"Junkie Whore"—What Life Is Really Like for Sex Workers on Heroin

Feb 04 2016

“Junkie Whore”—What Life Is Really Like for Sex Workers on Heroin

She’s the dead hooker in the trunk. A universal cautionary tale, the drug-using sex worker is too wretched to be relatable, too scorned for even countercultural cred. She is repulsive, unclean and immoral. She is pitiable at best, inhuman at worst—dismissed by police lingo about murders whose victims are drug-using street workers: “No Human Involved.”

If she’s white, she’s lucky enough to be merely an abject victim. If not, she’s a deranged criminal. She’s a scarred, blotchy mugshot in your local paper’s coverage of prostitution stings—recycled without regard for privacy by anti-drug PSAs to let kids know that that’s what they’ll look like after years of doing dope. She’s the woman I’ve heard my escorting clients joke about not wanting to fuck with someone else’s dick—not realizing that they are talking to a sex worker who uses heroin, as I force myself to laugh along with them.

The “Junkie Whore” archetype is drawn from moments of despair and oppression in the criminalized lives of women like me, just trying to avoid arrest and assault and make enough to meet the high cost of prohibited drugs. It is pernicious and wrong, but it persists.

For many sex workers who use drugs, the work is simply about utility. ”I spend money on drugs, and I make money from hooking,” as 29-year-old Lily, a veteran heroin-using street worker and writer, efficiently puts it. But this dually stigmatized identity becomes more than the sum of its parts, tarring women as both helpless waifs and, simultaneously, selfish whores. We are dirty, diseased untouchables. Read any newspaper article profiling drug-using sex workers—even those that are superficially sympathetic—and you’ll find these themes.

Today’s “Junkie Whore” is the evolution of the Victorian Fallen Woman archetype. She falls prey to the temptations of dope, loses her purity and prostitutes herself. Just as the Fallen Women of Victorian novels and yellow journalism were coarse and unnatural, so too is the Junkie Whore—instead of being femininely altruistic, she prioritizes getting the hit she needs to feel well, spurning her role in the nuclear family and neglecting her children.

Chloe Rose, a West Coast escort in her twenties who uses opioids, elaborates on these prejudices: “There’s a notion that drug users, specifically users of hard drugs, are inherently selfish, because addiction in and of itself is a pleasure-seeking behavior pattern, right?”

“Sex workers are regarded as incapable of forming close interpersonal connections due to the nature of our work necessitating a kind of emotional disconnect,” she continues. “I think those two stereotypes kinda just snowball into that notion…especially for sex workers who identify as women. It’s hard to shake that notion because women are expected to put everyone’s needs ahead of their own, anyway.”

Rose’s own life contradicts these stereotypes, even though her introduction to both drugs and sex work came in her teens. “I see my mother regularly,” she says.“I have never paid my rent late. None of my pets have ever missed a meal. I exercise regularly, I have an active social life…basically, I’m functional-ish.”

Rose’s sketch of herself fulfilling her responsibilities to those around her matches many of the opioid-using sex workers I spoke with. However, the trope of the Junkie Whore as only out for herself remains. The heroin-using sex worker as mother, especially, is seen as a heartless monster. Regardless of the nature of her parenting, even if she’s braved withdrawal day after day to put her children’s needs first, they can be taken from her at any time because of her drug use or because of her sex work—particularly if she is Native American or black.

“Being a sex worker or a junkie doesn’t taint your maternal instincts,” Lily tells me. “I am a mother and I love my daughter just as much as someone who doesn’t work in the sex trades or have issues with opiates. I feel like the real problem lies with both drugs and sex work being criminalized. This is what makes it harder for us to be who we are and then be mothers and partners and everything else that is expected of us.”

The viewpoint that sex work and opioid use are inherently degrading, turning their practitioners into amoral community members, is contextless. It is the criminalization of our lives that forces us against a wall—the high cost of scheduled drugs, the vulnerability of working in an illicit trade, and the danger of arrest.

Countless women—your sister on Paxil, your mother on Xanax—are physically dependent on a substance, but most of them don’t in consequence have to raise hundreds of dollars a week. Many people work in trades which are loathed—from professional gamblers to parking meter readers—but not all of them have to worry daily about arrest and violence.

