July 12th, 2016
I traded a blowjob for three bags early in my dope career. He was an acquaintance, a dealer friend of a friend, an oddly gentlemanly mustachioed man in his 50s. He’d called and offered to sell me drugs.
“I don’t have any money,” I said over the phone, detached from the conversation, knowing I already had a bundle stashed away.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” he replied, and the penny dropped for me.
It felt like a scene from some gritty drug film, rather than something out of my own pretentious bohemian life. But I was 21, still afflicted with that blithe teenage impulse to do something just to see what would happen next.
Was fucking for heroin something I could actually do? I wanted to find out.
I remember his limp cock in the condom, the way he grimly surveyed my grimy, slovenly SRO room, such a stark contrast from the outcall settings I usually escorted in. How he pressed for me to do the bags first, concerned and solicitous. 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 in solitude after he’d gone.
After a while, he courteously declined any further futile efforts to get him hard. “I’m sure we’ve both seen better days,” he murmured.
I felt off-center, discomfited. He seemed to pity me, just because I’d put myself in this clichéd situation with him, but I didn’t see myself as an object of pity at all. And he seemed just as uninvested and out of place in the transaction as I was.
Eventually, he apologized and left quietly. I threw out the condom and started pouring my bundle into lines, wishing I still had those extra three bags. I sat there puzzled for a moment before I snorted them, confused that it didn’t feel more momentous to have crossed that sordid line into being even more of a “junkie whore.”
But now I knew I could do something like that again, if I ever had to.
Revulsion and Internalized Taboos
The sex worker who exchanges sex for drugs directly is strongly reviled. In the cultural imagination, she is the wizened junkie begging for one more hit, often futilely trading on charms that have seen better days. And despite the mostly white face of the nation’s largest drug “epidemic,” our image of her can still be racist: She is the crack-whore, spawning super-predator crack-babies.
Whether she is white or a person of color, she is shunned.
“That I am a dirty fucking drug addict whore is what I’ve had family members tell me. That and that I’m going to get fucking AIDS and die,” says Dawn, an Alaskan sex worker who has sometimes been paid in both cash and heroin. “My sister even called the cops on me and was like, ‘Can’t you do a sting on her?’”
“In [the] street economy, there [is] a distinction between the sex workers who go out, get paid and get high, and those who directly exchange sex for drugs,” explains Fae, a West Coast trans escort who uses opioids.
Indeed, even street culture has always had its own dismissive names for a woman who has sex for drugs—”strawberry”, “crackstitute,” “toss up,” “buffer”, “bag bride”—placing her at the bottom of a hierarchy of already-marginalized people.
Sex workers, even drug-using sex workers themselves, also look down on people who trade sex directly for drugs.
“I feel from higher-end sex workers, especially successful strippers, that in the market for sex, those who trade their bodies for drugs are the lowest of [the] form,” Fae reflects. “Dressing up sex work as a noble profession comes with a marginalization of sex workers who are impacted by homelessness and drug addiction.”
“My honest opinion? I feel that women who do that do it to feed their addiction or disease, however you want to put it,” says Dawn. “I mean, I saw [an ex] straight-up suck a dude’s dick for a $20 rock.”
It often comes down to how much. The boundary between a drug-using sex worker who pays cash for her drugs and one who pays for them in trade is often an arbitrary one of class. As former heroin-using sex worker Kate Holden snidely and succinctly puts it in her 2008 memoir, In My Skin: “I’d always sworn not to screw a dealer for dope, that was tacky.” When I was a callow, shallow young escort just beginning to snort heroin, I even echoed that sentiment myself.
But even if it is arbitrary, that divide between being a drug-using sex worker and being that debased person we’ve heard so much about, one willing to fuck for a few bags, is one that’s deeply internalized.
“I’ve never exchanged sex for drugs, there’s pride there, maybe the final strand of it I have when I’m in the gutter, dopesick and terrified of the pains of the next day,” Fae says.
