The Level Community Activator Ngaire talks to three sex workers about their experiences with drugs.
The portrayal of drug use by sex workers can often be very one-note: heavy drug users who work outdoors or in sketchy motel rooms and find themselves in less-than-safe scenarios. While this may be a reality for some people, the range of sex worker’s experiences with drugs is as diverse as the people themselves. We talked to three people to find out what it’s really like to use drugs as a sex worker.
Our first contributor says that their drug use became problematic after they began sex work, partly because of the increased income and flexible work hours that come with that kind of work. This greater access was only one factor though.
"These drug habits existed because of untreated mental illness, separate to sex work. After going through a lot of therapy, I continue to do sex work. I also do recreational drugs, but I’m now much safer, use drugs far, far less and prioritise my mental health."
Delia talks about the generalisation of sex workers as high-risk drug users, and how this is far from always the case.
"It seems to come from stigma, and media portrayals, but this fails to account for the many drug users who aren’t sex workers – white collar workers who do cocaine and other drugs on the reg – and all the sex workers who don’t do drugs. It’s like these two fringe groups are just lumped together without further nuance."
Sex workers, like many people, can have complex relationships with drugs. Having a job where, in some circumstance, you can control your working conditions can intensify these complexities.
"I think a lot of drug abusers are self-medicating because mental health help is so inaccessible in most of the world, and it can be difficult to maintain a “regular job” while being a heavy drug user. Sex work means you can make money fast and go to work high."
As a disabled person, this contributor found sex work to be life changing in a lot of positive ways, but it did make some things more difficult.
"Because I was not “out” about what I did for work, I felt a lot of shame for hiding a key part of myself. Doing drugs was some of the only ‘genuine’ joy I was able to feel during those times because even with close friends I still felt this lingering black cloud of shame around lying to them about my job, so sometimes it was easier to isolate myself with my drugs than to be social. That stigma really contributed to my unhealthiest drug use."
Our next contributor, Riana, is an experienced sex worker and meth user who advocates for destigmatisation and access to safe environments for sex workers who use drugs.
"Meth can be used very evilly and can be very dangerous but shaming people and creating an environment where every user is seen as a caricature of an unhuman husk that drifts around causing mischief and mayhem is harmful for the vulnerable users that fall victim to abusive cycles."
There can be difficult to navigate relationships between workers and clients, particularly where drug use intersects. Riana explains a riskier side to this lifestyle.
"If a man (usually a man, but I’ve seen women do this too) has enough money and enough meth and can keep you up long enough, your brain starts losing track slightly. He can use fear or paranoia to keep you entwined for days while your brain can’t work. Lots of lies start to seem feasible after enough time awake, but you have to keep going to earn enough for rent."
There are some really valuable safety precautions that workers in this situation can take to help stay safe. Riana found community as a good antidote to the dangers.
"I’m lucky enough to have had kind friends around who also use to keep me from falling too deep into these traps. I’ve always had someone to count on to watch out for those subtle signs. I feel extremely lucky for my little community. "
Riana says that many people in society don't feel they can relate to experiences of sex workers or people who use drugs, which can be really isolating.
"It’s hard not to feel down and to want to avoid polite company: 'What do you do for a living?' 'Oh, I’m a crack whore'. I don’t want to force that awkward conversation. I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t need help or pity, so it’s easier to be around people who have been through what I’ve been through. That way, I don’t have to see that flash of them trying to process my life with what they’ve seen on TV."
Being part of a stigmatised group can make it seem like healthy choices are out of reach, but there are steps that people doing any number of risky behaviours can take to stay a little safer.
"I always get my own and never rely on men who want to trade sex for drugs. I remember to drink water and get some sleep - the real danger is in being awake too long."
Riana puts in simple terms how people can help ease the stigma she experiences.
"Be kind to meth heads. Making vulnerable people feel shame just emboldens predators looking to take advantage."
Some sex workers relate to drugs in ways that have nothing to do with addiction. This is the case for our final contributor, Coco.
"Sex work has been a means of obtaining necessary medical care for a chronic condition, and I have needed to balance my career with the use of prescription drugs as directed by a medical professional."
While problematic substance use can happen in the sex industry, the overlap between these things is much more nuanced than it seems.
"This crossover is not just rooted in the superficial hedonism of drugs and sex. It speaks specifically to how vulnerability shows up in each activity."
Pathways into both sex work and drug use are particular to everyone. Coco found their way to both as a means of coping with disability.
"Not all drug use within the sex industry is illegal, nor is all drug use misuse. Balancing work with medication is difficult. I could not work dissociated or high for my own safety, as well as the safety of those around me. This motivated me to find non-opiate pain management strategies, which has changed my life in more ways than simply making work easier. However, many workers cannot seek out alternatives to their medication because there simply are very few other options and cannot leave the industry because they need the flexibility and earning potential of the industry in order to survive."
The higher earning and flexible hours allowed for this contributor to really focus on their health. Without sex work their outcomes may have been a lot less positive. Sex work was a life changing option when the societal supports just were not there for them.
"With expensive private treatments, the overcrowding of the public health sector, and the cost-of-living crisis, many young people cannot survive on their disability benefits alone. The sex industry acts as a financial bridge which allows them to earn enough in a short enough period to afford the rest and recovery their bodies and minds require."
There you have it – a small look into the complicated relationship between sex work and drug use. There is no one way that sex workers relate to drugs, and no single outcome that they all experience either. Life is complicated. People are complicated. Whether you personally relate to these or other stories about sex work and drugs, these are real people living complex lives – respecting their ability to make their own choices should be the bare minimum.
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