For a long time, I’ve wanted to talk to other former and current injection drug-using sex workers about our experience of sex work and the sex workers’ rights movement. With every other statement from other sex workers seeming to be a disclaimer about how, “we’re not all junkies!”, pushing drug using sex workers in front of the bus in the name of respectability politics, a girl can get lonely out there. My most cherished dream is true, consistent collaboration between the sex workers’ rights movement and harm reduction organizations and drug users’ unions. Until that dream is realized, there’s always this roundtable. Material for the roundtable was gathered over e-mail dialogue throughout the month. Some of us wrote more than others, just as some of us have chosen to be pseudonymous while some of us are out. The participants are OS 1, KC 2, Inane Moniker 3, Lily Fury, Andrew Hunter 4, The Specialist 5, and me, Caty Simon. Part two will be posted tomorrow.
What are your experiences with stigma against injection drug use in the sex workers’ rights movement?
Lily Fury: I feel like it’s hard enough to be an out sex worker but because, in general, sex workers experience so much stigma they feel like they need to separate themselves from “other” sex workers, especially injection drug using sex workers. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard or read a sex worker saying, “I wasn’t molested, I came from a good home, I don’t use drugs” in an attempt to bust stereotypes. But what about the girls who were molested or who came from poor shitty homes or who do use drugs? I feel like many times our stories and voices are muted just to make certain people more comfortable and I especially feel like this speaks to the divide among sex workers. It’s like because there’s so much stigma in just being a sex worker it’s triple hard for an IDU sex worker to be open about drug use and gain acceptance among her sex worker peers. Being outcast from a group that is already outcast from society can be really shitty and I just idealistically wish we could all have each other’s backs regardless of things like class, working conditions, and whether or not we decide to use drugs, because our voices and experiences are equally important.
OS: I have been part of sex worker Facebook groups, which I chose to opt out of largely due to the problematic nature of the way drugs were dealt with, actually. It was as if it was acceptable for a client to offer drugs as payment (something I get constantly due to where I work and find really difficult to deal with as I only stopped using IV a year ago) but not acceptable for sex workers to be drug users. I saw other workers say things like, “it’s not like we’re street-walking crack addicts”, which is blatantly whorephobic as well as discriminatory to drug users. If I complained about being offered drugs as payment though, I was being unreasonable. I have no explanation for the duality of this; it’s okay to offer drugs as payment but not to use drugs. Bizarre. In general, the stereotype of the street-based drug addicted worker is one that some sex workers are at pains to disprove, and I think that’s where this comes from. My experience of queer communities as well is that we have this tendency to cover up anything that could be seen as negative by outsiders and present this perfect image to try to legitimize ourselves. I think sex workers often fall into the same trap and the stigma around drug use, especially IV use, is a big part of that.
KC: [I’ve been stigmatized] not so much in the sex workers’ rights community as by sex workers who are not involved in sex workers’ rights. My experience (which is very limited because I had so much internalized whorephobia that for so long I felt undeserving of rights and was not involved in activism) with Australian sex worker organizing is that most of the people in it have radically left/anti authoritarian and also intersectional politics. Most have been really encouraging and not at all shaming: support, compliments on courage etc. Mostly it’s people not involved or not heavily involved in politics who are shaming, in my experience.
I should add that the groups I was in were not all involved in activism. Many were, but that wasn’t the purpose of them. In my activism, I’ve found everyone to be very accepting and we can talk openly about drug use, and I think part of the reason is that we are actively against the whorearchy and recognize the role stigma against IV drug users, especially sex workers, plays in that.
I would like it recognized in general that sex workers’ and drug users’ rights both center around bodily autonomy and that we are marginalized in similar ways, except that it is more intense for drug users. Nowhere are we wholly or partially decriminalized [well, except for Portugal and the Czech Republic -ed.] and we suffer far more intense stigma. When drug use and sex work intersect, the stigma becomes still more heightened, especially when you use IV.
Caty Simon: I feel all these conflicting impulses all the time about whether to be closeted or not about my IV drug use. I assume that the mainstream world will think that it’s connected to my sex work, and yet, I started working LONG before I ever started doing drugs seriously. Nor did the social circles escorting introduced me to have anything to do with the people I did drugs with. But I still sometimes feel this responsibility to the movement to look like a fine, upstanding whore and not talk about my IV drug use, and instead highlight my activism and how literate I am, etc (sort of the same way I play up my middle class background and education in order to manipulate classist clients into treating me well.)
