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: