(You can find part one of this discussion here)
Caty: I’ve seen former drug-using sex workers like Kate Holden write that trading sex for drugs directly with a dealer was “just tacky,” and in my shallow, callow early years as a heroin-using escort, I often said the same thing. But the real reason I’ve avoided doing this for a decade, with one exception, is that I’m terrified to have the power dynamic between possibly withdrawing user and dope holding dealer client be that starkly clear. I can safely retreat into the farcical mask of my privilege when with my escorting clients, I can advertise as an “ex-Ivy League activist and escort” on my Backpage ad, leveraging those respectability politics for all the profit they’re worth, and within that pretense, I can be as primly outraged as a Victorian maiden with her honor insulted when these clients ask for a BBJ. I can’t maintain that pose shaking and sniffing in some dealer’s living room.
I remember the one time I did trade a blowjob for three bags, early in my dope career. I remember his limp cock in the condom, the way he grimly surveyed my grimy, slovenly SRO room, how he said, concerned, that I should do the bags first, so then I had to do them in front of him even though I wasn’t sick yet and all I wanted was to enjoy the dope after he’d gone and I had my solitude returned. I know it could’ve been much worse, but I’d never felt so exposed, so confirmed as all the stereotypes about junkies whores.
Kitty: I often do some crackwhoring, i.e. direct trade, and I do not feel disempowered by this. Rather I feel it cuts out the middleman. When I need cash, not drugs, I see clients for cash.
I have been fine with meth users, including clients per se. Meth is actually my main gig though in very recent times I have once more been using more heroin than meth.
Caty: I wrote an entry some years ago in my now long-defunct blog about the classist assumptions clients often make about IDUs, often echoing the mainstream world’s classist assumptions, even though in reality middle and upper class people use the most drugs. These clients—who are most often “hobbyists,” I’ve noticed—will pile disdain on street workers, claiming they’re all dirty addicts (often at the top of their lungs, during a call with me, while I’m gritting my teeth and wishing I could contradict them loudly and soundly—of course, they think they’re complimenting me by comparison but really they’re just insulting me with their whorephobia against my street worker friends and allies), but they’ll often be totally oblivious to drug use among escorts.
There’s also the way that, for clients, as well as the media and the public, using sex work funds for schooling or child rearing will often mitigate whore stigma, while using escorting money to support a habit exacerbates that stigma.
Those of you who have traded sex for drugs with dealers—I get the logic of cutting out the middle man, but how do you handle the fact that the dealer can afford to pay you less than your sex work is worth because of the strength of your desire/need, and the fact that they can more easily get you to do things that cross your safer sex and/or other boundaries?
Andrew: Demand the drugs at wholesale price and get more was my strategy. I got more than if I’d bought it off same person in cash.
Kitty: I find direct trade unproblematic. My boundaries are loose anyway, my only hard limits being no anal on me and no unprotected PIV. and I don’t cross those lines, no matter what. Plus it cuts out the middleman which simplifies my life.
But I will only accept drugs as payment if I can take them home because a) I use IV and most people smoke and b) I wanna use at the time of my choosing.
Inane Moniker: I never really was able to straight trade for drugs, mostly because I bought off the street in a twenty second transaction, but I did a lot of “trade” with people who had access or means to get more. Trade is a pretty flux term here, but suffice to say, I don’t do favors for nothing.
The Specialist: As far as using with clients, it depends on where I’m at financially. I refuse to accept payment in drugs; they need to be an additional bonus, not a substitute for actually paying me. I have been known to offer a discount if enough drugs are on offer. Generally when I am homed and working by choice, I choose not to get high with clients. I like to get high by myself. Having them encroach on it kills my buzz. When I was homeless and doing survival sex work I did drugs with clients often—and gratefully. As far as tricking with dealers I universally avoid it because they NEVER want to give you a fair deal.
What’s funny about “hobbyists” looking down on street workers is that I discovered that a certain percentage—maybe 15-20%—of those “hobbyists” also hire street workers. They just don’t tell anybody and will lie about it. I was surprised by the amount of crossover I found. An awful lot of my $300/hr brothel customers drove up to me on the street when I was working for $40. The lesson here is that we need to use condoms no matter what our rates are. High prices do not equal safety or exclusivity.
