Here’s What Real Sex Workers Say About That “Hooker-Using-Drugs-to-Numb-the-Pain” Trope

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Oct 04 2016

Here’s What Real Sex Workers Say About That “Hooker-Using-Drugs-to-Numb-the-Pain” Trope

October 4th, 2016

You’ve heard the story: A troubled woman prostitutes herself. To numb the pain of belonging to this sordid underground world, she begins to use drugs. She degrades herself further to get her fix and her life continues to spiral out of control.

Rinse and repeat.

Yet this received wisdom is simply wrong-headed.

“Multiple studies repeatedly and consistently … refute this narrative,” Melbourne-based sex worker Fae Adams tells me. “Anecdotal testimonies from countless sex workers further stress that it’s false. These are all offhandedly ignored by the people who promote that narrative… or often pointed out as either lies or the products of ‘false consciousness.’”

In a study conducted in Sydney in the 1990s, for example, a sample group of 120 sex workers were found to be lighter drinkers than a sample group of women health care workers. They were only 15 percent less likely to abstain from illegal drugs than the control groups of students and health workers.

And a 2002 British study correlated “problematic” drug use among sex workers with teenage drug use pre-dating entry into the industry, as well as homelessness and convictions. Workers in the study who had not been vulnerable in these ways all reported no current drug use.

Yet the trope about using drugs to make sex work tolerable persists—and many drug-using sex workers find it infuriating because of how it reduces and flattens their lives and strips them of their choices.

 

A Notion That’s Not Only False, But Disempowering and Damaging

To me, the idea that sex work is so painful that we need drugs to cope with it ties into the idea that we are passive victims without agency,” says Angel, a sex worker who uses opioids and benzodiazepines.

“It’s like the way people forgive you,” exclaims Haley, an Australian worker: ”‘Oh, she was so damaged by sex work she had to use drugs! That’s okay, as long as she got rescued and admitted she had no control over her life and needed help.’”

I ask Adams about this common perception. “The vicious-cycle idea of using drugs to ‘numb the pain’ of sex work and sex working to maintain [that] habit is the perfect illustration of how drug stigma and whorephobia intersect,”  she explains. “Neither the junkie nor the prostitute are afforded agency, their choices and decisions constantly invalidated. The junkie prostitute, then, can’t be trusted with the decision to do sex work because they use drugs…and their decision to use drugs [is] invalid because they a) use drugs, and b) [they] are a sex worker.”

It’s a model, she notes, that “presents drug-using sex workers as a monolith of fragility, because it robs us of what should be our inherent position as the stakeholders and experts of our lives.” This results in “the belief that we are powerless, blind to our own suffering, that we are completely isolated and alone, that we desperately need the assistance of benevolent saviors, who patronize us and treat us with pity, invalidating every choice and decision we make … every idea, opinion, or belief we have, our ownership of our own bodies, our understanding of our own lives.”

Meg Valee Munoz is a former drug-using escort and the founder of Abeni, a trafficking survivor and sex workers’ rights organization in Orange County, California. She, too, objects to “generalized, sweeping, stigmatizing statements that cast us as pained, broken victims” and says that such stereotypes “force us to challenge the notion that sex workers cannot have agency, emotion, nuanced experiences, or a life outside of our work.”

The widespread conflation of our occupation with our personalities is something sex workers continually endure. But of course, as European escort, meth-user and longtime activist Maya points out,Everything that goes on in life is not connected to work. My happiness or potential misery is not solely a result of how I choose to make a living. Assuming it is just shows a one-dimensional and prejudiced understanding of what working in sex work actually means. I have a partner, friends, family, another job, hobbies, pets, relatives, dreams—and all of those things will obviously affect how well I’m doing, just like for any other person. But that seems to be hopelessly hard for most people to understand.”

Brothel worker Riana notes that this stereotype also allows the public to see sex workers as the Other: “That cliché—that sex work is too painful to bear sober—is used to dehumanize and thus divide female sex workers from ‘real women,’ she says.

She also points out that “really, transactional sex isn’t so unusual or that way out of the experiences of many non-sex working women: the wives who fuck out of obligation, the girlfriend who does something special for her boyfriend to get some favor. Maybe that scares some men—that they aren’t wanted as much as they wish they were—so they need to put a thick line down between us, when the only difference is some of us are getting a better deal.”

 

Thinking About Drug Use Among Other Occupations Reveals Double Standards

A comparison with public perceptions of other professions’ drug use is also telling. We’re used to portrayals of hard-drinking professional culture among cops, factory workers, lawyers or firemen. Cocaine use in finance is another trope. Yet there’s a chasm between the levels of stigma applied to these different instances of drug use: No one pathologizes these populations for using drugs and alcohol to relax and blow off steam to anything like the degree experienced by sex workers. There is no justification for this distinction.