Nor do they have to worry about a nightmare combination of the two: rape by cop. This was something Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims, 12 poor black women, some of whom were drug-using street sex workers, had to sufferwithout resolution—until his attack of a woman with no criminal record made their reports credible. And most people don’t have to worry about detoxing in jail, possibly dying from withdrawal complications as prison guards look on—like Florida mother April Brogan after she was picked up in a prostitution sting in Daytona Beach this spring.

“The criminalization of drugs and the criminalization of sex work combine to affect me in that I’m extremely anxious most of the time,” Rose says, “due to either being about to work or about to score.”

When our cost of living is higher than anyone else’s, and when every moment of our daily business, from earning that living to getting well, is fraught with fear and danger, the wonder is not what desperate creatures drug-using sex workers are. The wonder is how we so often manage to transcend that desperation, living fuller lives than anyone imagines.

Lily is a celebrated local writer and Chloe Rose tirelessly supports her friends. The two other women I interviewed for this piece are an accomplished community organizer and a grad student who is a rising star in her department. All four of them are not only sex workers who use drugs, but also survivors of impoverished childhoods and underage survival sex work—and still they manage to flourish. Yet despite what we manage to do, the issue always seems to be how far we’ve fallen.

At the end of Requiem for a Dream, Marion clutches an ounce-bag of heroin as she falls asleep on her couch, a bag she earned providing entertainment at an orgy. It’s clear that she hasn’t bathed. Her sweaty hair is plastered across her scalp, and the book notes that she can still smell the men on her lips. She is happy because she no longer has to rely on her boyfriend or anyone else, and dope is in easy reach: “I can always feel like this.”

But the Greek tragedy format of the tale implies that this is her undoing, with the narrative equating her fate to being lobotomized or having a limb amputated. Being a junkie is bad enough; being a junkie whore is a debasement that cannot be borne.

In fact, even many of my fellow sex workers think this way. Drugs have long been a dicey topic for sex worker activists:

“…throughout the feminist sex worker anthologies I read I felt downplayed, ignored, erased, and portrayed as one small minority of desperate victims, downtrodden and useful as a pawn for sex negative enemies…I am never heard from or described with any complexity or mobility. I am talked about in terms of AIDS prevention, murder statistics, scarcity, and pity.”

—p.10-11, Feel Me by Leslie Bull (Confluere Publications, 2002)

Not enough has changed since Bull outlined the problem. At best, sex worker organizations with middle-to-upper-class members do street outreach, passing out literature, needles, condoms, and other harm reduction materials, but they do not view hard-drug-using street sex workers as fellow movement participants.

At worst, in interview after interview, privileged sex workers insist to media representatives that they do not do drugs—they are not one of those. They believe they are combating harmful stereotypes about sex workers, but what these statements really achieve is the exclusion from the movement of many of their colleagues.

“I think drug-using sex workers disrupt other sex worker activists’ ideas around a sanitized image…a ‘clean’ image that is best put forward, in their mind, to the public when fighting for our rights,” says Marisa, a prominent 37-year-old East Coast sex worker activist who is also a closeted heroin user. “We should not continue to allow our movement to be sanitized for the sake of respectability politics. Not feeling safe to disclose our use prevents us from participating fully in activism as our authentic selves. It makes us feel alienated and alone in a movement that should be welcoming and warm.”

“Sex worker activists say things like, ‘I came from a good home and I’m college-educated and I don’t use drugs’ to make us more relatable and less scary,” Lily says. “They think it doesn’t look good for their cause, so they pretend we don’t exist and push our narratives as far away as possible from the mainstream…It’s infuriating when the ‘happy hooker’ narrative tries to silence our narratives, which are equally as important and complex and beautiful.”

I encountered this strong bias against drug use within the sex worker activist community when I began writing a column called “Ask Ms Harm Reduction,” answering questions like, “My heroin-using friend is pregnant—how do I help her?”, “How can I stay safe while taking E at the club?” and “How can I manage risks when doing drugs with clients?”

