Love and porn rarely go hand in hand; a Venn diagram representing them, in fact, would just look like two separate circles. But On Love, an excellent new BBC podcast that explores modern love and its relationship with technology, is aiming to connect the two and bring nuance to the polarising issue of pornography.
At the show’s helm is comedian Jacob Hawley, who previously hosted the podcast On Drugs and comedy special Welcome to Britain on Radio 4. Pornography is a subject so ingrained in our culture that it’s hard to find people who don’t engage with it, but Hawley is one such person, having gone cold turkey on porn a few years ago after finding it to negatively affect his mood and relationships. However, On Love is not a NoFap-movement manifesto preaching about why we should all give it up. Instead, it sees the 28-year-old Hawley use his own first-hand experience to discuss the different sides of the conversation, while adding a scintilla of comedy along the way.
Pornography is an emotional and contentious topic for many people, with conversations often descending into cries of “porn bad” or “porn good”. Rather than viewing it as some floating moral concept, Hawley explores how pornography actually operates today and how it affects creators and consumers alike. What happens if it’s used in place of sex education? How do people in the industry feel about it? When does it become an addiction? Throughout the 12-part series, he speaks to a range of people, from OnlyFans stars to TV intimacy coordinators and dating app employees, using his natural ease as interviewer to encourage his guests to encourage frank discussion on these difficult issues.
The discussions feel vital because pornography is a topic that carries a taboo and divides people who would normally agree on other matters. On Love captures that messiness. In the first episode alone, two academics present near opposing views on the porn industry. While Clarissa Smith, founder of the Porn Studies academic journal, “vehemently disagrees” with the phrase “porn is the theory, rape is the practice”, Dr Gail Dines, who created the Culture Reframed education programme, says “if you are pro-sex, you have to be anti-porn”.
Hawley warns at the top of the show that listeners are likely to hear opinions they disagree with and he’s correct. But even Dr Dines, who has a much more black-and-white view on porn than the other guests, is clear that she will not villainise sex workers (a term she would object to me using in the first place). “You are not going to turn this into a catfight between feminists and women in the industry,” she says.
Smith, comparatively, tells Hawley early in their conversation that it’s “neither here nor there” whether porn is objectively good. As she points out, it’s not a “singular” thing anyway; our minds may immediately go to Pornhub, but cam performers are growing in popularity while subscription service OnlyFans now hosts one million creators being paid directly for their content. Porn also differs in what it means to people. The notion of it being used as sex education – in particular when actual education is often incomprehensive – is alarming, but Smith points out that for young people questioning their identities, LGBT+ porn can allow users to figure out what they like and find community.
Hawley is first and foremost a comedian and he doesn’t always ask the most probing questions of his subjects, but he excels when talking to young people. He’s charming, trustworthy and funny, and guests instantly open up to him. Episode one contains a fascinating conversation with former Outnumbered star Tyger Drew-Honey, who is the child of two adult film performers. Drew-Honey says his parents “made millions” from the industry, meaning he “never saw it as bad at all” growing up. The image Drew-Honey paints of a childhood spent at family Christmas parties with his parents’ friends Champagne and Pascale is hypnotic.
But, as both Hawley and Drew-Honey point out, porn is not what it was when his parents were shooting on VHS. The actor spoke honestly on Hawley’s last podcast series about his 10-year battle with alcohol and drug addiction and says that pornography played on the same part of his brain. “For something to be addictive, it needs to just chemically change the way you feel for a split second,” he theorises. “Those momentary escapes of orgasm, the relief of a drink, the burn of a line… it’s relief from the moment you’re experiencing.” But porn addiction isn’t as easily identifiable as alcoholism or drug addiction, with Drew-Honey putting to Hawley: “If I was still drinking, I might say to you, ‘Jacob, shall we have a pint after this?’ I’m not going to say, ‘Jacob, shall we go and have a w***?’”
It’s a light-hearted comment, but one which highlights the fact that pornography is still a topic we shy away from discussing. Realistically, porn isn’t going anywhere, and Hawley’s aim to broaden conversations while acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers when it comes to these burgeoning technologies is a bold one. Should we discuss porn when talking about love, Hawley asks at the top of the show. The answer seems to be a definite yes, even if we don’t always like the answers.
Jacob Hawley: On Love is available to listen to on BBC Sounds now