Jonathan Haidt makes in his book The Happiness Hypothesis has to do with the way we imagine our futures. We often envision the best possible outcome. If we envision ourselves as teachers, for instance, we might imagine ourselves leaving lasting impressions on the students we teach and leading them to a new and great appreciation for the subject we’re teaching. If we imagine ourselves as doctors we imagine ourselves saving lives, and so on. Similarly, the Volga Girls probably imagine themselves with loving husbands who will support them in whatever they choose to do. This hope may well be reinforced by their exposure to North American pop-culture. What they probably don’t envision is a relationship based on servitude.

This contrasts with what many of the men going into this relationship expect.  Many of them are looking for wives who will have sex with them whenever they want, who will cook and clean for them, etc. Given the way that the contest is promoted, there’s almost no chance that the men hoping to win are looking to enter an equal, respectful and mutually satisfying relationship. By labeling this contest the “win-a-wife” contest, it attracts men who objectify women and are likely to have little respect for the women that they marry.

All of this, rather than making for a mutually beneficial arrangement, leads to exploitation. Since these Volga Girls are looking to escape a situation that offers them little opportunity to pursue a good life, it is all too easy to use the threat of deportation as a means of coercion. If the couple don’t get married in Russia, the chosen Volga Girl will initially be here on a Visa as she won’t fall into one of the three categories for sponsorship. Once here and married, the sponsorship process takes about 9-10 months during which time the possibility of deportation is quite real. And, as Stephanie Chau points out in her paper on Mail-Order Brides in Canada, they may not know or be made aware of their rights once they do become citizens or landed immigrants. In addition, they’re economically dependent on the person who brought them to Canada.

Even if the threat of deportation is never used, there’s plenty of room for manipulation, both conscious and unconscious, because these women can be made to feel as though they’ve been done a huge favour. Any complaint on their part can be viewed and treated as ingratitude. In the end, there’s very little chance that the power imbalance in these relationships coupled with the motivations of the men entering these arrangements will not lead to exploitation. And that is quite different from internet dating where the parties involved are more likely to be on an even playing field.