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Why are there websites offering mail-order Moldovan brides, but not mail-order Moldovan grooms? Why do middle-aged foreign men fly to Chisinau to marry young Moldovan girls, but no young foreign girls fly to Chisinau to marry middle-aged Moldovan men? Why does the sight of Western European men with Eastern European women sometimes make us cynical? Can genuine love blossom across cultures, and what do we mean by “genuine” love anyway?

Some answers to the first two questions, at least, can be found in the fast-expanding science of evolutionary psychology. The basic premise of evolutionary psychology is simple: our behaviour is partly influenced by our genes, so we should be inclined to behave in ways that would, in the past, have tended to spread the genes that cause the behaviour. Take sex. A woman must invest nine months of her time in producing a baby, whereas a man can do his bit in ten seconds. With such a greater investment at stake, you would expect women to be more discerning than men about their sexual partners; and, generally speaking, they are. When men feel inclined to have sex with anything in a skirt while women instinctively want to bide their time, the explanation is simple biology.

Genetic advantage also explains the human instinct to form pair-bonds – or, in more everyday language, to get married. Over the hundreds of thousands of years in which humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, babies who had the support of two parents would have had a better survival rate than those who were brought up by their mothers alone. Genes which incline us to fall in love and bring up babies together would therefore tend to spread into the next generation. It’s unromantic but true – falling in love is something our genes make us do to improve their chances of getting themselves effectively reproduced.

But what about who we fall in love with? Humans evolved in a harsh and dangerous environment, in which a high percentage of babies would not have survived their first few years in life. A woman’s role in making children was mostly physical – bear the baby for nine months and breast-feed it. A man’s role, once his ten seconds of physical input was out of the way, was mostly material – go out and hunt to bring home food for the family. Men would have wanted to form pair-bonds with young, healthy women who looked likely to be able to withstand the physical stress of bearing many children. (This also means beautiful women, because the traditional signs of beauty are also signs of health – such as clear, unblemished skin – or of suitability for bearing and rearing children, such as wide hips and large breasts.) Women, in turn, would have been inclined to favour pair-bonds with skilled hunters with a high status in the tribe, who could be relied upon to provide them and their babies with sufficient material resources.

The genes which programmed this behaviour survive in us today. Studies show that it’s as close to a human universal as you can get – in pretty much every culture, men are more likely than women to place a higher value on youth and beauty than power and status in their marriage partners. There are always exceptions, of course, but you can’t doubt the general principle: most men would rather marry a young and beautiful but poor woman than an old and ugly but rich one, whereas a lot of women would be seriously tempted by the old and ugly but rich husband instead of the young and beautiful but poor alternative.

This explains a lot of human behaviour. When women want to look attractive to the opposite sex, they put on make-up and lipstick and figure-hugging clothes – that is, they try to appear younger and healthier. When men want to attract the opposite sex they drive fast cars, buy expensive presents and boast about their achievements – that is, they try to appear wealthier and more powerful. Why don’t you see many men going to the bathroom to check their hair and apply more eye shadow, or many women driving around in flashy new BMWs? Simple biology.

And why do foreign men come to Moldova to marry local girls, while Moldovan men don’t seem to be in great demand as marriage partners for foreign women? Why mail-order brides but no mail-order grooms? Again, simple biology.

Well, simple biology combined with harsh economic reality: Moldova is a poor country and immigration controls make it difficult to cross borders into rich countries. Moldova’s women are, of course, famously beautiful. Evolutionary psychology predicts that the material poverty of the women should be irrelevant to wealthy foreign men attracted by their beauty, and also that some Moldovan girls might be willing to overlook those foreign men being old and ugly if they’re wealthy enough. In contrast, you wouldn’t expect to see all that many wealthy foreign women falling over themselves to secure a young Moldovan guy.

A quick search on Google bears this out. Type in “Moldova men” and your top listing is a set of decathlon results, with a page of life expectancy statistics in third position. Type in “Moldova women” and eight out of the top ten hits include the phrase “marriage agency” or “mail-order brides”. A couple of random clicks later and I’m looking at a picture of 23-year-old Alexandra from Tiraspol, who is a student, likes to cook, and is looking for a “financially stable” man. If I like the look of Alexandra’s photo I can type in my credit card details and pay the website – which is based in Phoenix, Arizona – US$9 to send me her email address.

This website also offers a telephone service. Some of the girls, like Alexandra, don’t speak much English – but that needn’t be a problem: the website offers “interpreter-assisted” phone calls. For a mere US$6 a minute I can speak to the Moldovan girl of my dreams via a translator.

What sort of girl lists herself on a website like the romantically-named newwife.com? That’s an easy enough question to answer: one who feels trapped in a poor country and desperate to escape to the EU or US. What sort of man goes looking for love through an online mail-order bride service? Harsh as it sounds, it’s probably one who can’t attract a similarly young and beautiful woman in his own country but is aware that his possession of a European or American passport makes him an attractive proposition for girls in the developing world.

When I first came to Moldova, my conversation with the taxi-driver who took me to Heathrow airport drifted onto this subject and he told me that one of his friends had just taken delivery of a mail-order bride from Eastern Europe. “He’s not happy with her, though,” the driver confided. “She’s a lazy cow – she won’t do the washing up. I was short of sympathy for the taxi-driver’s friend. Here was a middle-aged man who, by accident of birth, found himself living in a wealthy country and who was therefore able to go online and “order” a woman who, also by accident of birth, found herself living in a poor country. She had to compromise her dignity enough to marry the guy; you can’t blame her if she didn’t fancy washing his dishes as well.

When I worked in Africa, a nearby town was home to an oil refinery that employed many Europeans. In bars and clubs on Saturday nights you saw many of these squat, ugly sixty-year-old French men walking around with stunningly attractive young black girls on their arms. It was hard to believe that this was Cupid’s arrow at work. In Chisinau, the phenomenon is perhaps less obviously visible but it exists. Foreign men with wealth, local girls with looks. Simple biology.

How do you react to this? If you’re like me, with an instinctive shudder of distaste. It’s hard to blame the ageing ex-pat oil workers for succumbing to the temptation of sex with attractive African teenagers – I can’t promise that I won’t be doing that myself if I’m single in my sixties. And you can’t blame the young African girls for being willing to trade access to their bodies for expensive gifts and the outside chance of being married and taken to France. But when you look at these couples, you’re acutely aware that they’re only together because France is rich, Africa is poor and the European Union’s border is well-protected.

Few of us are so clinically unemotional, so self-consciously shameless, that we’re content to see our love relationships as reducible to a trade of money for sex – even if that’s what it looks like to outsiders. In the case of French oil workers and African girls, it’s difficult to pretend otherwise – but then there’s a noticeable difference in attitudes between Africa and the West. In Africa, it’s taken for granted that sexual relationships will involve an exchange of material benefits, whether it’s cash for prostitution, dowries for marriage or a steady flow of gifts to keep girlfriends happy. My male African friends used to discuss the pros and cons of having a girlfriend in the same way that you might debate whether it’s worth owning a car: it gives you enjoyment but is expensive to maintain.

In Britain, most women would be offended by the suggestion that financial status played a role in their choice of boyfriend – and most men would be offended by the implication that they were paying for sex. Generally, when you go out on a date in the early stages of a relationship it’s assumed that you’ll split the bill fifty-fifty. By paying her share, the woman is saying two things: firstly, that she is an independent person who can earn money for herself and doesn’t need men to look after her. And secondly, that if she happens to end up in bed with you later, it’s because she wants to have sex with you and not because you bought her dinner.

Moldova seems to fall somewhere between the two. I’m told that it’s considered usual for a man taking a girl on a date to pay for the cost of the evening, but most Moldovan women would be mortified by any suggestion that they were trading sexual favours for material benefits.

I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect that many of the foreign men and Moldovan women who meet their partners through online marriage agencies are able to convince themselves that their love is genuine and it was fate that brought them together. What, though, do we mean by “genuine” love? For most of us, I think, it means a love that seems mysterious, that’s not readily explicable, that expresses itself in phrases like “there’s just something about her, I don’t know what it is”. Imagine a 60-year-old American millionaire courting a beautiful 20-year-old girl from Chisinau via a telephone interpreter at US$6 a minute, then flying to Moldova for a weekend to get married. “There’s just something about him,” she says, “I don’t know what it is.” The obvious response is: “I think I can guess!”

There are many reasons why we might be attracted to one person more than another: their sense of humour, taste in films or love of animals; their big breasts or expensive car; their resemblance to your father, or the ex-partner who dumped you. Insofar as we can identify reasons why we are loved, we want them to be ones that we consider essential to who we are. If someone is attracted to me by my wit, charm and modesty, that’s okay as I feel they are important parts of me. If the attraction is that I have a British passport, I’m unhappy because I don’t consider that to be a central part of my identity.

Above all, though, we want the reasons not to be identifiable – we want to feel that we’re loved for some mysterious, indefinable spark in our soul. We sense that if the reasons we are loved seem obviously explicable, the love is devalued. I once met a brilliant pianist who told me that he’d only ever slept with women who had heard him play the piano, and who was insecure because he didn’t consider his piano-playing to be his defining characteristic and wanted to be sure he was loved for other things, too. Ironically, in love relationships across cultures, this element of doubt can make it harder for perfectly genuine relationships to succeed. “She seems to enjoy my company… but does she only want me because marrying me would get her a US passport?” a doubting man may ask himself. “He seems to really like me… but is it only because he wants a young wife and can’t attract anyone so young in America?” a doubting woman may wonder.

It’s always possible to be cynical, but it’s possible to be too cynical. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy jokingly remarks that she first started to revise her opinion of Mr Darcy when she saw what a luxurious house he owned. Who can say how much truth there is in that, in the murky depths of Lizzy’s subconscious? But the reader doesn’t doubt for a moment the genuineness of the love, because there are so many other layers to the relationship too. In the case of French oil workers and African girls, or newwife.com mail-order marriages, our cynicism is because we don’t sense the existence of any of those other layers.

Women have always been attracted to rich and successful men, and men to young and beautiful women – it’s natural. But when the process becomes explicit – as in newwife.com – and when there appears to be no other basis for the attraction than the man’s wealth and the woman’s looks, the process seems shabby and unworthy. It’s an interesting question whether all romantic love would seem similarly devalued if it were possible to deconstruct the reasons for it perfectly. Suppose a psychologist could explain to you precisely why you love your partner: would the removal of the mystery destroy the power of the love?

Genuine love – mysterious, multi-layered – certainly can blossom across cultures, exactly as it can within a culture: just ask my British-Indian friend and his German girlfriend, or my British friend from a West Indian background and his Japanese wife. But it would definitely be easier without the wealth differentials and immigration controls that give rise to the justifiable cynicism with which we view websites like newwife.com. What we need is for Moldova to become as wealthy as the EU average, and for holders of Moldovan passports to have as much chance to travel and earn money as holders of American and European ones. Romance deserves to be mysterious; when African ex-patriate oil workers start dating gorgeous French teenagers, and websites start fixing up young Western women with older Moldovan men, nobody will be able to be cynical any more.

By Andrew Wright

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