Unpopular Opinion: I Hate Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’s Sex Education Segment


This is the hottest take of all hot takes because I literally just watched the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver sex education segment and loved it and then got REALLY ANGRY in the final few minutes. I haven’t seen any of the glowing coverage of the segment address this point, so I’m doing that angry writing thing. Bear with me.

I care a lot about comprehensive sex education. Like, a lot a lot. I have ever since I received bullshit abstinence-only sex education while I was in high school… which included watching one of the videos in the Last Week Tonight segment. I remember my teacher telling me with a knowing wink that my peers and I weren’t ready to have sex, even though she knew many of us already were. I remember feeling hot with shame and anger despite still being a virgin because I’d already fondled a penis or two. I knew my sexuality was valid, and that what I was being told was bullshit, and that there was something very wrong with an educational system that allowed this conservative propaganda to be presented as not only morally right, but as fact. After all, Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth had found its way into my hands already.

There are also few memories as salient as my teacher threatening to send me to the principal’s office for passing out Planned Parenthood-provided condoms to my classmates. Teenagers deserve real sex education. They also deserve real information about sexually transmitted infections.

John Oliver is great. And Last Week Tonight is great. Honestly, I was so fucking excited when I heard he’d done a segment about how harmful and insulting abstinence-only sex education is in the United States today. Adults not in the sex education community like to assume that abstinence-only programs have gone the way of the dinosaur, but they are still very much the norm, even in liberal states like Connecticut where I grew up. The lack of real sex education comes up in every conversation I have with my friends and partners, almost all of whom were raised in upper-middle class suburbs in Oregon, New York, California and Illinois. If this segment raises awareness, good. If this segment brings change, even better. But I’m fucking disappointed.

Here are the only two mentions of STIs in the humorous/alternative sex ed video full of awesome celebrity cameos:

1. “The best safeguard against STDs is protection. Unless you already have an STD, in which case you’re going to need medicine or some shit, I don’t know.”

Yes, I realize this is a comedic video and isn’t intended to provide actual sexual education. Yes, I realize it’s a spoof of similarly clueless sex education videos. You could even make the point that this video is mocking how little we know about STIs. But this might as well be something teachers actually say to students about STIs on a daily basis. The message in actual sex education and in this parody is: if you get an STD, good luck with that. Now shut up and figure it out by yourself ’cause you’re on your own.

2. “‘Most people will get HPV’ is both technically true and what you tend to hear right before someone gives you HPV.”

Actually, most people will get HPV because it is that common, and you’re least likely to get it FROM SOMEONE WHO ACTUALLY KNOWS THEY HAVE HPV. Way to shame the millions of people who live with an STI, and make them even less comfortable disclosing to their partners.

You know what would have been awesome? A line about how STIs are part of the crazy lottery of having sex. A reassuring line about how they’re totally normal. Maybe even a joke about them being proof you actually got laid. You know what’s not awesome? Being told by Aisha Tyler that my honest disclosure is just a douchey way of justifying my fuckability to a partner right before I give them herpes.

This video did such a good job deconstructing consent with nuance and humor. It was accessible, non-judgmental and full of badasses like Laverne Cox. But it dropped the ball hard on STIs, reinforcing stigma and relying on lazy humor. Pop culture largely dismisses contracting an STI as something that only happens to slutty and dishonest people, and for this show to not engage with that stigma is a waste. Using STIs as a scare tactic is a central part of abstinence-only sex education, and that’s present in the parody video instead of challenged. And I’m disappointed, because frankly this show is better than that. Stigma is easy to dismiss when it comes from people you don’t expect better from. It only gets under your skin when it’s perpetuated by people you trust.

I want my dancing herpes mascot, John Oliver.

You can watch the full segment here:

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

11 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinion: I Hate Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’s Sex Education Segment

  1. I have been a fan of John Oliver since his time on The Daily Show, and Last Week Tonight does a fantastic job of giving the facts on ongoing problems in our world, presented in a satirical format. I went to Catholic high school, so there was no sex education at all, other than what I learned at home; I was fortunate that my parents ignored the bullshit of the Church, and taught me to properly protect myself. This was before the age of the HPV vaccine. I ended up getting it, with no symptoms, until I was in my later 30’s, when I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, then ovarian cancer. When I saw this piece, I took no offense at all, and laughed my ass off because it was SATIRE. Y’all need to slow your roll a bit here, and quit being so overly hypersensitive. If you can’t understand satire, watch something else. If you take offense to every little thing, I’ve got a news flash for you: everything isn’t about you. John Oliver is brilliant and so is his team, and there’s a damn good reason Last Week Tonight keeps winning Emmys, not to mention the fact that Oliver won the Peabody Award.