“I have never admitted trading sex for drugs directly to any other sex workers except some extremely close ho friends,” says Alana, a Canadian sex worker who uses cocaine and marijuana. “Workers who trade direct for drugs are seen as desperate and pathetic, if not totally sketchy and untrustworthy. Those sex workers are the type to steal your shit for drugs—or so clients would have you believe on review boards. I don’t tell people because I feel ashamed about it. I don’t want them to think that I’m desperate, or an addict, even as I recognize that I feel that way because I’ve internalized those messages.”
But why is this act even more intensely taboo? One reason may be that a person who trades sex for drugs is economically vulnerable. And we often react to the presence of vulnerability among the socioeconomically marginalized with contempt.
Risks and Exploitation
Just doing a quick Google news search for the term “sex for drugs” the other day, I found three recent cases in which a man in a position of power exploited women exchanging sex for drugs. One involved a man who’d testified under oath in a drug-using woman’s probation hearing that he’d give her a job upon her release, when really his plan was to have sex with her for drugs and cash. Had his scheme worked, the dependency of this woman on this man, to support both her probation and her habit, would have been extreme. The other two cases involved doctors who prescribed opioids to women with the expectation of sex—one of them offered this arrangement to a 15-year-old girl.
Being taken advantage of while exchanging sex for drugs is (unsurprisingly) common.
“A friend of mine who did it [traded sex for heroin], the deal was supposed to be [a] reduced amount of money—$100, I think—and a half gram, usually $150 or $200 on [the] street,” recounts Bethany, an Australian brothel worker who uses opioids. “[But] the guy brought the half and not the cash and she was not in position to argue, being sick.”
“So this guy calls me up,” Dawn says. “So he says, “Can we do a car date?’ And I was dope sick, and I was like, ‘fuck, man,’ but I figured, since it was someone I knew that sent him … ”
‘So I get in his car,’ she continues, “and he’s like, ‘ I really don’t have that much money.’ And I’m like, ‘How much is not that much money?’
“He had $10 on him,” she recalls, still scoffing in disbelief. “Then he says he has some kind of iPhone and an MP3 player to trade … So we go over to my dealer’s and he gave me literally $75 worth of dope for the shit. So I just give it to the guy and I told him to take me home. And he still expected me to have sex with him. I told him, ‘How the fuck am I going to trade your shit for dope, give you the dope, and then still have sex with you for free?’ “
“I’ve … done party-and-play situations where the guy will share his blow with me in exchange for fucking,” Alana relates. “The last time I did that, it was this guy I absolutely loathed and I explicitly told him I was there for the coke and not because I gave a shit about him.”
“He had a gram to share between us!” she exclaims. “I was pissed. On top of which, it was shitty blow and he didn’t seem to care about conserving it—he cut it up on top of a CD case and was getting it everywhere. All I could think was, ‘We only have a fucking gram, you asshat, don’t fucking waste it. I hate you so much right now.’ “
“I gave him the worst sex ever … I literally starfished the entire time he was fucking me,” she continues. “Afterwards, he told me he just knew I loved sex. What part of, ‘I’m here for the blow’ did he miss? Did he think that loving sex equaled lying there like a corpse?”
The risks people exchanging sex for drugs need to take—as well as the ways in which they are cheated—can sometimes be much more serious than enduring still being broke and not having drugs.
“I [remember] the many times I needed drugs too badly to go buy condoms, after they [the clients] drove me for too long a time before telling me they didn’t have [condoms either],” Sunshine, an ex-homeless survival sex worker and an East Coast sex workers’ rights advocate, tells me.
Alana also admits, “I take risks I otherwise wouldn’t when I’m coked out [having sex for drugs], like doing unprotected stuff.”
Cut Off From Other Sex Workers
Some drug users who trade sex for drugs don’t even identify what they do as sex work. That can often end up meaning that their work is that much more dangerous, isolated and laborious.
“ I didn’t think of myself as a sex worker,” explains Mercury, an ex-drug-using survival sex worker who is now a harm reduction activist. “I don’t think I would have gotten offended if someone called me one, but rather, I would have been like, ‘Oh, that isn’t me.’ I thought I was just manipulating men and getting by.”