I find that even though there’s some overlap between sex workers’ rights groups and the harm reduction movement, sometimes movement sex workers can be some of the most puritanical, retrogressive people when it comes to drug use, adhering tightly to the AA/NA line as the only model with which to understand drug use. It depresses the hell out of me.
Andrew Hunter: I think adherence to the AA/NA line on drug use as THE truth about drug taking/addiction is pretty much confined to North America and to drug treatment workers in the UK. I think most of the world doesn’t see drug use through that lens, which is good for most of the world, I guess—but not so good for drug using sex workers in the US…..
When I was in Australia helping to organize early sex worker groups like the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, in Melbourne, most of the people involved in setting it up were injecting drug users. We also set up one of the first, and most successful needle exchange programs—which included outreach needle exchange to street workers. Our main thing then was hiding our use from our government funders, not each other.
But outside of Australia, when I began organizing work in in Asia there was a strong line that sex worker groups shouldn’t be involved in issues around drug use. That it would ‘give a bad name’ to the sex workers movement and increase stigma against sex workers in general. That’s changing now—but it’s been a long time coming.
KC: I did drugs before I ever did sex work, but I don’t care what people think of that. I feel the good/bad binaries and other sex worker binaries play into anti-sex work hands and are a red herring irrelevant to rights. I had an IV drug habit as a commercial lawyer and as a cashier too, but no one sees that as relevant to labor and human rights in those fields. Basically all this is just more whorephobia and concern trolling. It’s a trap; it’s just catch 22s. If you’re a “bad” sex worker they take away your agency but if you’re a “good” one you’re not representative and you harm all women. They are whorephobic because they want to be. Patriarchy maintains itself by a similar system of catch 22s.
I hate the 12 step paradigm but I don’t object to people using whatever they find value in. I object to its oppressive imposition on all as the only way, especially since statistics suggest it’s less effective than no treatment.
What, if anything, does your injection drug use have to do with sex work, and vice versa?
OS: I agree that there’s pressure not to draw connections between sex work and drug use. Really, the intersection of my drug use and my work was money, just like it is for non sex workers. I think the myth that drug use is more common with sex workers is pretty ridiculous not because sex workers don’t use drugs, plenty of us do, but because people with other high paid jobs (comparative to minimum wage jobs, obviously there are huge differences in finances between sex workers and the idea that we’re all rich is wrong as well, but generally we earn more money doing sex work than we would do anything else) aren’t recognized as being drug users. They “take vacations” when they’re really going to rehab, y’know? Whereas we don’t have that luxury. Also, sex work enables drug users to fund their use without turning to crime and antisocial behavior —something that KC has pointed out, as have a number of other sex workers.
Personally, I had used IV prior to being a sex worker but was not using at the time I started and was not an addict. My use came from my partner; he got me into it pre-sex work and I quit, pre-sex work. I started again because he was violent and so I asked my parents to take our children for their own safety. Losing my kids is what made me start using. The fact that I was able to work for a little while after and had some savings is the only link between my work and usage. My use came from the emotional pain of giving up custody of my kids and being abused, which again, is something that’s a bit taboo to admit as a sex worker since it buys into another set of myths and tropes, especially the ‘damaged goods’ hypothesis.
The Specialist: For me, sex work and drug use are both related and not. I started using at 15, which was well before I got into sex work. I actually spent seven years sober when I started dancing. I picked up again when I moved back to my old home town. Around that time I realized I was burned out on stripping and didn’t want to live with my parents, so I looked into finding an incall. Most people misunderstand my reasons for using IV drugs. My mom (and others) assume that I use because I feel bad about sex work. I feel fine about sex work. The truth is that I use in order to make a good living while managing my social anxiety/agoraphobia and bipolar disorder. The drugs help me immensely by regulating moods and chasing away anxiety, thus enabling me to function. My family doesn’t acknowledge my mental illness. My criminal record also prevents me from getting a “regular” job. Of course, the addictive nature of heroin throws my life into a repeating loop of work to use, use to work. But for me it’s better than the alternatives. I have been on Subutex maintenance for over a year now and I’ve managed to stay sober, but that’s because I’m a stay-at-home wife. This weekend I’m going job hunting (I’m also a licensed bartender) and I’m having a ton of anxiety about it. I don’t think I’ll be able to function unless I go back on psych meds. If I weren’t pregnant I’d go back to using (and escorting!) in a heart beat.
