Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is a talk show that takes a topical look at the previous week’s current events, news, and politics. This show has gained a reputation as an advocate for social change and uses wit as a tool to tackle difficult topics. John Oliver’s viewership is impressive, averaging 4.7 million viewers across all platforms, as well as 8.87 million subscribers on YouTube. This, of course, places a responsibility to handle difficult topics with care. Oliver himself once stated, “When you are dealing with serious subjects, you have to be absolutely sure you know what you are doing.” However, on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Oliver acted insensitively while addressing prostitution and disregarded the lived experiences and perspective of survivors.
Oliver began the episode by arguing that sex work should be recognized as work. He explains that sex work is inarguably labor and should be recognized as a job, arguing that people sell sex acts for the same reasons that they do any job. This argument rests on the assumption that all people in prostitution can freely enter and exit the sex trade. Although some people may in fact have that privilege, many people do not have that same choice and privilege. Sex buyers are overwhelmingly white men purchasing poor women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and young people. Many of these individuals bought and sold for sex are coerced by traffickers and forced into the industry.
To further his argument that sex work is a job just like any other, Oliver compared the experiences of a person in the sex trade to the experiences of a person working at Subway. Through this comment, Oliver reduced the experiences and traumas of sex trade survivors to a distasteful joke. To make this comparison is to ignore the physical and emotional exploitation within the sex trade. One study indicated that 92% of survivors were subjected to some form of physical violence during their exploitation. These encounters include, but are not limited to, rape, sodomy, shootings, stabbings, and beatings. The same study reports that 54.7% of survivors report suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and 41.5% reported they had attempted suicide. Additionally, traffickers often use both physical and emotional tactics to coerce individuals into the sex trade including threats of violence, actual physical violence, intimidation, and blackmail. Sex trafficking leaves a lasting physical and emotional impact on survivors, thus Oliver’s joke diminishes their exploitation.
At the end of the episode, Oliver argues for full decriminalization, which is the removal of criminal penalties for those selling sex, those buying sex, and those facilitating the sale of sex. Decriminalization is different than legalization, which allows the government to regulate the sex trade. Importantly, trafficking survivors who have been criminalized for conduct related to their sex trafficking victimization should never be criminalized. When discussing full decriminalization, however, it is problematic to overlook the implications of decriminalizing sex buyers and those facilitating the sale of sex. Decriminalizing the sex trade leads to a large-scale expansion of the commercial sex market. The supply of individuals in the sex trade must increase to meet the increased demand for commercial sex. Research into 150 countries has demonstrated that higher rates of trafficking exist in countries where prostitution is decriminalized. Oliver continually referenced New Zealand, which implemented full decriminalization in 2003, claiming that they “got it right” because they are the only country who talked to sex workers. However, interviews with persons in prostitution in New Zealand demonstrate that a majority did not believe full decriminalization minimized violence or guaranteed better working conditions. Furthermore, Oliver also failed to mention the third parties, including sex traffickers and brothel owners, who would profit from the continued exploitation of prostituted and trafficked persons. By neglecting to bring up these issues, we must question Oliver’s credibility and reliability regarding the important issues he discusses on his show.
John Oliver attempted to use his platform to help survivors by tackling the need for legislative reforms of the sex trade, but instead, he disregarded the lived experiences of survivors. Survivor’s voices must be at the forefront of every effort to end the sex trade and it essential to center the lived experiences of survivors in developing policies and best practices. Below are a few ways you can continue to educate yourself on these issues and hear from survivors:
- Watch World Without Exploitation’s powerful video response to Oliver’s segment, in which they use survivors’ voices to highlight fundamental issues with the episode and with full decriminalization.
- Read the CSE Institute’s Annual Report that addresses the dangers of the term sex work and issues of full decriminalization.
- When it comes to media reports, such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, conduct your own research and challenge these sources to avoid the continued spread of misinformation.
This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Michaela Kelly on being chosen!
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.