When it comes to love, I think we're all a bit desperate in a way. And if you're facing the rest of your life on your own, then why not?"
Dawn Porter, the television presenter and writer, isn't quite defending the "mail-order" brides business, which she recently spent time in Ukraine investigating for a new Channel 4 series. But she's not entirely against it. As part of the same series, she further surprised herself by seeing the benefits of life as a polygamous mormon in Utah; free love in an eco-village in a former Stasi headquarters in Germany (where she gamely group-wrestled naked in the name of research); and enjoyed gaining insight into the complex rituals of life as a geisha. All in the name of exploring alternative ways of finding love.
Porter, 29, has made something of a name for herself for being open-minded – as well as exploring her own issues – through her documentary-making. Shows in her previous UK series included Dawn Gets Naked (where she experienced airbrushing, felt depressed about her body, and so gathered naked women of all shapes for an open-top bus tour through London); Dawn Goes Lesbian (where she figured that, what with the lack of promising men in her life, if she immersed herself in a lesbian lifestyle, she might increase her options. She failed); and Dawn Gets Her Man (where, despite a nationwide boyfriend competition, which included an ingenious dancing test for would-be suitors, she – you guessed it – failed).
The themes of self-discovery and singledom continue in her new series, in which Porter attempts to understand some unconventional ways of finding love, sometimes by experiencing them herself. "I'm 29 and have been single for four years," she explains. "I haven't met a man I want to be monogamous with yet. So what if that's still the situation in 10 years' time? What could I learn from alternative lifestyles? That became the whole premise of the series."
And so Porter set out to discover some of the more extreme ways that women find and maintain love – all, interestingly, extremely submissive ways. Women, for example, who want to get out of Ukraine so badly that they will marry a western man they hardly know. For this episode, Porter focused on a company called A Foreign Affair – an Odessa- based introduction agency which specialises in "romance holidays": travel packages for western men looking for a foreign bride.
The highlight of the $5,000 trip is the "social" – a huge party that brings together potential brides and grooms, with free booze and a buffet. Rather disappointingly for the men, the booze and buffet seems the biggest draw for the women. "One woman walked in, emptied an entire tray of sausage rolls into her handbag, and left. People were handing out flyers to women on the street, saying, 'Come to this party tonight, free alcohol!'"
Many of the supposedly amorous women from the agency that the men had been emailing in advance of the holiday didn't bother turning up. "Women are less and less desperate to get out of Ukraine since we joined the EU," admits the tour guide. But as one door closes, another opens in the Phillipines and Thailand – where A Foreign Affair has recently opened offices. "Yes," she says, "there is an economic aspect to this phenomenon."
One of the men on the trip is Frank, a divorced police officer, single father to two boys, and a committed Christian. "I'm here to meet a good lady," he says sweetly, "not for sex," and aims to woo the girls at the party with jelly beans and Bible-themed notes. He spends the first half of the evening battling disappointment about the fact that none of the 30 women he'd been emailing have shown up. "Maybe they couldn't find it," he says hopefully. Then he starts talking to Irina, a stunning 26-year-old interior designer who says she is serious about finding a boyfriend here and serious about wanting to move to America. Meanwhile, Gerry, a truck driver, is looking for an older woman "with some seasoning" and is keen to find out whether there are condoms in the hotel-room drawers.
Things aren't looking quite so hot for Marc, a thrice-divorced businessman who spends the evening chatting up Irina the interior designer, only for her to defect to Frank. Without missing a beat, he hits on Porter. "He had the gift of the gab," she says later. "He knew how to pick up a woman, how to flirt, how to engage someone. But the cracks quickly started to show: he was incredibly predatory, quite threatening."
At least she wasn't hit on by Kevin, a 43-year-old who lives with his mother in a small rural American town. She wasn't quite in his ideal age range: Kevin is looking for a woman aged 18-25 because, he says, he's a "big kid" and likes "Hannah Montana and the Disney Channel". "He was basically this slightly rotund guy with gammy teeth, halitosis and a slightly perverse look in his eye," says Porter. "And the smell of him - eugh!"
The women, on the other hand, are young, beautiful, charming. With Ukraine's economy on the up, do they really need to entertain the idea of finding a husband in this way?
The problem is less about the economy, says Porter, more about the dearth – and low calibre – of men. According to Ukraine's last census, in 2001, there were seven per cent more women than men. There is also an unusually high mortality rate among working-age males, from alcohol poisoning. "It was really noticeable," says Porter. "There were all these gorgeous girls in the streets, but you couldn't say the same for the men.
"As a result, what these women have that me and my friends don't is abundant tactics. I went to a sex lesson for would-be brides after western men, and these women must be incredible in bed – there is nothing they won't do. The advice was basically, 'Do whatever he wants sexually because it's not about you – it's about making him yours. And keeping him yours.'" As well as finding out about 'the vagina smile' (a particularly seductive gaze), Porter also learns of the one sexual trick that, if performed by a woman, is said to guarantee to stop him from ever straying.
The premise was similar, she found, in the geisha lifestyle – minus the sex. "I was a geisha for 10 weeks. I basically did a crash course – it usually takes five years. I had the hair, the make-up, the kimono. I served at the tea parties, slept on a floor with two other trainees – that was the most beautiful experience of them all. Afterwards, everyone asked me, are geishas prostitutes? From my experience, absolutely not. Sex is not on the agenda: they're representations of their culture and their art; to be sexual with a client would be the worst thing they could do. And the hardest – it took five hours to get those kimonos on. Unless you were being paid by the hour it wouldn't be at all cost-effective!"
Free love also touched Porter – literally. "They had these bizarre rituals where everyone gets naked, smears themselves in oil and gets into a big plastic boxing ring in someone's basement. It's not sexual, but is meant to bring people together. There are rules: no penetration, no erections." Still, Porter found it physically intense: "It was, like, 'Whose hand is that on my bum? Who's touching my boob? What am I doing naked in this German stranger's house?' At the same time, it was all strangely liberating."
She was also surprised that polygamy didn't involve the extreme indoctrination she'd imagined. "I'm sure many women wish they could share the burden of monogamy – the sex drive of the man, the childcare – and get to live with their best friend. I lived with a very loving family: the children get double the love, go to a good school, live in a beautiful house and no one's not smiling. I thought, 'Why do we criticise this?'"
Having experienced such extreme ways of living and loving, is Porter ready to try any out in her personal life? "I'm still single, but what I've discovered is that you love who you love, and you should probably just make the most of it," she says. "I could become a geisha or a mail-order bride – what if I fall in love with a guy 20 years older or 20 years younger? What if I end up falling in love with a woman? Or two men? Chances are that I'll get married to one person and have babies, but you don't really know until it happens. Until then, I'm keeping my options open."
Dawn Porter's new Channel 4 series on alternative ways to finding love starts on Tuesday at 10pm. 'Dawn Porter: Mail Order Bride' will be broadcast on 7 October
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