OS: I’m the same. Though I’m not using IV anymore, I use to manage my anxiety and depression. When I took Xanax at work, it was to manage social anxiety.
Inane Moniker: I used heroin from 16 to 26 years old (IV), and I have been sober for 8 years. I practice abstinence, and abstinence is harm reduction, but that I choose abstinence can make people uncomfortable even though I am comfortable around (95% of) drug use. Being sober feels alienating to some people, and I often feel like people project their own conception of what that means in order to convince me of their own politics, and honestly, I could not give a shit about any of it. The fact is, the only people I want to be around are drunks and addicts, because I these are the only people in the world I like and feel like I can trust.
I don’t do well in sober communities because I don’t believe AA is the end-all be-all. I am an out sex worker in AA and buck the shame and pathologization of 12 step recovery, particularly attitudes about sex. I advocate harm reduction over abstinence (disclaimer: historical exceptions are people experiencing extreme symptoms of drug-induced psychosis). Still, I use the 12 step model and that has worked for me where other methods did not. For me, it’s not a perfect fit, but it works. This choice creates friction for me in sex work and harm reduction circles, so I don’t volunteer my drug use, nor my sobriety in AA. But I don’t deny it either. People want me to be on their board of directors so they can have a junkie hooker for cred, but because I am sober I am “not representative,” and on and on…I just don’t talk about it anymore because it doesn’t feel (emotionally) safe for me to do so.
I have also been a sex worker for 15 years. I have been a sex worker through seriously dark times, and it has also been my lifeline to normalcy. I have been sex working strung-out and sober—both have their own highs and lows. In total, sex work has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me.
I often feel like the sex workers’ rights movement is deeply naive about serious drugs and at the same time wants to respond to the junkie hooker stigma (that all sex workers feel regardless of drug use) but really has no clue what that means. The sex workers’ rights movement has serious issues around talking about drug use, because people are usually too a) politically correct, b) are horrified to be stigmatized as junkies and “othered”, or c) think the fact they like to smoke pot means they have a seat at the junkie hooker table. IMO, they don’t. These conversations usually end with me feeling invalidated, which is head space I do not want to be in, so I don’t talk about it (see? harm reduction! lol). I really like the parallel of patriarchy here, Kitty. For both citizens and sex workers, my story can evoke horror or people think it’s so great (because I go to college now or something), but in the end it always makes everyone feel like shit because I can’t give them either the happy hooker or the junkie whore narrative that feels settling to them. My life is extremely messy, even without the drugs.
KC: I started using in the late 90s and started using smack IV a decade ago. Several months later I took my first sex work job, stripping in a contact club. This was to pay rent, not to fund my use, which at that point had only ever been recreational. I began using amphetamines IV within a few months of this which was about funsies, not sex work. I took my first full service job as a heroin addict, and because I was a heroin addict in November ’05. This was highly traumatizing, partly because at that point the work felt like getting molested over and over again by my uncle and partly because I had so much internalized stigma back then that I really did think that being a whore made me subhuman. When I first heard the term ‘pay per rape’ it resonated with reference to this experience but by the same token my experience then was a rarity and far from universal, which even then I knew. Later experiences ranged from ‘just a job’ to amazing fun. But none of this is ultimately important because rights do not rest on a foundation of worker enjoyment.
I home detoxed from my big habits and have only ever had baby habits since because I learned from the pain to be more mindful with reference to my use. I still use IV meth and occasionally IV heroin but I keep an eye on my limits.