Are there sex workers who find it easier to deal with sex work when using?” Maya asks. “Sure. Are there bartenders who find it easier to work when using? Yup. Are there bank managers who find it easier to work if they can have a shot of vodka when no one is watching? I would guess so. But that does not mean it is explicitly linked to [the] activities their work consists of.”

“So many people I have met in civilian industries use drugs to cope with the rigors of their job and no one bats an eyelid,” Angel relates. “Indeed, the after-work drinks scenario in many  offices is an entrenched part of our culture. Yet when sex workers discuss drug use, ulterior motives are immediately read into it—there must be something wrong with the nature of our work.”

“If we were talking [about] CEOs of big-ass companies and bros off of Wall Street, it’s considered almost [their] birthright to be super-high on drugs,” says Victoria, a massage worker in Oregon.

“Hell, I used to use drugs and alcohol to make waiting tables more interesting,” recalls Amanda More, an American pro-domme.

 

The Real Story Is Usually Very Different

And there are instances in which, ironically, sex work minimizes drug use.

“When I’m doing sex work I make more money and have more free time and I don’t feel as abused and desperate as I did at my ‘legit’ jobs, so I use drugs less,” Red tells me.

“Honestly, I’d be using drugs much more frequently, and less socially acceptable drugs at that, if I had my previous job as a chef,” says Joy, a sex worker in Detroit.

But the old sex-work-drug-use narrative assumes that people find sex work to be uniformly miserable, rather than allowing for varying experiences.

Why would I need to numb the pain [of] a job I didn’t feel was wrong or hurting me?” Munoz asks.

“I do not use to ‘cope with sex work,’ “ More says. “There is nothing to cope with. My job is just my job. I’ve been in the industry long enough now—nine years—and I am so used to it, it’s like brushing my teeth at this point.”

I use drugs to numb the pain of existing, period,” says Molly, a New York street worker. “My work isn’t particularly painful. In fact, connecting for a moment in ways that are sometimes surprisingly intimate with a stranger is sometimes one of the most pleasant parts of my existence.”

The idea that sex work is painful for every worker is just absurd,” says Jill, a fetish and full-service worker from the South. “I enjoy this work well enough. I have done other work and I prefer this. I found it a lot more painful to do underpaid wage labor for a boss in an office or a retail store. I don’t find sex work thrilling or anything, but it’s fine, and I make enough that I got myself out of homelessness and now have small savings and a fairly stable life.”

Sure, there are miserable sex workers, just as there are miserable bartenders and lawyers. But the mistaken idea that misery is inherent to the profession implicitly connects the pain of sex work with outdated notions about the shame of losing one’s virtue—rather than the criminalization and marginalization that actually make the industry dangerous.

“[The trope] totally ignores the fact that the world is incredibly painful to bear and that the reasons sex work is hard come from our society—they aren’t inherent in having sex, or having sex for cash,” Red says. “They’re byproducts of misogyny and poverty and homophobia and racism and transmisogyny. If none of those were a thing, sex work would be a dream!”

When we do use drugs because sex work is painful, that pain usually stems from what society has made our work, rather than the work itself.

“In the past I have used alcohol and drugs to deal with being rejected by my family for being a sex worker,” Jill says.

The thing that I desperately want to get across to people is that I didn’t get back on heroin because I was having sex with men for money,” says Em Comminoti, a Pittsburgh sex worker and former heroin user. “I was fucking thrilled to become an escort. I was able to support myself without a partner for the first time in my life. I was able to travel. I could make my own schedule. The majority of my clients were great. The person who ran my agency was the best person I could have hoped for and gave me a more than fair cut.”

“The relationship between my work and my drug use is entirely due to the stigma that surrounds full-service sex work,” she continues. “Because of the stigma, I truly believed in my heart that no one would ever be able to love me again… I was dating people and hiding my job. My two best friends [had] just hooked up and I lived with them. Seeing them cuddled up together 24/7, as I dated these people I knew would never see me if they knew I was a hooker—it really fucked me up mentally. So I numbed out. If the stigma against sex workers did not exist, I would have never ended up hooked back on heroin.”

People have had an enduring, multifaceted relationship with mind-altering drugs for millennia, and they’ve used these drugs for many different reasons. Sex workers are no stripped-down exception to this rule: We are not, contrary to popular belief, the one population with only one motive for taking drugs.

 

The Real Reasons Some Sex Workers Use Drugs

When I asked the sex workers I spoke with for this piece why they in fact use drugs, there were several different reasons—if not 10 or more—for each person. As it is for most people, one common motivation for sex workers’ drug use is simple pleasure, giving the lie to the bleak, broad strokes usually used to portray this relationship.

