Just A Hoax? It Resonates for a Reason

Eesha Pandit

The website Marry Our Daughter may have been a hoax, but it resonated strongly enough to reveal entrenched cultural attitudes about women and girls.

Rachel, 15, from the Northeast "says she doesn't have to choose between marriage and a career like other girls because being married is the only career she's interested in. She's ready to stand by her man and support him in every way possible." How much will it cost to make her your bride? $19,995.

Makayla, also 15, from the Midwest, is "a traditional girl, a homebody who cooks like a chef and decorates like Martha Stewart. She also has a cheerful, upbeat outlook on life and spends a lot of time laughing. She says she is looking for a man with a sense of humor to take care of." Her cost? $24,995.

If you haven't already heard about the service from which these listings are taken, called Marry Our Daughter, don't worry just yet. It's been exposed as a hoax. It's worth noting, however, that the site certainly managed to fool a lot of people, garnering more than 60 million hits in its first week. Very well done, and awfully realistic, it contains testimonials from satisfied families, instructions on signing up your own daughter and a way to "propose" to those already listed. Claiming to be a "service assisting those following the Biblical tradition of arranging marriages for their daughters," the site has received thousands of angry letters, and – hold on to your seats- has also received thousands of proposals.

Why would someone do this? Site creator John Ordover claims he was trying to draw attention to marriage laws in the states. In the US, laws regarding the legal age for marriage vary by state and often conflict with statutory-rape laws. In cases with parental permission, girls as young as 13 can be legally married in states where the legal age of sexual consent is 17. In Newsweek, Jessica Bennett quoted Ordover:

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"This is an issue that people are extremely complacent about, and I said, 'I think I can find a way to get people to care, or at least start talking about it'," Ordover says. He hopes the site will generate controversy and spur outraged readers to pressure their local legislators to elevate the marriage age…

He bills it as "an experiment in Viral Politics" in a letter he plans to send out when he officially comes clean. "If we fooled you or disgusted you, you have every right to be angry at us for what we did. But we ask you to direct that anger energy where it will do the most good: toward those in your state who can change the law, your Governor and state representatives."

This hoax is intriguing for several reasons, but primarily because it's believable. As Jessica Valenti points out, in this world of abstinence only sex-ed and purity balls, many young women are being told to measure their worth in terms of their value as future brides, just as Marry Our Daughter suggests. (For an amusing take on purity balls, see Amanda Marcott's Reality Cast segment.) Their value as young women lies in their virginity and marriageability – and so this website, on some level, strikes a chord.

But on Marry Our Daughter, women don't just land a husband by being appealing virgins – they manage to extract a generous fee for their parents. The cost of ranges from $3,995 to $99,995 per girl, with most around the $25,000 mark. And at first this element of the website might not tip you off – after all, mail-order-bride sites are legal under international law, as long as the bride is of age. But "if the parent is accepting money on behalf of the child, irrelevant of whether the child is of consensual age, it's definitely trafficking"-and would fall under state and U.S. trafficking laws, says Suzanna Tiapula, an senior attorney with the Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse at the National District Attorney's Association.

What is really telling about the element of monetary exchange is that it wasn’t necessary for Ordover to make his point about the age of consent. Just the fact that parents might agree to get their young, underage daughters married “in the Biblical tradition” would have served to point out that this sort of arrangement would be legal in many states and made the hoax effective. 

So then what might we learn from Ordover's inclusion of the "bride price?" Simple. While we don't all know about anti-trafficking regulation, we all know, at some level, that a young woman's social and economic worth is tied up in her sexuality. We know that women make less than money than men, that they face the pressure to be married long before most men, and that they are more likely to live in poverty if they aren't married. Social realities like abstinence only-sex education reinforce these assumptions and link women's worth to their age and sexuality. Young women are denied control of their sexual and reproductive lives by policies and social practices that strip them of their agency. So it makes sense that even if the site would be found illegal if brought to court, many folks didn't blink when they came across a site in which young women were purportedly being sold. This, then, is as much a commentary about the economic and social status of young women in the US as it is about age of consent legislation in our states.

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