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John Oliver tackles America's ludicrous hypocrisy surrounding sex work on Last Week Tonight

Turns out that actually talking to sex workers about their needs makes for better policy, strangely

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John Oliver
John Oliver
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

The phrase “John Oliver talks about sex” may not be everyone’s cup of strong, British tea. But, then again, it is very much some people’s thing, especially when the Last Week Tonight host is ranting, with escalating creativity, about how, specifically, he wants “big, unwashed buffalo” Adam Driver to do stuff to him.

But, on Sunday’s show, Oliver wasn’t there to beg the Marriage Story star and “nasty shed” to “chokeslam [him] to hell,” so much as doing a typically nuanced and thought-provoking examination of a complex issue most people either giggle at or dismiss. “Sex work is work,” Oliver noted of the practice of people performing consensual sex for money or goods, something that has been a part of human society since humans discovered that sex feels really, really good.


With a few stopovers to make fun of the show Cops for featuring a police department who felt it necessary to conduct a prostitution sting by dressing an undercover officer up in full clown gear to humiliate the women they planned to arrest, Oliver showed how sledgehammer tactics criminalizing sex work make life unutterably harder and more dangerous for sex workers.

You know, like using the possession of condoms as evidence to prosecute sex workers, which inevitably puts sex workers lives in greater danger. Or banning online advertising for sex work, making it harder and more dangerous for sex workers to vet clients. Or by conflating all consensual sex work with human trafficking, thus devaluing efforts to combat actual human trafficking while, you guessed it, making life harder and more dangerous for people who choose to be sex workers.


And then there are the police, who are shown patronizingly explaining that they are actually helping sex workers by arresting, jailing, and stigmatizing them, all while conducting undercover operations with racist names like “Operation Asian Touch,” and combatting any and all attempts to criminalize the common practice of cops engaging in sexual acts with the very people they then go on to arrest. You know, for legal reasons.

Oliver shows the “care package” sex workers were given after being swept up in the sting that also caught New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, that included a scolding book from a megachurch preacher titled What On Earth Am I Here For? As Oliver noted, unless the text of said book merely reads, “To be scapegoated in a generations-long morality war that has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how we as a society view sex, money, and power,” then churchy there can stuff it.

Picking up on that whole Robert Kraft thing, Oliver decried a system that drops all charges against the billionaire john (and best pal of a seditious, sex creep former president), while arresting, charging, and even deporting the women at the massage parlor Kraft frequented. As to the “all sex workers are victims of human trafficking” concept, Oliver called bullshit as well, noting how laws criminalizing consensual sex work mean that sex workers are shut out of everything from fair labor practices to the protection of the law should they be actually victimized on the job. When a sex worker who was arrested for prostitution after reporting her rape tells an interviewer she’d “be raped a hundred times” before going to the police again, Oliver notes that all your patronizing talk of only being out to protect sex workers is sheer nonsense.

Oliver, as is his way, offered up some solutions. Although not the Nevada-style legalization policy of deciding that brothel owners taking 60 percent of sex workers’ hard-earned wages is somehow better. Looking to the oft-sensible island nation of New Zealand for possible answers, Oliver noted that decriminalization is one way to go, since, there, sex workers are protected by workplace fairness and healthcare laws, and are able to work openly, which removes the need to negotiate with men in secret. Always a bad idea, as a rule. Of course, such a policy would involve acknowledging that sex workers are actual people, asking sex workers what their needs actually are, and not broadly proclaiming that everyone involved is immoral—unless you’re an NFL owner or a Vegas high-roller.