“I use drugs because…I am treating myself,” Haley says. “I don’t really relate to lots of ‘self-care’ kind of concepts, but when I buy drugs for myself… I am investing in myself, in my own pleasure and happiness, in my closest friendships so we can have drugs together.”

“Be it party[ing], hav[ing] endless and hilarious conversations, zon[ing] out in front of a good movie, tak[ing] a bath, whatever—[drugs] can make a whole lot of already-pretty-good activities even better,” Adams says. “I like drugs: I like how they feel, I like what they enable me to do, I like the process [of] consuming certain ones.”

The sex workers I interviewed also listed a variety of more mundane reasons for drug use—from managing scheduling to improving their moods.

I have a lot of things going on in my life, I’m impatient and I’m a control freak,” Maya admits. “Uppers add some hours to every day. I can keep working if I have a deadline or just having a good flow rather than having to go to bed.”

Many people get into sex work because it offers a flexible schedule for those with chronic pain, mental health issues, or other health problems. Working-class people with these difficulties sometimes find illicit drugs easier to access, more effective, or easier to live with than legal treatments. In this situation, a health issue is related to both sex work and drug use, yet the sex work and the drugs are not connected to each other in the way they’re paired up in the public imagination.

“I have had Lyme disease since 2013 and didn’t know it until last month,” says Ana, a Chicago sex worker and former heroin user. “So I used drugs for energy and pain relief from symptoms.”

“I use drugs as a form of self-medication,” Angel says. “I have several mental illnesses and even while earning a good wage in the sex industry, most mental health care is financially inaccessible to me due to not having private health insurance. Drugs are a way I can function and get by in the absence of care.”

“I… have Asperger’s and sensory processing disorder,” More discloses, “so drugs have helped me tolerate sensory overload. Also, I have autoimmune issues, chronic inflammation and myalgic encephalomyelitis—which leads to chronic pain. I can manage my disease naturally, but it involves so many restrictions on diet and social interactions that I feel like a prisoner. I use drugs so I can participate in a lot of activities that many people take for granted on a daily basis.”

“Entering into sex work was another strategy I came up with to try to cope with disability,” says Amber, a full-service and porn worker on the West Coast, “not something I descended into because of drug use or to pay for all my drugs or because I couldn’t hold down a vanilla job anymore. Out of all the labor I’ve done, sex work has been the least painful and the easiest for me to bear sober.”

“[My drug use] mostly stems from the disabilities I’m dealing with, mental and physical,” she continues. “It’s still not easy to be me, but I experience less suicidal ideation and physical or mental pain through drug use.”

Of course, some sex workers do use drugs to cope with trauma. But that process can be complicated—and the trauma they navigate doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex work.

“I started doing drugs to escape from my shitty home life and boring rural environment as a teenager,” Comminoti remembers. “I was severely neglected and depressed … Eventually, it became less about fun and more about self-medicating my depression and anxiety. Sometimes, if I am having a flashback to sexual abuse I experienced as a child, I will use to distract myself and take my mind off of the flashback.”

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“I was sexually abused as a teenager,” Angel tells me, “so I do use drugs to deal with trauma and the PTSD associated with it. The trauma I have faced, and my use of drugs to help cope with it, long pre-dates my sex work.”

“I live with Complex PTSD as well as ‘normal’ PTSD,” Adams says. “[The] C-PTSD is rooted in the long-term family violence situation I grew up in, as well as ongoing experiences of bullying … I have ‘normal’ PTSD because of a few incidents of sexual assault, including a few rapes, and extreme violence.”

“I resent the idea that because I live with mental illnesses, or because I have been through trauma, I should just suffer all the time, or give up doing certain things,” she continues.”Drugs are one of many coping mechanisms I use, and whether they allow me to be productive or to zone out, they have proven to be useful and helpful in managing life with trauma.”

“A lot of my anxiety and inability to be in public is from trauma,” Red says. “Sometimes I feel like my skin has been peeled off and is gone, and [for me] pot, kratom, benzos, opiates offer relief. They interrupt some of the repetitive thought and emotion flows that I developed and let me let that go. And they ease my anger, which is pretty fucking massive because I’m not just angry at people who’ve hurt me, but at the systems that gave them the power to do it … sometimes I feel like it’s either me or the world, but one of us is gonna have to explode.”

 

Addressing Those Stories That Do Seem to Fit the Cliché

There are sex workers and trafficking survivors whose experience of trauma, sex work and drugs does seem to fit the pattern commonly outlined for us.

My hooking always precipitates my meth use,” says Laura LeMoon, a sex worker in Seattle. “Then it becomes one and the same. My personal relationship between drug use and sex work is poverty and desperation. I only do sex work when I’m in dire poverty and have no choice and because I feel like such shit for being forced by poverty to do sex work, I do drugs and drink. It’s a shame cycle.”