Olive: I haven’t traded sex for drugs as a straight transaction. I have slept with dealers but it was with a whole lot of faux emotional shit. He knew I was a sex worker. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. I didn’t trade sex for drugs because I also felt that it was like, I don’t know, “beneath me” or something. I often have people offer—where I live has been called the “meth capital” of Western Australia—but I choose not to for a number of reasons, none of which are about class. Like Caty, I’d prefer to buy it myself because my time is worth more than drugs (like, I could buy more drugs if they paid for a booking with money), plus I don’t trust that someone I don’t know is going to give me anything better than I could get myself. Also, everyone seems to smoke whereas I IV so that’s no good, and I also would rather give the service and then use when I’m by myself. So like, if someone offered with those other factors not being involved I probably would. Officially I’ve quit, but to be honest, if the opportunity did present itself in favorable conditions I reckon I would use again.
I do get angry when men mislead me saying they’ll pay me then offer me drugs when that wasn’t the contract. One time a guy booked me for an hour and only had thirty bucks on him. I wanted to thump him. The ratio of time vs. quantity and quality is also part of it, and my experience is of dealers offering me drugs because they’re too cheap to pay me, in which case they can get fucked. Also I think street based workers deal with so much stigma, some of which is no doubt because of the assumption that because they work in street economies they’re also going to be using drugs. Then there’s the assumption that because you’re using drugs you’re dirty. I have absolutely used IV in unsafe ways (using water my friend was drinking pulled out of a dirty bottle cap was one), but I haven’t used in a way that would be a risk to my clients. Moreover, I think clients have the responsibility to insist on prophylactics if they’re worried about STIs rather than expecting us to behave in whatever ways in our own lives.
I see this as well with whorephobia and prejudice towards sex workers who use drugs. There’s the whole “Well you’re putting clients and us at risk!” Firstly, trading sex for drugs doesn’t automatically mean not using prophylactics and we’re all taking a risk when we have sex, at work or in our personal lives. That’s why we have the choice to use safer sex methods or not, and that’s a choice we have the right to make. I find that idea that we have a responsibility to not do natural services (and honestly I think pretty much everyone has sex in their personal lives without using barriers, amirite?), not use injection drugs etc. to be just another aspect of whorephobia and very controlling. I know I felt immensely guilty for using and then working, as if I was putting clients at risk even though I knew I wasn’t. The fact that they’re also responsible for their own health just didn’t occur to me.
In terms of clients and drugs, Australia doesn’t seem to have the review culture that the US does, or at least not in Western Australia, so the issue of drugs and work doesn’t really come up with clients unless they bring it up. My use was minor enough that I was able to cover my bruises and tracks with concealer. Mostly I have clients who want to use with me, and if they tell me this in advance I won’t take the booking, because every client I have been with who was using has been difficult. Some have been coming down and crying about their wives, others have been outright violent, so now I just avoid them when I can because I feel unsafe. If they tell me they’re using after I arrive, I tell them I don’t like it so I won’t be using but they can do what they want, and they usually don’t use after I tell them I don’t. They want it to be a social thing and using never was with me. I wanted to get high (and IV, not smoke for fuck’s sake) alone and everyone around me was a means to that end. Sex while high (on speed, which is all we have here) is terrible. I wouldn’t use with a client on smack in case I took too much—I wouldn’t trust them. If they were a friend outside of work, I would, but I haven’t been in that situation.
In terms of the stigma of using, I agree that there is so much stigma but it’s fucking stupid (as is all stigma I guess) when sex work is no different than doing any other job and buying drugs. I know heaps of white and blue collar workers who use drugs including IV and no one says boo about it. What a crock of shit. Who wouldn’t think it’s way better to work to pay for drugs or even a habit than to borrow money, hock things or steal? I know people who stole everything that wasn’t nailed down to buy drugs and sex work enabled them to work for their money, which not only stopped them hurting other people, but was also empowering.
Regarding The Specialist’s insistence that we need to always use condoms: I know that in terms of STI transmission using condoms is a good idea if you can, but surely it should be a choice? When I was working in brothels, there were always whispers about girls who did natural and it was really looked down on. I feel like that is also internalized whorephobia, not respecting other people’s choices as to what they do with their own bodies. Of course, I’m sure none of us here would look down on someone who offered natural but…The ideal vs. what happens in real life is different and I don’t think there should be hard and fast rules because that plays into the good whore/bad whore dichotomy.
