John Oliver really didn’t need to disparage safer sex to poke at Donald Trump.

Note: Some parts of this article, as well as the resources linked to in this piece, may contain cissexist language and/or descriptions of sexual & bodily activity.

The main story in this weekend’s (Sunday 21st March/Monday 22nd March) Last Week Tonight was Donald Trump/Drumpf’s plans to build a massive wall bordering the United States and Mexico, and how economically & logistically unfeasible it would be, even without all the racism and xenophobia attached to the idea. In it, John Oliver compares a Trump supporter’s enthusiasm for the wall with proponents of safer sex:

(Go to the 1-minute mark)
The only group of people more excited about barriers are high school health teachers. “Oh that’s right, cool guys and cool gals! When you’re horny there’s nothing better than a good dental dam! It feels exactly the same!” It doesn’t, it doesn’t. It, it…it really doesn’t.

Someone cosplaying as a wall in support of a patently ridiculous politician can be pretty funny. But in drawing comparisons to safer sex practices and education, Oliver is making safer sex a laughingstock — which can have harmful consequences.

Dental dams are thin, rectangular pieces of latex or polyurethane used during cunnilingus (oral sex performed on the vulva) or rimming (oral sex performed on the anus) to protect against the spread of sexually-transmitted infections. They are most commonly associated with queer women, but even queer women are at a loss as to whether they’re actually all that helpful or common, with some considering them kind of a myth.

The issue may be self-reinforcing: not many women are using dental dams, so not many other women get any exposure to them, which means less women overall are aware of the existence of dental dams and thus don’t use them. Because of its niche market, there haven’t been enough interest in conducting studies on the efficacy of dental dams overall. Also, knowledge around safer sex for women who have sex with women is severely lacking: the assumptions that pregnancy is off the table and that the penis is not involved leads to the assumption that queer women are somehow not at risk of STIs.

This approach is already demeaning to trans women, other Assigned-Male-at-Birth trans people, and bisexual/pansexual/other non-monosexual people, as they’re seen as “bringing in diseases” and “infecting lesbians” (I have personally witnessed someone saying that “the only reason lesbians have STIs are because of all those bisexuals fucking their boyfriends”). Queer women are still at risk of STIs, including HIV, and the stigma & lack of research on the health of women & the LGBTQ community can often lead to significant health crises for women who have sex with women. Distribution of dental dams may not necessarily be the most effective way of encouraging safer sex, but it does point to a greater need for better research and resources around vaginal sexual health and the sexual health of women & LGBTQ people.

The biggest problem with Oliver’s joke, though, isn’t the reference to dental dams — which even its target market is ambivalent over. Rather, it’s him going “It doesn’t feel the same” — one of the most common excuses for men to not wear condoms during sex. An excuse, mind you, that’s mostly bogus.

Low condom use has been linked to raising rates of STIs, including HIV, around the world, and affects all sorts of people — LGBTQ men, sex workers and their clients, senior citizens, young people, and many more. Even efforts at harm reduction aren’t always enough. For partners of these men, negotiating condom use can be tricky — largely because of excuses like “it doesn’t feel the same”.

Sure, condom manufacturing could stand to be improved. However, it does us no good to be cavalier about condom use or safer sex in general, particularly given the rising rates of HIV and other STIs as well as the lack of research in and awareness of sexual health for anyone who isn’t a White/straight/cis/man.

It’s actually really surprising to see Oliver make fun of safer sex, given his excellent piece on sex education in the US, including a celebrity-studded sex ed video of his own:

Indeed, Oliver’s reputation for well-researched and comprehensive content & calls to action for topics as difficult as refugees, transgender rights, and the prison industrial complex has led to what some call the “John Oliver effect” (a term he’s not fond of), where his segments have inspired significant change from his audience as well as brought hidden issues to the attention of people with power.

This effect, however, can cut multiple ways: it can both inspire greatness and inspire harm. The same power of audience engagement that led to thousands of dollars in donations to a fake “church” (which eventually went to Doctors without Borders) can also lead to people believing that safer sex “does not feel the same”, disparaging people who are genuinely enthusiastic about safer sex, and continuing dangerous sexual practices.

There are ways to poke fun at Donald Trump/Drumpf’s border wall, particularly the wall cosplayer, that didn’t need to involve feelings around safer sex. He could have left it at an overexcitable sex ed teacher and not bring up dental dams or “it doesn’t feel the same”. He could have mentioned the woman married to the Berlin Wall. Maybe hackers crashing firewalls. (There’s likely a ton of better ideas — I’m not his joke writer, or anyone’s joke writer, though being a fact-checker on his team is one of my dream jobs.) What he didn’t need to do was play into, uncritically, the same assumptions that lead to unsafe sex.

John Oliver has a platform whose power can’t be denied, as much as he’d like to disavow the claim. He’s built a reputation on solid fact-checking, accuracy, and powerful writing & presentation. Like Spider-man — and, apparently, like the opposite of police officers and civil forfeiture — this reputation comes with major responsibility.

And when it came to marginalized forms of safer sex, he dropped the ball.

Further Resources on Safer Sex:

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