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Blaming Culture for Bad Behavior

28 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2000 Last revised: 10 Aug 2012

Leti Volpp

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law

Date Written: August 9, 2012


This essay examines cases of both voluntary and forced marriages of teenagers to older men, and analyzes the different narratives that emerge when the actors are white Americans and immigrants of color. In Texas, a fourteen-year-old woman and twenty-two-year-old man who were Mexican immigrants were considered to have a common law marriage that served as a defense to a charge of statutory rape. This marriage was understood to be a product of "Mexican culture," even though Texas culture, as embodied in statute, resolved the case. In contrast, when in Maryland a thirteen-year-old married a twenty-nine-year-old man in a formal marriage, the marriage was not considered to be a product of a classless "white culture." The essay then examines two cases of forced marriage of adolescents, the first involving two teenaged sisters, forced by their Iraqi immigrant father to marry older men; the second involving a fifteen-year-old in a splinter Mormon sect forced by her father to marry her uncle as his fifteenth wife. The first case was depicted as illustrating a multiculturalism run amok; the second, while condemned, was not similarly considered to threaten long-standing American values. The essay examines why people of color are more likely thought to be governed by cultural dictates, so that "bad behavior" is selectively blamed on culture. It discusses how this assumption facilitates the presumption that feminism and multiculturalism are values that lie in tension, and concludes by arguing that the equation of racialized immigrant culture with sex subordination exaggerates the prevalence of sex subordination in immigrant communities at the expense of recognizing the universality of gendered subordination.

Suggested Citation

Volpp, Leti, Blaming Culture for Bad Behavior (August 9, 2012). Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Vol. 12, P. 89, 2000. Available at SSRN:

Leti Volpp (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - School of Law ( email )

215 Boalt Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720-7200
United States

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