Caty: I am really against clients bringing drugs to sessions for any purpose, anyway. I always end up giving them a bit of a lecture on endangering me and themselves more by bringing contraband to an already illegal transaction. When I was much younger and my screening sucked and I did calls at much later hours, sometimes I used to revel in the free druggie extras, like a few lines of coke in a baggie to bring home to my girlfriend of the time who liked it, Valium and Soma and Oxy in handfuls, etc. (In ADDITION to, not INSTEAD of, my fee of course, Olive and The Specialist make an important point above.) Nowadays I’m very wary of late night calls, or people who can’t schedule a day in advance, or being asked if I “party,” so I encounter this a lot less. Part of the stigma attached to the junkie ho is the idea that anything goes with people as demoralized and fallen as we are, but fuck that. I want my encounters with drugs to be on my terms, not some random prospective client’s, as that’s the best way for me to practice legal harm reduction. Anyway, my drug of choice, heroin, is the furthest thing from a party/sex drug, so it’s not as if I’d be commonly offered it if I let my rules about this relax. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, ughhh, coke dick. Is there anything worse than someone chemically fixated on sex who can’t get it up no matter what you try, but whose inhibitions and consideration for others melt away the more uppers they take so they think it’s your responsibility that they can’t get hard? That’s one thing I definitely had enough of in my first years of working. No more.
Olive: None of my opportunities to trade drugs for sex or use with clients are in a way that I’d even enjoy it so there’s no point.
Regarding coke dick: That’s another reason why I hate clients on meth; they don’t blow for ages and often get aggressive. I did use with a client once and it was such a clusterfuck, I was off my face and I was physically hurt and he ripped me off on top of that, and I had to take the week off and spent a number of nights crying. (With my partner saying, “Why are you crying?” “Because I’m fucking coming down!!” lmao.) I still feel like a fucking idiot for being in that situation. I’ve been working long enough to know better.
Kitty: I agree very much with you regarding safe sex, Olive. I feel judging other workers for not using condoms is whorephobic. I choose to do natural oral knowing its low risk, and it’s my body and my choice.
Caty: I feel like safer sex is a class issue in a way that the movement has only recently acknowledged—often people can’t afford to keep to boundaries around this. I acknowledge that I really didn’t get this for years, and prided myself on a decade of the most protected sex I could have, not realizing how my privilege protected me in negotiations with clients.
Olive: I totally support safer sex education for everyone, especially sex workers, and free condoms (or at least accessible condoms) for all. But I’ve seen this rhetoric contribute to whorephobia. Also, antis say it creates a market for natural services (as if there wouldn’t be more if we didn’t have access to prophylactics??) but also it means you can choose to offer natural and charge more. I wouldn’t do it myself, having had gonorrhea after being assaulted by a client especially, the amount of down time I needed to take after getting an STI outweighs the extra money I could make if I chose to take that risk. Also, I’ve not been in a situation where I needed to to get work, so I feel like there’s an element of privilege surrounding prophylactics, sort of like there is with kissing. And we’re talking about condoms, but in Western Australia it’s illegal to have sex for pay without using barriers, including dental dams, but plenty of workers openly admit to offering mutual french without dams. That’s a form of natural but the stigma around it isn’t there to the same extent, and it’s an educated risk.
Lily: I slept with my one of my drug dealers when I was nineteen in exchange for ten bundles of heroin, and to me it was a transaction like any other. I didn’t compromise my morals and he didn’t pay any less than I would have gotten with a regular. I remember doing a photo shoot with Richard Kern for Live Young Girls shortly after. He had told them I was homeless and they ran with that and wanted a whole spread of some dude’s fantasy of picking up a runaway off the street, giving her ten dollars, having her take a shower and shave, feeding her, and then fucking her (me.) I remember having my legs spread open in broad daylight holding up a sign that read “Will Fuck For Food” and thinking how uncreative mainstream porn can be. And he was spewing all this NA rhetoric to me, how he really thought I should get clean and it was the best thing he ever did, etc, and when we were done he shot me a knowing look as he handed me a few grand and I bolted out his door to get well and I thought to myself, what were the major differences between these two experiences? Because I definitely felt much less in control and much more objectified by the second.
Some might read over some of our comments in part one on why we use injection drugs and say we were self-medicating, and therefore we should be given psych drugs. How would you respond to that?
Kitty: Psych drugs have deleterious side effects far worse than those of narcotics. It absolutely is political which drugs are legal and socially acceptable and much of it is to do with financial interests. Psychiatry is not even a science. It is pretty much all unproven.
Andrew: Like Kitty has said, it’s about bodily autonomy—but it’s also about pleasure seeking. I think it’s no mistake that sex and drugs are often spoken of and stigmatized together.
And so what if people are getting through life self medicating? Given the stigma and abuse associated with psychiatry it’s no wonder people choose to stay away and do what works for them.
Caty: Having been part of the mad movement for many years, I have to agree with Kitty, given what I’ve learned about Big Pharma funded drug studies and the way particularly dire side effects like adult onset diabetes and akathisia induced suicide have been obfuscated by drug companies until decades after the release of the drugs that caused them, when civil suits arose. (That’s not to say that psych drugs don’t help a lot of people, just that they also don’t help and/or actively harm a lot of people also, and just as the 12 step model needs to not be the only model out there regarding drug use, the biomedical model needs to not exclude other models for thinking about mental health.)
