Radio review: The sordid business of talking about the online sex industry

Despite good intentions, Tom Dunne’s investigation into sex workers and their clients came close to airbrushing reality

Let’s talk softly about sex: Tom Dunne. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Let’s talk softly about sex: Tom Dunne. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


A few years ago a hit film comedy entitled The 40 Year-Old Virgin chronicled the efforts of a socially awkward middle-aged man, played by Steve Carrell, to have sex for the first time. As his quest became ever more desperate and farcical, much hilarity ensued.

It turns out that Carrell’s character could have saved himself a lot of time if he had been more like John, a similarly aged caller to Tom Dunne (Newstalk, weekdays), who solved the problem of his own fortysomething celibacy by paying a prostitute for sex. But it would have been a much shorter movie, and not in the least bit funny.

The conversation with John, who said he felt “brilliant” after that first sexual encounter, was part of an investigation by Dunne into “the reality of prostitution in Ireland”.

Particular focus was paid to “escorts” who meet their clients through online sites, a safer practice than randomly soliciting on the street, at least according to some of those interviewed by Dunne and his reporter Yvonne Kinsella. Indeed, there were times when the sex workers made their job sound like an attractive career option.

“You’re providing a service, just in a different way,” said Clyde, who formed a bisexual double act with his Brazilian partner, Bonnie. Another unnamed interviewee said she offered companionship as well as carnality, adding that working indoors added sophistication.

A student called Sarah was positively evangelical about working part time as an escort: it offered her flexibility, plus she liked meeting people. Sarah was also adamant that “escorting is not prostitution”, saying she could walk away from an appointment if she wanted. “There is the horrible side where there’s girls raped,” she conceded. “But if you’re careful there’s no risk, essentially.”

Such testimony came perilously close to sanitising the whole squalid business, particularly as it inevitably excluded the voices of those coerced into prostitution. Dunne, who has previously covered the misery of human trafficking, was alert to the dangers of airbrushing the issue, but he pressed on: “Since when have we solved a problem in Ireland by not talking about it?”

Even so, his main concern at times seemed to be the cold commercialism of the business. “Am I in a minority who cannot separate sex from emotion?” he asked. “I hope not, because it is a very special thing.”

Dunne seemed particularly affected by John’s story, though the picture of a cripplingly shy man in receipt of an altruistic act from a humane soul was undercut by the casual remark that he “had chosen” the escort in question.

A powerful counterblast came courtesy of Justine, who, having been a sex worker for 20 years, acerbically noted that “there was nothing shy about him when he was handing over his money”.

For Justine there was no upside to escorting – which she insisted be termed prostitution – saying it caused untold physical and mental damage. “You become a human toilet,” she said. “A man will come in and empty himself into you.” It was a jolting statement, but Dunne sounded relieved. With her scathing voice, Justine brought much-needed balance to a discussion that had occasionally threatened to elide dirty truths.

Welcome relief from such sordid matters came from Under the Covers (Newstalk, Saturday). Despite the innuendo of the title, the show was the essence of good, clean fun, mainly thanks to the presence of its host, Henry McKean, best known for his daily vox pops for Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays). McKean’s most marked characteristic is a deceptively guileless enthusiasm that masks his astute ear for intriguing vignettes. His report on Monday’s Moncrieff from Teddy’s, the venerable Dún Laoghaire ice-cream store, mixed trivia about the origins of the 99 with people’s memories of their favourite ice pops, producing a wistfully evocative aural postcard.

Presenting his Saturday-morning round-up of the previous week’s reports, McKean had the air of an overstimulated public schoolboy heading off for a midnight feast with a big bag of tuck and lashings of ginger ale. Opening the show, he breathlessly explained that he had dressed for the sunny weather. “Oh my God, the slags I’m getting, wearing shorts into the office. But I’m wearing socks, too, and I know that’s not a good look.” One of his reports, in which he visited Dublin Zoo with his mother, only added to the sweetly ingenuous atmosphere.

But McKean also showed his ability to mine affecting stories in offbeat situations. Speaking to customers at a shop selling extra-large clothing in Dublin’s inner city, he spoke to a young man about the problems of finding clobber in his size as well as the bullying he had experienced at school. Remarking that he had lost four stone in weight himself, McKean had a clear empathy for his interviewee.

Meanwhile, a woman recounted how her attempts to pull her family together at Christmas after the death of a daughter were derailed by her large husband’s inability to fit into his clothes. Rather than pry, McKean let this glimpse of tragedy hang in the air, lending a poignant undertow to the woman’s shopping trip. Despite McKean’s wide-eyed persona, his best work has the impact of a well-observed short story.

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