“I was originally forced into prostitution by a boyfriend and have been raped more times than I have had consensual sex,” she continues. “Drugs and getting drunk is something I do to help with the fear of getting raped or beaten, which has happened to me a lot on the streets. Before my pimp would force me to have sex with someone I would chug a 40-ounce to deal with my fear and self-hatred.”

But LeMoon still objects to the knee-jerk reactions her story evokes in people—the way they label her and initiate attempts at rescue and incarceration.

Instead, she counsels, “I think it’s important for sex workers and non-sex workers alike to remember that quitting drugs is not a realistic goal for everyone. This is really the essence of harm reduction. People need support for where they are at. Not based on some manufactured social value.”

And workers whose drug habits look more like the common conception of sex workers’ drug use still retain perspective on how universal their experience is—or isn’t.

“I probably wouldn’t have ever used heroin or painkillers if I never got into sex work, but my experience is different than others’,” says Nikki, a Philadelphia switch and full-service worker.

Nikki’s story also illustrates how the motives for drug use can vary, even in cases that seem to fit the trope. “I’ve used [to] both numb myself to sex work but also to help me work, as I’m less inhibited while high,” she explains. “My drugs of choice also help with body pain caused by the physical labor of my job and the emotional labor.”

My other interviewees echo her, telling me that their drug use sometimes eases work-related aches and pains, helps them get into character and livens up a tedious shift.

“[Marijuana] helps alleviate physical pain from standing up and leaning over a table to massage people for five-to-six hours a day,” Victoria says.

For me, it’s not about ‘numbing the pain,’ it’s about lowering my own inhibitions and combatting anxiety,” says Tory, a Midwestern escort. “Unless I know a client well or am truly physically attracted to them, I feel the need to compartmentalize by stepping into my sex-worker persona.

Drugs and alcohol, I’ve found, are the most efficient means of embodying that character.”

I don’t like being straight for work,” says Mayhem, an escort in Darwin, Australia. “My alter ego comes out to play [when I inject meth] and embraces client contact far easier than me.”

“I have used drugs and alcohol to deal with boredom at work in the past, especially at the strip club,” Jill tells me.

 

Arriving at a Better Understanding

I ask my interviewees what they wish they could make people outside the industry understand about sex workers’ drug use.

Legalize everything and ban the rich!” Red answers. “That’s glib, but I think the necessity of that is important to understand! Drug use isn’t related to sex work except that historically it’s been convenient to demonize and pathologize sex workers as damaged.”

But decriminalizing prostitution and ending the War on Drugs are only the beginning of what needs to be done to ensure survival and meaning for these marginalized people. Most of my interviewees point out the struggle of living in a failed economic system that does not provide for their basic needs.

[Even] if you can remove the stigma and the preconceived notions of both sex work and drugs, it stands that life is painful and it can be really fucking hard to try and make your way in a capitalist society, especially when dealing with disabilities or other intersectional oppressions,” Amber says.

“Once you realize how much you don’t matter and how close you are to being disposable, just another person without food or housing or resources slowly dying on the street, it never goes away,” Red explains. “Sometimes the urgency of that fades, but it’s always there and can always come back, and sometimes you just need something to dull that terror.”

If non-sex workers really want to know about why I use drugs, ask about the intersection of poverty, mental health, and support for autistic people,” Angel suggests. “Ask about access to support for young people leaving traumatic family backgrounds. They have a great deal more to do with my use than work.”

“My drug use does not make me a lesser person,” Adams insists. “So I deserve to be treated with respect. I deserve peace, privacy, agency, bodily autonomy, safety, and human rights.”

In a society in which many disadvantaged people are denied these things, sex workers who use drugs are trying to make the world, not their work, bearable.


Caty Simon is a writer and co-editor of Tits and Sass, a blog by and for sex workers. Her last piece for The Influence was “You Know That Cliché of Trading Sex for Drugs? Here’s the Real Thing.” You can follow her on Twitter: @marginalutilite.

  • Lots of truth here, thank you! The media tells us that people do sex work because they are addicted to drugs (e.g. almost every episode of “This is Life” with Lisa Ling). When in fact usually people do drugs and have sex to feel validated and have fun, and sometimes ‘sex work’ is a nice excuse for getting high. Yes, decriminalize drugs and sex. End crony capitalism – e.g. tax deductions for real estate developers.

  • Candi Forrest

    Great article, a salve to my horror after reading The Prostitution Narratives.

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  • Ezra MacVie

    Ban the rich? What does capitalism have to do with this? Does capitalism derogate sex work more than socialism? Or capitalists more than socialists?

    Plutocrats need love, too. In fact, I quite wish I were one.

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  • Daniel Richardson

    this is actually the most cringeworthy decadent article I’ve ever read in my life lol someone call huffingtonpost