I mostly got a positive reaction, but was also berated soundly by a few sex worker activists. One New England escort/organizer commented, “why [do] you insist on portraying sex workers as addicts? …no doubt these types of articles will be used at trafficking conferences to demand that we stay criminalized.”

Outside activist circles, in the workaday sex worker world, there is also a strict hierarchy, with Junkie Whores firmly at the bottom. Access to safer, better-paying indoor workplaces— brothels, strip clubs and massage parlors—is often premised on abstinence from drugs, to reflect the “classy” image such venues promote. Or perhaps party drugs are accepted, but injection drug users are fired on the spot if discovered.

Going independently high-end is an option, but a pricey one many opioid-using sex workers cannot afford. As indies, we often cannot rely on non-drug-using sex workers for references and safety calls, because of the disgust we often get from that quarter. This “whorearchy” pushes drug-using sex workers into working alone in the worst parts of town, shady incall motel rooms, and the street—further endangering us.

And should drug-using sex workers go through the secular conversion process of treatment and wish to rejoin the straight world, re-entry is difficult.

Lime Jello, a 30-year-old graduate student and escort who uses heroin, says that her colleagues often don’t allow her to be anything more than a Junkie Whore. “When you go back to school, no matter what your skills and interests are, if you’re out as a sex worker, it’s assumed you will research sex work or go through a social work-type program so you can work with sex workers,” she tells me. “One professor commented to me about a harm reduction job that I held before grad school that it must have been nice to have ‘people like you’ around to relate to. I’m working on my second graduate degree and I’ve been in grad school for four years, but other academics still aren’t ‘people like me.'”

“By the time you’re ready to leave drug use or sex work or both, then what puts you on the outside is the process of re-entry itself,” she continues. “You try to access education or career work or something like that, and it’s suddenly like, whoa, there are all of these barriers.”

Though cultural messages insist that treatment paves the way for life as a productive citizen, North American criminal justice outcomes do not bear this redemption narrative out. Criminal records, stigma and poverty combine to keep the Junkie Whore in a marginalized class, even if we repent.

The lurid image of the Junkie Whore—made up of media representations, misogyny, the blemish of criminalization, the defensive derision of other sex workers, and the exclusion of the straight world—looms over drug-using sex workers, obscuring us. The Junkie Whore is a bogeyman used to scare marginalized women straight, yet she has little to do with our lives as we live them.

For our lives to reach their potential, we need voluntary treatment on-demand and the decriminalization of all drugs. We need the decriminalization of prostitution, including the repeal of prostitution-related laws such as “manifesting prostitution” or “common nightwalking.” We need an end to police practices which further criminalize and endanger us, such as loitering arrests and the use of condoms as evidence. We need evidence-based harm reduction strategies such as supervised injection sites, needle exchange, naloxone distribution directly to users without prescription, and diacetylmorphine as opioid substitution therapy.

Public opprobrium, the idea that we will never amount to anything, shouldn’t be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we need federal financial aid for education despite our drug charges, and employers who will look past our criminal records to hire us for straight jobs. And we need support from both within and without the sex workers’ rights movement, as well as alliances with other marginalized groups, so we can advocate effectively for our interests.

We need to strip away the stigma. The Green River Killer famously stated that he picked street working sex workers, many of them drug users, as his victims because “they were easy to pick up without being noticed.” Our continued dismissal of Junkie Whores as disposable is what allows for the high rates of violence against us. It allows our overdose deaths and HIV infections to seem inevitable rather than the fundamental failure of harm reduction efforts they are.

The Junkie Whore trope is literally killing drug-using sex workers. We need you to see us here next to you to make it stop.


Caty Simon is a writer and editor of Tits and Sass, a blog by and for sex workers. You can follow her on Twitter: @marginalutilite

  • What a powerful article. I started writing down why it was so brilliant and then realised I was sounding incredibly patronising – which was not my intention. The article does not need my affirmations. Well done to the Influence for publishing this!