    1. Just pointing out the fact that I wrote this piece 8 years ago when I was 22 years old. I agree with you now! Not sure why you felt the need to comment on a blog post from a kid clearly going through something nearly a decade ago.

  2. I love John Oliver and was overjoyed by this segment — and yet what you point out here is something that’s been nagging at the back of my mind — a troubled sensation regarding the “sex ed video” that I couldn’t place my finger on, but you are on the nose: “Lazy humor” sadly spreading even more of the vague, inaccurate information he is complaining about. Thank you for thinking this through.

  3. I was diagnosed 1 year ago with HSV2 and it has been a whirlwind of emotions since then, sometimes I feel powerful and like I’ve come to terms with it, but sometimes, especially after a breakup with a guy who said he couldn’t deal with the H, I get really really sad. Today was one of those days, I was feeling particularly vulnerable and hopeless when I decided to watch “New Girl”, a hilarious show and one of my favorites, to lighten my depressed mood. Bad idea. In episode 14 of season 5, Jess (Zooey Deschanel) is served with a restraining order by a former boyfriend. Her friend Schmidt (Max Greenfield) casually states “A restraining order! That’s worse than herpes!” aaaaand there is the immediate downward spiral. This stigma, this world of plastic actors and actresses casually throwing disses at those below who are struggling with STD’s every day, I just can’t take it anymore. Herpes isn’t even a problem to me, it’s the reactions of the whole world that constantly tell me and people like me that I am “less than” that I deal with. The shame, suffering, isolation, is so severe that it’s scary. Not just in my case, but in the many cases I’ve read about online. We are in huge numbers and we are being made fun of on the regular. I wish we could stand together and do something about it to change this. It really pisses me off. The partner who recently rejected me so coldly was a product of this society that things of herpes as a dealbreaker, as something funny. Screw that show, screw John Oliver, screw the writers and actors who think it’s okay to laugh at us, screw anyone who would make us a punchline.

  4. The first episode I watched of this show had not one but TWO HPV jokes in it. Thought it was really distasteful and never watched it again. I’m not at all surprised by this. John Oliver loves to hate on HPV.

  5. As usual, great writing. Missing the ball on how comedy works. Always find it interesting that people who don’t do comedy try to explain how comedy works. The first line is a good, smart joke about dumbness.

    I get that you’d like more jokes/coverage on STIs. But they had I think 2.5 or 3 minutes? You presented some solid premises that would fit in a longer piece. If they made a full length parody video, call him out. But don’t exaggerate outrage for clicks. It devalues your genuine outrage over actually outrageous things.

    But this’ll probably get deleted or pounced on because: messenger > message.

    1. So here’s the thing. Am I “outraged”? No. Did I like the majority of the segment? Yes. Did that line about HPV make me feel shitty, ashamed and insulted by a public figure whom I trust and respect? Absolutely.

      I am not exaggerating anything in this blog post. I’m not telling anyone how comedy works. I am sharing my feelings and reactions as woman who lives with a heavily stigmatized STI to a joke within a show that I watch religiously. I’m not even saying it wasn’t funny—I’m saying it was hurtful and damaging to me. I’m saying it undermined his larger point about the need for better sex education. I don’t necessarily want him to write better, more positive jokes about STIs, although I think the show is smart enough to be capable of it. I don’t understand why this joke needed to be included at all.

      I’m not trying to explain how comedy works. I’m trying to explain how STI stigma is created, perpetuated, and felt. You and I both agree that herpes stigma is bullshit. How do you suggest I go about fighting it?

  6. Saw your Twitter post, then watched LWT and then read this. And Gah…I have to agree. The show *is* better than that. So much so that the capricious treatment of STIs was both noticeable and disappointing.

    Great observations! Now I want a Herpes mascot too. You should make a hashtag 😉

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