This month’s academic corner will focus on the issue of ‘scams’ within the premium international dating market.
A journalistic account of the industry published in England argues that the industry in Ukraine is in fact a form of emotional prostitution.
Shaun Walker’s article in the Guardian had one of those overly dramatic headlines British newspapers are famous for promising to reveal, The men who go to Ukraine looking for a wife then fly home alone and broke.
The article focuses on how the recent political conflict in Ukraine has encouraged women to get involved in the industry in order to supplement their lowered incomes.
He even published a short book Odessa Dreams for those interested in a larger account of how he came to these conclusions based upon his time in Odessa following a romance tour.
However, many sociologists argue that relationships are complicated and that economic interests are always at play within our intimate relationships, troubling ideas about what constitutes authentic emotional engagements.
In the The Purchase of Intimacy Princeton sociologist, Viviana Zelizer, argues that many people consider the economic realm and the intimate realms of our lives as completely separate from one another, and in fact, hostile to each other.
A narrative exists in society that economic considerations make intimate relationships impure and questionable.
Many men involved in this industry come from a separate and hostile worlds viewpoint when thinking about the premium international dating industry, and intimate relationships in general.
In the United States people generally have the misconception that love and money do not mix.
This notion is deeply ingrained into American culture. It is the primary plot device of uncounted millions of novels and news stories.
It is the topic of some of the biggest feature films in Hollywood history like, Titanic, Sabrina, and Grease to name just a few.
And of course, the Beatles classic, Can’t Buy Me Love, is staple of oldies stations and on the playlists of a lot of people who were not even born when the Beatles broke up.
However, if we examine the history of marriage the intermingling of economic considerations within intimate relationships has always been present and much more forthright.
In her History of Marriage Stephanie Coontz explains that, For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention.
Therefore, Zelizer argues instead for her concept of ‘connected lives.’
She introduces the concept by explaining that: In the broadest terms, people create connected lives by differentiating their multiple social ties from each other, marking boundaries between those different ties by means of everyday practices, sustaining those ties through joint activities (including economic activities), but constantly negotiating the exact content of important social ties.
Most people understand that this role playing happens ever day.
Everyone is a child, a student, a teacher, a lover, and a friend.
Often these roles comingle and overlap and the choice we make about which role to choose in a given situation is often complicated and important to the outcome of a given social interaction, because our choices do not occur in a vacuum but in simultaneously with other individuals.
Each individual is constantly observing the other individuals and adjusting their role based on those observations.
Zelizer notes that, In order to understand these complicated processes, we must begin with three facts that we all experience as human beings but have trouble talking about.
First, we construct the most coherent set of social worlds we can by negotiating and adopting meaningful ties to other people, but differentiating sharply among the rights, obligations, transactions, and meanings that belong to different ties.
Essentially, Zelizer explains that the process is difficult, because it involves so many factors that are both psychological and social.
This is true in any situation, but nowhere in the normal flow of the life process is it more fraught with potential dangers and possibilities as in the case of courtship, because the nature of courtship is both deeply personal and by its very nature life altering.
Second, we mark differences between ties with distinctive names, symbols, practices, and media of exchange; despite some similarities in emotional intensities and significance to our lives, we establish sharp distinctions among our personal ties to physicians, parents, friends, siblings, children, spouses, lovers, and close collaborators.
And everyone admits the distinctions are odd, because everyone adjust their behavior differently to different individuals – even when the individual are nominally at the same rank.
For instance, most people freely admit they treat their mother and father differently. Even if they say they over them just the same they treat them differently.
Third, economic activities of production, consumption, distribution, and asset transfers play significant parts in most such relations. Interpersonal relations within households provide the obvious example: no household lasts long without extensive economic interaction among its members.
Therefore, it is impossible to engage in relationships with others without some forms of exchange that include economic, but also emotional, iterations. Business partnerships, friendships and romantic relationships all include various forms of exchange.