OS: I always felt so shitty about being an IV user while I was working, I’d often cancel work (even with confirmed bookings lined up all day) to get high and even though I could work while high (on ice), I didn’t because I didn’t want to look like a junkie whore and I felt like I was putting my clients at risk somehow even though I never shared needles. Not until moving to and working in the country did drugs become really connected to sex work; I don’t use uppers at all now but clients often try to pay me in drugs instead of money, which I hadn’t had to deal with before. I remember once spending 300 bucks on heroin and it was all cut—I felt sooo sick—then getting a really fucking good outcall so I took it, breaking my own rule about not taking jobs after injecting. I was nearly throwing up the whole drive there but managed to feel alright once I arrived. It was a couple so I basically got to have sex with a gorgeous woman and covered the money I lost on the dodgy skag and then some. These days I don’t feel comfortable working around people who are high (which where I am, is always on ice) because I’ve had negative experience both at work and in my private life. My ex partner went into a serious psychosis and even before then was very violent when he was coming down. He was violent anyway, the gear just made it worse. Some people have asked me why I’m not more sympathetic to clients who try to pay me in drugs or want to use around me and that’s the reason; I find men intimidating anyway and every client I’ve had who’s been on gear has been a problem if not outright aggressive verging on violent. I have unlimited empathy for fellow workers who use but almost none for clients who do.
How do you feel about the common cultural trope that sex workers do hard drugs to “numb themselves” from the “pain” of doing their work?
KC: Bullshit. I am cool with my work, firstly, and secondly, I started doing drugs long before sex work was a twinkle in my eye simply because I like ’em. Actually, I prefer to work straight. I perform best that way.
Caty: Just like KC, I prefer to work straight, because besides the obvious benefits of being alert and concentrated on the job, especially in the case of new clients, why the hell would I want to waste a high on a call? I also feel no need to numb myself from the mundanities of escorting, though I might occasionally feel the need to put a damper on the whorephobia being blasted at me from all sides.
OS: Oh, wow, I am so glad we talk about these things with each other because I couldn’t say it to anyone else. I am kinda at a loss here. The last brothel I worked at everyone either drank alcohol or smoked pot, though I alone was popping Xanax. Lots of people used speed IV as well but that was privately and a bit hush hush. Also though I think the brothel environment kinda just…I don’t know, you’re sitting around a lot of the time including late nights and weekends with people you get along with really well so it makes sense that we also have drinks and a smoke? But I don’t think that’s the same as “numbing the pain”, more like passing time with your friends because you can. Also I think if you’re already using when you start working and then make more money working then it makes sense your use increases as well. Really, it’s more about the fact that money facilitates usage. Personally (and I know a lot of people who are the same), I never used while I was working; only after or on my days off. And really for me, the “pain” from sex work was from having to hide what I was doing, from my abusive, violent ex who simultaneously insisted I work to support his use while punishing me for it; and from other stresses in my life not related to work. Sex work isn’t painful to me. Even after being assaulted in June, I took a month off and got my shit together and started working again because work is the one thing in my life that doesn’t stress me out.
Lily: I was already using heroin to numb the pain of my past so it wasn’t a sex work-specific thing. I think, like Olive said, it’s not so much numbing the pain but passing the time, especially in an atmosphere where you’re able to or where it’s even encouraged. I remember when I first started stripping, most of the other girls hated me (mostly because I was their main competitor) and one girl tried to get me fired when she saw me apply cover up over a track mark in the dressing room. Let me be clear: this was the most lax on drugs white trash strip club I had ever worked in, and the girl who tried to fire me had no problem sniffing coke or drinking herself into oblivion every night, but still, injection drug use almost got me fired. I find it ludicrous and so hypocritical that for many people cocaine and alcohol is completely socially acceptable but God help you if you are an IDU.
You can find part two of this discussion here.
1. OC is a twenty something queer sex worker, writer, student, activist and mother from Australia. Most of their writing and activism currently focuses on sex work and sex workers’ rights and they are self-publishing their first collection of poetry, due to be published on Amazon some time this year. ↩
2. KC describes herself as a “Melby-dwellin’ sex workin’ queer mewcat mum with a fondness for the word ‘cunt’, its uniquely Aussie variant ‘shitcunt’ and telling ze ‘droid phone to shut its whore mouth (phone relationship status: it’s complicated). Also an internet-addicted hedonist, tiara-wearing trashwhore and leftist little fuck living nowhere near North Fitzroy.”↩
3. Inane Moniker was an injection drug user for over ten years. She’s done every type of sex work under the sun.↩
4. Andrew Hunter works as the Program Manager of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. Andrew was involved in setting up sex worker rights organizations and drug user groups in Australia in the 1980s and has been working on sex workers rights issues in Asia and globally for over ten years. ↩
5. The Specialist has been working in the sex industry for 15 years, as an escort and former dancer. She is living proof that you can, in fact, turn a ho into a housewife.↩