  • Billie Jo McIntire

    Awesome read. Thank you for this. As we share experiences in or out of the commercial sex industry, we are also all entitled to our truth. I really did not do a lot of drugs. I worked in the club and have very limited experience with drugs. In fact, most drugs I have not even tried. I do have college education most earned when I worked in the club. I am not trying to be different than junkywhore, I am proud of the work I did to exit commercial sex work. Surviving things most people would fail at. Whether we exit sex work or quit using drugs, etc, we are all still entitled to human rights. An already stigmatized people should not face further stigma through criminalization and misharlotry.

  • Law enforcement is getting nervous as the drug war winds down. Who will be their next target? Unfortunately sex workers (and Hilary Clinton) will bear the brunt of their newfound idleness. Don’t worry about what they think about you – it’s just a cover for their work. And no you don’t have to laugh at hooker jokes. No good can come from the friendship of someone who despises you.

    • This is the author. I kinda stretched the truth there a little–“as I stridently and didactically gave them a political drubbing down” doesn’t have the same ring to it. As a hooker, my problem has always been making myself keep from talking about politics and religion during sessions.

      And yeah, good can come from the friendship of people who despise you if you temporarily require their money.

      • Mitchell Brown

        Would you WANT your son or daughter to enter the world of heroin using/addicted sex-worker? Just curious.

        • Would you WANT your son or daughter to be stripped of their access to health care, human and labour rights, and basic worth and dignity as multi-faceted individuals with their own strengths, dreams, relationships and capacities to contribute to their communities, based on their decisions about whether and how to do drugs or sell sex? Or would you maybe WANT your son or daughter to be allowed as much health, safety and freedom as possible, especially if they were in a situation you thought was risky (which they may or may not see the same way you do)? Which would you WANT for yourself?

          And, since we seem to be in agreement that curiosity is an admirable pursuit, let’s also investigate why you seem to WANT to respond to this politically- and emotionally-compelling article with a trite question about whether or not the author has thought about The Children? Even if you don’t have anything to say about the ways that women who use drugs and do sex work are demeaned, deprived of political representation, subject to individual and state violence, traumatized with unnecessary and costly punishments, denied necessary health care and even denied the opportunity to change their circumstances if they so desire, that’s no excuse for failing to apprehend the point the author has already made about the misogyny behind the expectation that all any woman should be concerned about is The Children. Can we not just WANT rights for ourselves because, hey, we like ourselves? Just curious.

          • Brian Victor

            Response for you below under Frank.

        • Frank Underboob

          Are you a complete fucking moron? Like homelessness or chronic illness, it’s not something anyone ‘aspires’ to, it’s something that happens to people for a whole range of reasons, & most importantly is super-hard to escape from, once entered – mostly because of ignorant, judgemental idiots like you.

          • Brian Victor

            Familiar names. Familiar lies. Herein is the lie, perfectly wrapped like a nugget of dung in a shiny golden wrapper: “It’s something that happens to people”. Just keep telling yourself and everyone else this: drug addiction and prostitution is a confluence of tragic circumstances (or even empowered choices!), wherein the “victim/agent” has no moral responsibility (or so little as to be hardly worth mentioning anywhere in the article or the comments I have read thus far). In fact, so long as one remains “functional-ish”, the consequences are something that everyone else should have to subsidize.

            Let’s all say it together: drug use is, in fact, worthy of protection, and maybe even respect. Hey, if alcohol can have it, then why not the rest of the batch on the shelf?

            One thing. How’s that glamorization of alcohol thing working for ya? Oh sure, we don’t have our Al Capones anymore. Gone are the good old days of prohibition where a decent criminal could pile the money high thanks to the payoff from a big risk, but now we have it SO MUCH BETTER!. Sure, we lose 88,000* people a year to alcohol related deaths, but that’s *progress*!

            Listen, go on and legalize drugs and prostitution (at least the sale). Fund programs for those who want help. But if you remove the stigma and shame for sex and drugs, you will encourage the less flashy problems inherent to their use in the long run: the substitution of relationships for for substances; the erosion of spousal fidelity; the implosion of the nuclear family; and on and on.

            Maybe these sorts of problems won’t manifest in a year or in 10 or in 20, but it will happen (I’d say it already is actually). It will normalize and take root in society until drug use and sleeping with a prostitute practically becomes an institutionalized right of passage as American as getting drunk on frat night in college.

