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Outcasts Among Outcasts: Drug-Using Sex Workers in the Sex Workers’ Rights Movement, Part 2

The madam of an opium den relaxing into a nod—note that is she is unbothered by clients as she does so. (One of a series of photographs by Hungarian photojournalist Brassaï taken in Paris in the early 1930s.)
The madam of an opium den relaxing into a nod—note that is she is unbothered by clients as she does so. (One of a series of photographs by Hungarian photojournalist Brassaï taken in Paris in the early 1930s.)

(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.

Then there was the part where I had to awkwardly encounter him every once in a while for years after that—and that’s another thing, trading a session directly for dope means that one has to break the common rule escorts make about not seeing people that know their real name, people who are part of their social circles, as clients.


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.

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.

"Cash on the line, sucker, or no shot."("Teen-Age Dope Slaves," April 1952, comic book cover by Marvin Bradley and Frank Edgington, courtesy of comicbookcovers.tumblr.com)
“Cash on the line, sucker, or no shot.”(“Teen-Age Dope Slaves,” April 1952, comic book cover by Marvin Bradley and Frank Edgington, courtesy of comicbookcovers.tumblr.com)

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, OS 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.

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.

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?

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 KC, 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.

Inject yourself with the essence of drug glamorizing--or, you know, with a jello shot using a ginormous turkey baster medical syringe.(Photo by Steve Kidanz, courtesy of Mariko Passion)
Inject yourself with the essence of drug glamorizing–or, you know, with a jello shot using a ginormous turkey baster medical syringe.(Photo by Steve Kidanz, courtesy of Mariko Passion)

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.

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.


  1. Something that wasn’t brought up in this roundtable that I’m wondering how people feel about (and I hope it’s okay I’m throwing this out there): the impact of illegal drug use in legal workspaces like clubs, houses, and brothels. This might be really similar to the ‘extras’ debate, in that it’s primarily about where individual rights end and start impinging on others’ rights. In the BDSM segment of the industry, I know drug use by clients and workers in legal (well, in theory) houses is a major cause of women going independent. I’d also like to hear more about how people feel about workers using versus clients using (I think most of us are much, much less tolerant of the latter), and the safety concerns of pro-dommes sessioning under the influence, doing things like flogging + whipping which require precision and coordination, or even edge-play like piercing.

    • I’ve gotten into a pattern of using a few different drugs when at the pro-submissive parlour I used to work in (coke, tramadol, valium, heavy drinking). The other girls and I would do this for a variety of reasons but most commonly to numb sensitivity to pain from heavy canings, to ease nervousness of heavy dominant regulars visiting, or also as a performance enhancer.

      I, for instance, attacked my roleplays with a absolute vengeance on coke, was super animated and energetic, and could take a much harder punishment than usual. Valium could also help me relax for extended stress positions, demanding psychological submission like hostage scenes, or rope bondage sessions (always supervised by maid I should add) Tramadol I got into using for same kind of physical stuff but also was using that to self-medicate for ongoing anxiety issues that were not specific to work.

      I also used coke (and these days Ritalin) when on extended appts or outcalls to restaurants when I have to do a lot of chatting, esp if I know the client will be boring or i’m nervous or just feeling a bit spoonless.

      I’d like to say that i never feel like my drug/booze use at work in that parlour (or since, although I’m not doing much these days) made my work unsafe or put me in danger – I feel more like it always enabled me to work better, if anything and at some times was essential for me to get through a session, or a day – sometimes 12 hours days, up to 15/16 clients max. As a sub, I have to be in careful control of what the top is doing, so I have always been particular about WHICH drug I would use with WHICH client for WHICH kind of session – “oh, it’s that awkward quiet guy James who does the super hard smacking with the riding crop. I’ll do a couple of lines so i’m talkative enough and it’ll help the pain on the butt.” OR “Oh it’s the really gropey one who likes to get right up in my face and do verbal humiliation and french kissing – a few glasses of wine and a vally will help with that.”

      This is a different issue to dommes using at work though – i’m only having to concern myself with my OWN physical safety when that riding crop comes out. To be honest, I have switched with clients when drinking, I remember my aim being fine with the flogger though (right on the bollocks, right?)

    • Like I said in the other post on this topic, I’d hate for people to have to work with me or any other long term opiate user when I’m dopesick. Being “well”–having used in the last 24 to 12 hours–means that my coordination, judgement, and etc, are at my norm. I also don’t put people into a situation where they have to work with me when I’m actively high. Different people react differently to different drugs at different times in their lives–I think, esp. with drugs that affect judgement/coordination, like alcohol, and less markedly, uppers, or downers, this should be a topic judged by each individual on a case by case basis, and should ideally be one of the topics for pre-scene negotiation. Though, I’ve never worked pro-domme, so my opinion probably doesn’t mean all that much.
      Clients, esp. newbie clients I don’t know well and can’t predict the intoxicated reactions of, are a whole ‘nother story. Though I’d also hope no opiate habituated client would see me dopesick.
      As for legal workplaces, I’d say that the firm rule there should be not to threaten the precarious legality of a legal sex work establishment. That is, don’t bring contraband there if you can help it, use beforehand and not there, etc, and be honest with yourself about how you perform and deal with fellow workers and clients under the influence.

    • It’s totally fair to say that some people are more okay to work high/ drunk than others, depending on what they’re taking and how they react. My coordination is bad enough when I’m sober, so I’m just not one of those people! I also worry about numbing myself to pain as a sub, as I don’t like to play that hard with clients and wouldn’t want them to do more damage than I’d agreed to.

