Last Week Tonight Listens to Sex Workers
Of HBO’s Last Week Tonight’s February 2022 piece on full-service sex work, the SW community itself—perhaps for the first time—granted its resounding approval. Host John Oliver crystalized and contextualized the issues our criminalized industry faces in a way I hope destigmatizes our profession for millions of viewers whose skepticism is rooted not in malice, but myopia and pseudo-morality.
The segment legitimized SW rights as a labor movement with a vociferous declaration of sex work being “inarguably labor” and “inherently work.” While much of the rhetoric was rudimentary to us, those in the industry who have been railing against bad policies for years, to hear it at all from the mainstream media was profoundly satisfying and validating. Emotional, even. It is not often that sex workers are spoken of in a way that does not victimize us with either pity or vitriol, or both, a phenomenon perfectly illustrated by a clip from a local ABC news show. (2m.26s)
To begin, the news anchor listed “the names: prostitute, tramp, call girl, hooker, even whore.” His next phrase seems to provide evidence for its own hyperbole: “If that didn’t get your attention, this right here will! Most are really victims, people being sex trafficked.” Oliver calls this type of coverage “demonizing, patronizing, and just plain wrong.”
Having done countless hours of research on the “white slave” hysteria of the late-18’ and early-1900s, it fascinates me how the (racist/xenophobic/misogynistic) sensationalized stories of young women being sold into sexual slavery have been consistently recycled for hundred of years without anyone in the mainstream pausing to examine the validity of the mythos. Thankfully, Oliver also explicitly mentions that “getting an accurate count on those subjected to forced sex or labor has eluded researchers for years.”
I was also pleased that the piece covered the ways that SESTA-FOSTA complicates or prevents locating and offering aid to actual victims of trafficking. When Backpage closed, Phoenix cop Christi DeCouele (with her “Pimpin’ Ave” street sign and “HO FO SHO” goblet) tried “to figure out where everybody’s going.” She concluded, “It’s kind of a crap chute.” (13m.1s)
This omnipresent conflation of consensual adult sex work and human trafficking was also taken to task. “The implication is that no SW has ever entered the trade by choice,” Oliver said, “even when it’s by their own testimony not the case.” He reminded us of the woman in Alaska who was charged with trafficking herself, “which is obviously absurd. Unless, that is, they were making a larger point about our collective lack of free will under capitalism.”
Oliver continues: “Our current laws do not address people who feel economically forced into sex work. If you want to do that, the only way to make sure people have a choice in the way they earn money is to make housing affordable, healthcare accessible, and to not burden marginalized people with criminal records that lead to a cycle of joblessness and homelessness and desperation.”
New York Republican David DiPietro makes clear that he would prefer that sex workers be denied what Oliver calls “basic human rights,” fumbling over the idea that his “hooker” will be entitled to the same health insurance and fair wages as anyone else with a job. (4m.40s)
Everything about the way the U.S. regulates prostitution “confusing and counterproductive,” Oliver asserts, from the absurd legality of on-camera commercial sex to the irony of cops protesting regulations that ban them from sexually assaulting FSSWs during stings. (In other words, some cops think they should be paid to fuck in order to prevent others from being paid to fuck.)
The segment examined the police, their smarmy stings, their engorged savior complexes, their “real lack of intelligence,” as a street-based SW in Queens put it. (A woman was once arrested because “her clothes exposed her buttocks and cervix area,” which would be funny if it weren’t so fucking bleak.) Patricia Spencer of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department lacks so much intelligence, she believes that arrest is the best way to save the lives of Vegas FSSW. “We open the door for help,” Spencer claims. “And if we don’t do that, who’s gonna do it? If I don’t offer them help, who’s gonna? No one. There’s no one gonna help them.” (5m.35s)
How absolutely insulting, when the State works to dismantle every semblance of community we sex workers create to protect ourselves. Besides, “I’ll get raped 100 times before I deal with [the cops]” said one SW who was incarcerated after reporting a client assault. (18m.42s)
Oliver also presented the alternatives to criminalization: the Nordic model, legalization, and the “human rights-centered” decriminalization approach, which “does seem to be working” in New Zealand. While the segment did a solid job showcasing abolition and decrim, I do wish it would’ve showcased more drawbacks of legalization, which most people who aren’t involved with the industry—usually out of good-natured oblivion—seem to think is the answer.
Oliver presented legalization’s main flaw as the fact that brothels can take up to 60% of a SW’s rate. This can be extremely problematic, yes, but it ignores the more pressing issue of inaccessibility, which disproportionately excludes marginalized people, especially undocumented workers, from these spaces. (19m.29s)
The piece could have also more explicitly discussed the connection between “prosecutors around the country [deciding] not to try certain prostitution cases and dismiss[ing] thousands of pending ones” and the fact that prostitution charges are disproportionately experienced by BISWOC. Of course I am glad cases are being dismissed, but what concerns me is that these laws have been rendered conditional.
I thank my lucky stars (a.k.a. my European heritage, cis-gender identity, and college education) every day that I—someone who fucks in exchange for money—have never experienced arrest, incarceration, or police violence. Friends of mine do not share that experience with me, because the laws do not allow for their conditions or identities, as they are deemed too unlike mine.
One final thing the segment could have discussed was the Earn It (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies) Act, which establishes the National Commission on Online Child Sex Exploitation and Prevention and, despite its altruistic name, is the most recent wad of rubbish the cat puked onto the Congressional floor. I hope the Last Week Tonight staff stays abreast of this bill that, much like SESTA-FOSTA, threatens not only the sex worker community, but free speech in general.
Though it may not have included every nuance or talking point in its brief 28 minutes, there were no glaring missteps in the information the segment did provide. It was a triumphant piece, successful in accomplishing its goal, which was to avoid looking like “a bunch of fucking clowns” and to start listening to what sex workers actually want. John Oliver and the talented staff of Last Week Tonight provided space and voice for our conditions.
For that, sex workers everywhere are thankful.
Whether you revere or revile or question my words, I hope you comment and join the conversation with me. If you enjoy reading, you can always support this work by subscribing to my Patreon here, or by tipping me via Cash-App ($madeleineblair) or Venmo (@cookiegoogleman). Even small gestures are encouraging and deeply appreciated. Really.
Sex workers everywhere stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors of labor trafficking and exploitation. If you or someone you know is being forced to work against their will, you can contact the SWOP’s Community Support Line at 877-776-2004 -or- the Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 for support.
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