            Do you WANT that for yourself? Do you WANT that for your kids?

            How dare you think you have the right to make monumental decisions like that about society for my loved ones?! How utterly and profoundly selfish to think that because you made a choice to indulge your jollies and take quick money that others should have to pay for your mistakes?!

            It is one thing to point out that the repentant have a hard time getting on their feet. I am ALL for helping the prodigal. It is another thing entirely to call it respectable.

          • Frank Underboob

            Dude, you’re whiny AND stupid! Well done!

          • Brian Victor

            Let me know when you wish to engage in a serious discussion.

          • Frank Underboob

            Why would I waste my time trying to have a serious discussion with a puritanical idiot who’s obviously decided that actual facts are irrelevant to his views? No, son, I’m old & wise enough not to headbutt brick walls.

          • Brian Victor

            Since you aren’t addressing a “puritanical idiot who’s obviously decided that actual facts are irrelevant to his views,” the ball is in your court.

          • Frank Underboob

            Son, it’s very obvious to me & anyone else who’s reading this comment section that that’s exactly the kind of person I’m addressing.

          • Brian Victor

            So says the person who accuses the other of not letting facts affect their opinion. Have it your way.

          • Frank Underboob

            You’ve demonstrated the truth of my assertion multiple times in this conversation. Your denial is a result of your own delusions.

          • Brian Victor

            Making assertions does not a fact make. But you’ve repeatedly shown you have no desire to have a serious dialogue, so I bid you good day sir.

          • Frank Underboob

            Bless your heart, son.

  • Ethan Paul Hawes

    Superb! Thank you for sharing this piece. As a former sex worker and on- and off-again heroin user, it was incredibly difficult for me to understand that I could live a fulfilled, happy life while both using and fucking for money. Shame and guilt are still difficult to get past when using, and despite my logical knowledge that using + sex work does not = worthlessness, sometimes the attitudes of larger society are easily confused with my own. It is very important to get a reality check like this every once in awhile. I won’t pretend to share the exact experiences of people identifying as women, but as a genderqueer person I found many of the same things to be true about myself. Being a junkie whore can be incredibly difficult, though, and there have been many times when I was not functional at all. Ultimately my ability to function had more to do with my acceptance or refusal of the status quo — when I believed that my drug use and sex work made me worthless, I couldn’t function through the depression. It was only when I deeply understood that heroin and a happy life are not mutually exclusive (and that I am a worthy human being regardless of those choices) that I felt worthy enough to be a “responsible,” functional person.

    Thank you very much! I would love to chat with you sometime… it is hard to find people who have shared similar experiences.

  • KL Miller

    This is so incredibly important, thank you for writing this and thank for Mrs. Harm Reduction – my favorite feature in T&S! Just a small correction tho: Holtzclaw was a cop in Oklahoma City, not Phoenix.

    • Emma Bijou

      You beat me to the Oklahoma City correction! 🙂 Great, thought-provoking article though, I love hearing the stories of real people rather than relying on stereotypical media presentations of different subsets of the population.

  • Whoredinary

    This was brilliant. Thank you

  • robert selsor

    Being from Baltimore and a recovering addict I’ve been close with many tricks. I’d say most of the girls I used with that tricked had been assaulted raped etc. Using is a hard life everyone has to have a hustle,use or be used. Tricking is easy money theres no shortage of people willing to pay for sex. But its a hard dangerous life most the addicts I grew up with are dead in jail or dissapeared. I’ve never been familiar with the higher tiers of “tricking” here its abscesses hepatitis central booking and ODs,but when your ill you gotta do what you gotta do.I can count on one hand those that got and stayed clean. Not very glamorous,We tend to feel unworthy of love,work anything nice. But we deserve it.. and I hope we all find it.

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  • Ron Noname

    I’ve gotten here late yet, as a former user, I want to join in.
    I will be C&S 33 unbroken years this May 1.
    While it has been the signal event in my life and allowing me to be complete is so many ways, I never ever will or want to forget my time as a user.
    I was born in Chicago and took my initial toke when I was in my very early teens.
    It led me to meet people from all walks and taught me a lot about others like me.
    A major thing I learned was how others saw me as, I had the opportunity to interact with others who were just like me.
    In my travels, I lived in the Haight from ’67 to ’69.
    I lived(crashed?) everywhere in SF and interacted with more people than I can remember.
    I lived off of drug profits like a lot of “hippies” and others.