  2. I’d add something else, re: legal drugs and legal workplaces, and maybe this already came up on the first post (73 comments and counting, damn) — when I was stripping, I was always working around booze. I wasn’t a big drinker at the time, and didn’t drink at work, but it seemed like such an obvious racket for the club — not just having dancers hustle drinks (either directly for commission, or indirectly as a way to keep the party going as it were) but to soothe a bummer night or keep your energy up for a good night. I felt like I was already giving the club enough of my earnings, so why would I want to buy their booze, too? (Yeah, I know, you can get customers to buy your booze, but now you’re managing a whole other set of their issues, and I really just wanted them to pay me, as efficiently as possible.)

    If we want to talk about consistent levels of substance use in sex work, stripping is what I think of first. There are dancers who have habits or dependencies, but we don’t then say all dancers are responsible for the habits or use of their co-workers. (Even when it’s often liquor violations that can close down a club.) We don’t say that alcoholism means that strip clubs shouldn’t allow booze ever. (Also, I don’t know how widespread this is nationally, but on the east coast, there are juice-only strip clubs — so under-21’s can work there and go there. Insert some other moral panic here.) As far as abusive customer behavior, it’s the excessive drunks who are far more common to a strip club (in my experience) than other sex work venues (commercial dungeons, massage, escorting — okay, there are drunks there, but it’s usually just one, your client, not a whole room).

    But — since liquor is legal and drinking is sold in a strip club as part of the whole “upscale” experience (or, the whole get-your-relax-on experience)… where is the judgment that gets lobbed at sex workers who use drugs in other workplaces? To me, that says the judgment has about nothing to do with “health” and “safety,” and more about fear and stigma and a desire to keep distance (even rhetorically) from “those” girls.

    • Spot on Melissa, and in the majority of the world sex workers work out of bars, clubs, beer gardens, go-go/dance bars or karaoke where alcohol is sold and sex workers are expected to sell drinks and get customers to by them drinks. My immediate thoughts are we need to address these, and the issues with alcohol you mentioned above in a work place health and safety context.

      • Yes!!! re: addressing substance use in the context of workplace/occupational health and safety — that also centers the issues raised by sex workers around drugs as work issues, not illnesses, “personal choices,” etc. etc. (notably, also, the same categories that people opposed to sex workers’ rights view sex work as).

        The Occupational Health and Safety Guide produced by St. James Infirmary (disclosure: my former employer, and they are awesome) has covered drug use & sex work from that POV, and in the US, where basically every drug we are talking about except alcohol and tobacco is criminalized. Here’s that as a free download: http://stjamesinfirmary.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/Occupational-Health-and-Safety-Manual-Third-Edition-2010.pdf

        • In response to some of this, I said on the other round table post: “I find the interesting thing about alcohol is how people don’t class it as a hard drug. It’s actually the most destructive drug in terms of one’s health, causing organ damage and cognitive damage in a way that most class A substances don’t come near to doing, one can die withdrawing from it, and it’s the only drug causatively correlated with violence in studies.”
          And given how alcohol is such a huge part of the job in so much of legal and grey market sex work…Also, there was a really interesting post that linked to this one in the blog of Korean escort agency worker, who writes about how drug dealing is an expected part of her job: http://chyma.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/momentum/

  3. As a professional in the field of mental health I word urge everyone (not only sex workers and “illicit” drug users) to resist being treated with psychotropic drugs by members of the psychiatric profession unless the circumstances are clearly appropriate. Here are what I consider to be the appropriate circumstances: You have a serious mental health condition which is affecting your personal enjoyment of life (based upon your own feelings on what constitutes “enjoyment”; You have developed a sense of trust in the person prescribing the psychotropics; The prescriber is not judgmental about your life choices.

    A talented, sophisticated, non-judgmental psychiatric social worker (as opposed to a psychologist or psychiatrist) who comes with high recommendations from people you know can certainly be of beneficial assistance with depression, anxiety and phobias, and such a person does not have a license to prescribe. Being depressed or anxious doesn’t mean that you are ill, and sex workers (drug using or not) certainly have a right to confidential and sensitive treatment.

    Your friends, family and associates whom you trust will know if you have a serious mental illness which may benefit from the administration of psychotropic medication. As examples, I would cite acute, chronic depression, crippling anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.

    • “Physically ill individuals aren’t forced to accept unwanted (and often catastrophically health-harming) treatment.”

      Yes, they are. Forced c-sections, forced bed rest, forced chemotherapy. Or coerced treatments (If you don’t try this dangerous/expensive/unproven, I will cut off your pain meds or report you to be drug-seeking.”)

  4. This article and the incredible comments (just the sheer amount is stunning) by so many amazing women continues to speak to the tremendous importance of this topic being openly discussed. Major kudos to you guys for making this an open forum for new dialogue. This topic speaks to my heart. I’ve been following several women in Seattle for several years now who are working as street sexworkers, mainly (almost exclusively) to support heroin habits. During the course of filming, their stories have evolved in different directions. The film, like the realities of both sex work and IV drug use, is so, so complicated, far from black and white. But these women (who have become good friends to us) and their everyday realities are some of the many voices that need to be heard. One thing I can truly say though is that most of the women I met when I started filming were suffering and not at a good point in their lives. And they could SO benefit from the strength and hope of women who have been there, whether they are still using or not is irrelevant.


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