When the current first lady was asked if she would have married Donald Trump if he was not wealthy, she responded with, “Would he have married me if I was not a model?” Melania Trump recognizes that her relationship includes a form of exchange that trades her youth and beauty for his financial stability and wealth. That sums up why I think it is problematic for men to think of the premium international dating market as full of scammers.
First, it is a simple fact that the men are attracted to the women for their beauty, and the women are attracted to the men’s economic status.
None of the reputable international dating companies deny this, but the executives at those companies will tell you that men are looking for more than beauty and women are looking for more than money.
All of them have stories of rich men with strange personalities who cannot find a wife, and beautiful women who are serious but unsuccessful at finding a foreign husband.
So, beautiful women start with an advantage when they sign up with international dating agencies and so do wealthy men, but neither of those positive factors is a perfect predictor of eventual romantic success.
The only time a potential for scams exists is when people send money to someone they have never met in person and every reputable PID agency will tell you that same advice.
Once you have met someone in person, things can get complicated in terms of what types of exchanges you are willing to make with each other.
But those complicated moments would have arisen eventually despite where the couple initially met, because that give and take, role playing, offending, forgiving, and ranking is at the heart of the courtship process.
So, the couples that failed would have more than likely failed if they had met at the supermarket, been introduced by friends, or met at a church social.
Failure at this level is far less about where they met than what they believe they truly need out of a mate – not just money or beauty – but compassion, compatibility, and a sense of security.
As Zelizer pointed out, we differentiate between our social relationships in very distinct and important ways, meaning that we do not allow for the same types of exchanges in all of our social relationships.
Be aware of what your own boundaries are and the exchanges you are willing to make in a romantic relationship and the types of exchanges that make you uncomfortable.
Shaun Walker calls chatting or dating people you have no interest in marrying a form of emotional prostitution, but I want to complicate that by arguing that emotional labor does have economic value.
While we often do not talk about it, emotional labor is an increasingly valued commodity in the global marketplace.
In The Managed Heart Arlie Hochschild, a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, defines emotional labor in terms of managing your feelings for your job, especially within the service industry (being happy at all times, polite at all times, etc.).
People that engage in relationships are doing a form of emotional labor that people get paid to do all the time.
What do I mean by that? First, there are a whole array of intimate services for pay exists: professional cuddlers, therapists, sex workers, escorts, strippers.
While clients know these services are commodities that they pay for, they want the exchange to feel ‘authentic’. That is where emotional labor comes in.
But in addition to these explicitly emotional professions nearly every employee is paid in part because of the emotional connection they make with supervisors, clients, coworker, and other stakeholders in the operation including in most cases the public at large.
Think how often you go to a particular restaurant because of your emotional connection with the staff there? The food may not be the best in town, but the atmosphere and service make up for it.
The most successful companies like Google, Apple, and Starbucks understand the value of emotional connection and work hard at all levels of the company to make these various emotional attachments.
They understand that positive emotional attachments helps them increase productivity and grow their market share.
Yes, Google has to provide good search results; Apple has to provide great hardware; and Starbucks has got to serve a decent cup of coffee, but they make a substantial amount of money off of the emotional attachment their customers have to the company.
They call it branding and today branding is a multibillion dollar business, so the emotional and financial worlds are tied much closer than we generally accept.
All relationships contain emotional labor and economic exchange troubling the idea that a relationship is a ‘scam’.
However, people need to define for themselves the types of boundaries and exchanges they feel comfortable making within a relationship.
Yes, international dating is more open about the connection between emotional attentiveness and financial wellbeing than is common in American society, but this does not mean that international dating is a scam or that in fact the international dating paradigm is an inappropriate foundation on which to start a serious long-term relationship.
I completed my Ph.D. at Florida International University in Global Sociocultural Studies and Sociology, with a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies during the summer of 2014. I am currently an Assistant Professor at Lebanon Valley College.