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."