Almost all of the really harmful side effects of opiates—hep C and HIV transmitted by unclean syringes, overdoses because of the unreliable potency of black market product (in areas with safe injection sites or heroin prescription, overdose rates are very low), etc—for example, are drug war related. And as Andrew touched on, human beings have been using mind altering substances throughout human history, for so many different reasons, and self-medication is only one of them. I bet it’s only one of the reasons all of you use injection drugs, as well. I don’t think I use opiates to self-medicate, though they were a helpful teaching tool for me when I was younger—showing me what peace felt like so I could learn how to eventually attain it organically. Now I use them simply because it’s a pleasure that’s just too good for me to forego.
What we need is drug decriminalization and widespread harm reduction education, not the involuntary administration of legal drugs.
The Specialist: Commenters would think that we SHOULD be given psych meds? Are these hypothetical people familiar with the history of forced psychiatric drugging of political dissidents, the disabled, and other societally “inconvenient” persons, particularly women? Being hooked on a drug from the pharmaceutical industry is not necessarily better (or even different) than using a street drug, other than illegality and stigma. I would like to see sex work activists working with organizations like Mindfreedom International, which focuses on psychiatric survivor advocacy.
Opiates are currently being used as a legitimate form of medication therapy. Ketamine’s effect on depression and the effects of opiates (including heroin and methadone) on bipolar disorder are being studied in clinical trials at Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. One doctor has released a book about it, The Opiate Cure: Pain and the Bipolar Spectrum by Robert Cochran. Using opiates has smoothed out my mood disorder more effectively than any psych med I’ve ever been prescribed, and I have tried them all. If only the expense weren’t so prohibitive.
Caty: And, of course, the expense is so prohibitive because of the drug war. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say opiates are the only thing that really help their anxiety or their depression, and they wish they could just ask their doctor for a prescription based on that. But of course, with the crackdown on doctors prescribing even legitimately, desperately needed pain medications, there’s no way any practitioner would take that risk.
I would say, though, that there’s more of a similarity between people taking psych drugs with recreational markets like benzodiazipines and people who use street drugs, less so between people taking drugs like SSRIs and people taking street drugs.
How do you think the principles of sex workers’ rights support the ideas behind the harm reduction movement and the movement for drug decriminalization? How would you want the sex workers’ rights movement to collaborate with harm reduction organizations and drug users’ unions?
The Specialist: What I’ve found is that there is a lot of hypocrisy surrounding sex work and drug use. In my personal (and entirely subjective) experience, upward of 80% of sex workers use drugs in one form or another, particularly if you include pot and heavy drinking. Yet when I read about sex work activism everybody wants to pretend that that’s not the case. I do understand that presenting a well-scrubbed face to the public is important if we want them to support our labor rights. The moment a sex worker complains about any aspect or his or her job, people immediately conclude that they should quit and “find other work;” that sex work itself is somehow worse than other types of labor. It’s a delicate line to walk.
Kitty: The tie with sex workers’ rights is that these are all issues of bodily autonomy.
Andrew: I think the sex workers’ movement more lines up with drug users’ unions and drug user run groups than with “harm reduction,” which is usually led by liberal drug industry professionals rather than drug users ourselves.
In Australia in the late 80s and early 90s the sex worker groups and drug user groups worked very closely together—with the early Prostitutes Collectives being co-founded by sex workers who used drugs. Now internationally we have strong ties between NSWP (The Global Network of Sex Work Projects) and INPUD (the International Network of People Who Use Drugs), and I think this alliance is helping break down stigma and encourage solidarity in both our movements.
Caty: What I see happening so far are efforts to do “outreach” to street sex workers who inject drugs, based on harm reduction principles. While this is great, it still sets injection drug using sex workers apart, as a marginalized, “other” group that the greater sex worker community provides services for. Ideally, what I want to see happening is a movement that work for the decriminalization of ALL nonviolent, victimless “crime.” Just as street sex workers shouldn’t have their right to work the street compromised in favor of the decriminalization of indoor work, drug decriminalization shouldn’t be compromised in favor of the decriminalization of sex work.
I didn’t know that about the collaboration of INPUD and NSWP, though since getting into drug users’ union politics recently, I’ve admired INPUD a great deal. I think that alliance holds great promise and opportunity.
Andrew: Yeah, in Kolkata last year at the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, we invited INPUD to run sessions, and we made spaces for drug users who were banned entry to the US conference in DC to come to Kolkata, and it was really great. There was lots of learning on both sides.