Selling Your Children for Marriage—Online

Like most girls her age, 15-year-old Ashlee R. is into sports, clothes and current pop music. She's a typical Midwestern teen—except that she's looking for a husband. "She tells us none of the boys her own age are interesting to her because they 'are still little kids' and she is looking for an adult to start a life with," say her parents, who've enrolled her on a new Web site—MarryOurDaughter.com—where they've set the "price" for her hand as $37,500.

Makayla S. is also 15, a traditional girl, a homebody who "cooks like a chef and decorates like Martha Stewart." She has a cheerful, upbeat outlook on life and spends a lot of time laughing. Her bride price? $24,995.

Before you get too upset, stop: MarryOurDaughter.com isn't real—it's a hoax. Nonetheless, the site—which claims to be a matching service for followers of "the Biblical tradition" of arranged marriages—has managed to fool a whole lot of people. With profiles of young girls, outrageous testimonials and solicitations for proposals (as well as a sign-up page to have your own daughter listed) MarryOurDaughter.com has received 60 million hits since it launched last week—and, believe it or not, on top of angry letters, thousands of proposals.

It's impossible to know how many of the proposals are real. But sifting through the Gmail account where they've all been directed, it's hard to believe there aren't at least a couple hopeful grooms—or parents of hopeful brides. The site's creator, John Ordover, a viral-marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, N.Y., gave NEWSWEEK access to that account, and we sorted through hundreds of e-mails—some outraged, others, well, creepy. "Darling Makayla, Seeing your bright smile among the other girls on this site was a joy among joys—to see someone so obviously full of life and laughter made me keep coming back to your profile," writes one suitor, who identifies himself as Mark B. "I want to provide you with everything you need, I want to have a partnership that will last a lifetime. You love to laugh, and I would love to make you laugh for the rest of our lives ... Please consider me as a husband."

Another wannabe groom, Mike P., writes: "Hi Courtney! Your profile really spoke to me and I think I may just be the man for you. I liked that you are carrying on your family tradition—family values are VERY important to me. I am a one-woman man only and very loyal and caring for a like-minded girl. I love to fish and play World of Warcraft ... I am very excited to get to know you!" (When contacted by NEWSWEEK via e-mail, many of these suitors didn't respond. The ones who did—like Mike P.—said much of the same: "Unfortunately, I have no idea what you are talking about.")

Someone who appears to be a mother signing up her daughter writes that her 16-year-old, Elizabeth, is "uppity but very pretty, and says she wants to work for the United Nation when she grows up. She's a liberal, and extremely smart and needs a strong, Christian man to help guide her." Her bride price: $45,000—set high, she says, "because we see this as an investment."

Real or not real, the blogs are buzzing about MarryOurDaughter.com, and everybody seems to have the same question: if it is a hoax, why bother? The care put into the site is clear—it's smart, witty and well-designed. As it turns out, Ordover's intentions go deeper than poking fun. He says he was hired by a group of women from a local support group who'd been married out in similar fashions—and wanted to draw attention to a very real problem. Marriage laws vary by state in the U.S. and are often in conflict with statutory-rape laws, he says—meaning that, with parental permission, it's not uncommon to find girls as young as 13 married with children in states where the legal age of sexual consent is more like 17. "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.

Many lawmakers agree that a number of state marriage laws are egregiously outdated. Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, Utah and New Hampshire all set age limits below 16 (New Hampshire allows marriage at 13—the lowest in the land), if parents approve. Mississippi and South Carolina allow girls younger than 16 to marry, but not boys. California and Massachusetts specify no minimum age, but require court approval for teens under 18. Utah, which allows marriages with parental consent at age 14, also allows a person to marry without consent if he or she has been previously married. Huh?

In Kansas, lawmakers only recently instituted a minimum age of 15 to marry after a 14-year-old pregnant girl and her 22-year-old boyfriend crossed the border from Nebraska (which had no minimum age) and wed. Nebraska's attorney general charged the boy with breaking the state's statutory-rape laws anyway, and he spent 15 months in prison. Kansas has since set the minimum marriage age at 15 with judicial approval and 16 with parental consent, but still remains one of 10 states that allow children under 16 to marry, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

In Arkansas, the marrying age has become a household joke after a new, confused law took effect on Aug. 1. Intended to establish 18 as the minimum marrying age (but allowing pregnant teenagers to marry with parental consent), an extraneous "not" in the bill allowed Arkansans of any age—even toddlers—to marry if the parents consented. That mistake, which happened at the end of the last legislative session, has led to at least two underage marriage licenses; the problem won't be fixed until the legislature next meets in January 2009. "This is one of those issues that once it's brought to legislators attention, it's a quick fix," says Christine Nelson, a policy specialist in the Children and Families department of the NCSL. "But from our look, there are still states that have alarmingly low ages."

One of the reasons for those low ages is pregnancy—the traditional feeling that if a young girl is expecting, she should be allowed to marry the father for the sake of her child. But as Ordover points out, the legal landscape can be tricky. Georgia eliminated the pregnancy provision from its code in 2006 after 37-year-old Lisa Lynette Clark was charged with child molestation, statutory rape and enticing a minor days after marrying the 15-year-old who impregnated her. And earlier this year, Delaware took similar steps, requiring anyone younger than 18 to petition family court for permission to marry, because the state's pregnancy provision conflicted with its statutory-rape law, which classifies sex with anyone under 16 as a felony. At the time, the Delaware lawmaker who drafted the law, the clerk of the peace for Newcastle County, said he'd called police on a couple of occasions to arrest one of the newlyweds on statutory rape just after they'd left his office. More, in a number of cases potential brides were old enough to get married but still not old enough to go to court on their own to get a divorce.

With all that said, it doesn't seem so far-fetched to think that a real site selling brides could, in fact, exist. But if it did, would it be legal? As it stands now, everything on Ordover's site is perfectly legal, based on the fact that no proposals actually went through, and no real girls were involved. He made up all of the girls' profiles, bride prices and testimonials, and downloaded all the photos from a stock photo site from which he'd purchased an "unlimited use license." So far, he hasn't heard from any of the models—though with the publicity the site is getting, that could soon change. He also made sure not to collect any personal or financial information, an attempt to avoid any allegations of "phishing" (acquiring financial information under false pretenses) and linked to state marriage laws from various places on the site. "It was important to create a site that—at first glance—looked worse than it was," he says.

But what about a real site? Mail-order-bride sites are legal under international law, as long as the bride is of age, says Andrea Bertone, the director of HumanTrafficking.org. And depending on state laws, requiring a specific dowry for an underage girl—with parental approval—would appear to be just fine. But at some point, dowry crosses over to bride price crosses over into selling—which crosses over into trafficking. "It's complicated, because child marriage is quite common around the world," says Bertone, whose research center is based at the Academy for Educational Development in Washington. "It might be interpreted under the U.N. Trafficking Protocol to be illegal (although there is nothing in the U.N. Trafficking Protocol or the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child that mentions anything about marriage or brides), but there is little that can be done if countries do not outlaw it and then enforce their own laws."

Suzanna Tiapula, an senior attorney with the Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse at the National District Attorney's Association, says the key to understanding this is recognizing the difference between dowry and bride price—which is, essentially, who's benefiting from the funds. Dowry, she says, traditionally goes to the couple, while bride price—or at least how it appears on MarryOurDaughter.com—is not much different from actually selling a child. "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, she says. "I think a prosecutor would probably be pretty excited to try a case like this, were it real."

Thankfully, it's not. Ordover plans to reveal the hoax publicly on Sunday, on the site and via e-mail to everyone who corresponded. 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." The most important thing, Ordover says, is that no girls were harmed in the creation of the site. That doesn't say much for the hearts and minds of their suitors.