Sex Workers Cheer John Oliver’s Hilarious, Pro-Decrim Rant on HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight’

John_Oliver
John Oliver during an appearance at the University of Buffalo in 2014.(Chad Cooper via Flickr)
Sex workers take to Twitter to hail Brit comedian John Oliver's recent segment on HBO's "Last Week Tonight," supporting the decriminalization of prostitution.

To judge from the responses of sex workers and their allies, John Oliver’s recent segment on the sex trade for his HBO show Last Week Tonight was a moonshot home run of the type Reggie Jackson used to belt out of the park in the ’70s and ’80s.

Sex workers took to Twitter almost as soon as Oliver’s 25-minute tirade began. Their praise for his rant on the futility and stupidity of U.S. social policy regarding sex work was near-universal.

Goddess Scarlet Lush, a dominatrix and “femdom content creator,” called the piece a “powerful and important representation of sex work,” noting that Oliver did something mainstream outlets rarely do: allowed sex workers to speak for themselves.

The Sex Workers Outreach Project -U.S.A. gushed that Oliver “really nailed this,” adding, “no, that was not actually a sex pun.”

Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performance Artists Guild, tweeted, “I have never seen anyone take up for our community the way that @iamjohnoliver did on his show Last Week Tonight. THANK YOU!”

Along the same lines, sex worker/survivor advocate Emily D. Warfield opined, “I didn’t think I would see something like this in mainstream media for decades.”

And Toronto sex worker Riley Marshal tweeted this trenchant observation:

“Seeing almost every SW on my timeline freak out about the John Oliver segment just goes to show how under and improperly represented we are in the media. Not only to be seen, but to be seen in a non-stigmatizing way feels huge. I won’t touch on the irony of it being a John.”

Sex-worker rights advocate Maxine Doogan lauded Oliver’s use of a groundbreaking report from sex worker, researcher and activist Terra Burns, which described the harmful effects of an Alaskan law that redefined prostitution as “sex trafficking.”

Perhaps the highest praise came from Carol Leigh, the legendary sex-worker rights activist who coined the term “sex worker” in the 1970s. Leigh tweeted that she “couldn’t believe how perfectly [the segment] was constructed,” adding, “I was thinking how to improve it, and I had no criticism.”

Indeed, Oliver’s piece should forevermore be required viewing for all journalists tackling this subject. And it’s by no means a labor to watch.

The bespectacled funnyman intersperses his own common-sense commentary with the comedic equivalent of John Cleese’s “Ministry of Silly Walks.” Par exemple, Oliver starts out his segment, hilariously, with a black-and-white clip from some old hygiene film in which an older boy explains the concept of a “wet dream” to a younger one.

Then there’s Oliver’s guarantee — accompanied by an illustration of an imagined act of bestiality —  that his piece is not going to be about morality:

“You might well think that people should only have sex during a full moon, wearing a three-piece suit and exclusively with their common-law horse. That is your business. This story is going to be about the fact that sex work is inarguably labor. It is a job. And people do it for the same reasons that people do any job…”

Oliver covers a lot of ground in less than a half-hour, everything from the conflation of sex work and sex trafficking, to the savior complex boasted by many cops, to decrying the fact that “the laws police can use to arrest or intimidate sex workers are shockingly broad.”

The comedian also lambastes the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the broader war on adult-themed advertising that once appeared on Craigslist and Backpage, sites that cooperated with law enforcement.  Effectively, those ads have been outlawed following the seizure of Backpage and the subsequent signing of FOSTA into law.

Yet, legal advertisements posted by users for escorts, massage, personals, etc. “enabled sex workers to find clients and communicate with them, which was a much safer way for them to do that than operating on the street,” notes Oliver.

Helpfully, Oliver disabuses folks of the misguided notion that the passage of FOSTA and the eradication of Backpage helped law enforcement battle sex trafficking.

He observes:

“In the three years after FOSTA was passed, prosecutors said they’d only used it once. And as for shutting down Backpage, that actually made it even harder to catch sex traffickers. The site was US-based and was often willing to work with law enforcement to root out the bad actors. And with it gone, law enforcement suddenly found tracking them down to be much more difficult.”

More broadly, Oliver points out, “Everything about the way we regulate sex work in this country is confusing and counterproductive. And when we talk about it, it’s often either demonizing, patronizing, or just plain wrong. And in some cases, all three at once.”

Oliver details what should be obvious to most people: that arrest is not rescue, and that saddling a sex worker with a criminal record is cruel and abhorrent.

He goes on to cite many examples of how “our current policies harm those that they claim to help,” condemning the treatment of sex workers in the Robert Kraft-massage parlor sting and relating how a couple of years ago, federal agents in Arizona engaged in several sexual encounters with women working in massage parlors as part of a bust sickenly named “Operation Asian Touch.”

He also uses clips from an interview with a trans sex worker, who blasts cops for using the condoms they find in a sex worker’s possession as evidence of a crime.

“In the transgender community, not carrying condoms is a death wish,” the sex worker explains.

No wonder sex workers were ecstatic over Oliver’s treatment of the topic.

Mainstream reporters are often ignorant and insulting when they venture into this field, and their arrogance and reliance on stereotypes and harmful tropes can be infuriating.

Is Oliver’s sex-worker rights episode a harbinger of change, one propelled by the courageous activism of sex workers?

Here’s hoping so. Because it’s well past time for the proverbial pendulum to start swinging the other way.

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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