    I could go on & on here ad infinitum however, it would be no different from all of you other real people, the REAL people of this story, not the sorts of people described by those who use adjectives a pejoratives to elevate themselves in their own little minds which are devoid of what is learned in the mean streets.
    You all know my “story” as, it’s yours as well.
    I was never a sex worker although, I knew many of you and still know a few.
    We are all real people with real feeling, whether we try to hide from those feelings or have gotten to a place where we can acknowledge them.

    I am not a racist, bigot or any other of those repulsive things.
    I say that not to paint myself as “better than”, rather as something I learned by association in the streets.
    Learning that has made my life so much better and easier as, one way it has benefited me is to live without hate.
    Hate is obviously reserved for those with bully badges, those who have never taken a step in “the streets”, those who claim to be christians and those with an “R” affixed to their names.
    There are ignorant ones who think that we have no functioning minds.
    I feel fortunate to be one of US rather than any one of them.
    Peace, EVERYBODY

    BTW-Why can’t all those proselytizers explain this.lol

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  • Cat Clare Wright

    Correction: “Requiem for a Dream” – a movie about amphetamine use, not heroin.

    • Stuart Raphello

      Ummm no, it is definitely about heroin use. Ellen Barkin’s character may have been using prescribed uppers but the other characters were definitely shooting dope. Also I’m reasonably sure the post you’re referring to was about the book rather than the film…

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  • onionnoino

    This is an interesting article full of thought-provoking ideas. I appreciate it a lot. That said, I have a few criticisms I would like to share, and I hope they can be read as honest curiosity and not written from a place of judgment or anything of the sort.
    I am an IV opioid addict. Like many users, the course of my addiction has lead me to behaving in ways that were demoralizing, underhanded, unreliable, and against my better judgment- often at the expense of my loved ones and other people who trusted me. I have lied, cheated, and stolen. Of course this has lead to those people being unable to trust me- I certainly would not trust me had I been in their position. In that sense it is not about my own sense of worthlessness or of internalizing stigma, but rather the natural outcome of my own behaviors- not a matter of value judgment. I would never condescend to claim that all addicts are likewise untrustworthy, but most of the other addicts I know have had similar experiences. Is it possible that some measure of the stigma mentioned here might be borne of apprehension people have for addicts- apprehension that, in many cases, may be legitimate and justified?
    Please don’t take me as an apologist or someone who in any way thinks it’s ok to dehumanize and judge others, I’m just honestly curious how/if reasonable awareness of common addictive behavior contributes because I know that (unfortunately) in my own experience, it is in others’ best interest that they be wary of me due to some of the ways that addiction has chewed away at my ethics and character.
    On top of this, regardless of my own opinions on the matter, both drug use and prostitution are illegal activities. Doesn’t it stand to reason that engaging such behavior engender negative attitudes on the part of a general public? While I do not agree with nor condone the negative stereotyping, how much of it is due simply to the illegal status of these behaviors?
    I also wanted to mention that the author inferred (at least in the way I read it) that death was a possible result of opiate withdrawals. This is not correct. Anyone who has experienced them knows that opiate withdrawals may feel like death, but (as far as I know) the only withdrawals known to be fatal are alcohol and benzodiazepines. Apologies if I misread the author’s intention, but I just wanted to clarify.

    • Death isn’t a possible direct result of opiate withdrawal–you’re correct, that’s only benzos and alcohol. But there have been documented cases of people with fragile immune systems dying in jail as an indirect result of opiate withdrawal b/c of neglect, such as in cases of extreme dehydration. Also, I’m not saying that people distrusting us is based on *groundless* stereotypes, but some of us can avoid hurting other folks b/c of our addiction, and those of us who feel forced to dispense with our morals are put in a position where our backs are against the wall b/c of *structural* factors. You never see anyone lie/cheat/steal to get a pack of cigarettes, though nicotine is at least as addictive as opiates are.–the author

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