This phenomenon widens the lack of understanding between people trading sex for drugs and professionally identified sex workers. It also makes people exchanging sex for drugs less likely to politicize their work and identify with a movement. That means they often aren’t exposed to harm reduction messages about how to do the work more safely, or the collective business savvy of the sex worker community.
“I wish I had been connected to sex worker-sensitive services or the [sex workers’ rights] movement then … because I didn’t have the capacity to think about anything accept meeting my needs in the moment—shelter, food, a shower, drugs, interpersonal connection, ” Mercury says now. “I lacked necessary health care, safety and self-care knowledge.”
“I came to the sex workers rights movement after I cleaned up and had stopped trading sex for drugs,” she continues. “If I knew then what I know now, though, I would have applied some of the business principles that I have learned from others to my trade and asked for money sometimes. This is because a lot of times I didn’t get the value I should or could have out of my transactions. I depended on someone else to meet my needs and sometimes I was completely fucked over … Once, I fucked a guy and then he gave me a shot of water.”
Stigmatization in Rehab and Recovery
This stigma against people who trade sex for drugs even complicates the process of treatment and recovery for both these people and all drug-using sex workers. Twelve-step culture often associates all sex work with the way trading sex for drugs is viewed as an addictive “bottom.”
“Officially, the program has no opinion on a person’s sex conduct, whether for free or for pay,” Melissa Petro, a former escort, self-identified alcoholic and acclaimed freelance writer, explains. “Unofficially, I’d say that sex work in general is considered a ‘low bottom’—it’s assumed, if you worked in the industry, that you’ve traded sex for drugs as a result of your raging, out-of-control addiction, which is not necessarily true. And it’s probably the prevailing opinion that it isn’t very ‘sober behavior’ to be working in the industry.”
“Recovery culture is largely inseparable from religious tie-ins and that leaves sex work on the chopping block,” Fae notes. “For me, as a trans sex worker, I was both seen as incorrigible and courageous for making my way out of prostitution to come into the rooms. There was a respect for my audacity there, but I was still pronounced a lost cause.”
“Several told me that I’d need to end my life as a call girl,” she adds, “[That] I couldn’t stay clean in a culture of depravity—despite staying clean for over a year from ‘hard’ drugs when I first engaged in sex work.”
This simplistic understanding of sexual services traded for drugs as well as sex work in general can often become outright oppressive.
“I was in a month-long rehab program,” Alana tells me.”There was a stripper there, and they wanted her to quit working because it apparently was detrimental to her recovery—cue stereotypes about stripping and drugs.”
“When she refused—because hi, that’s how she pays rent—they told her she’d have to leave,” Alana recounts. “Way to put someone between a rock and a hard place: If she quits her job, she now has zero income and she might get clean, or she can ditch her recovery and health in order to continue having a roof over her head.”
“They very much saw trading sex for drugs as The Bottom,” she concludes. “So if you don’t feel that trading drugs for sex is a ‘bottom’—[for example] because it hasn’t had a detrimental effect on your day to day life—you’re not taking treatment seriously. Or if your sex work has nothing to do with your drug use, but we say it does and you won’t quit, you are refused treatment… It sets up sex work as a seedy, last-resort, degrading activity that only drug addicts do because it facilitates their drug use.”
“I cleaned up in 12-step programs but feel very complicatedly about them,” Mercury says. “I have heard some accounts of people trading sex while practicing 12-step sobriety and being encouraged to stop. Funny how [the] people [telling them to stop] aren’t offering to put food on the table.”
“Generally, I think 12-step culture breeds fear of the things we did before and therefore, promotes abstaining from those things completely,” she says. “Drug use and sex work are more nuanced than [the] 12 Steps allow them to be. Some people might want to continue sex work and others might not. That is up to each person to decide and either way, no one should have to receive a message that this is bad. That only serves to push people away.”
Petro agrees, and had a similar experience: “Part of the problem in 12-step is that there’s a major overemphasis on the transformation from ‘addict’ to ‘person in recovery’ … Any aspect of character considered undesirable is explained as ‘alcoholic’ or ‘junkie’ behavior and regarded as ‘bad’,” she says. “This attitude is ultimately how people modify their behavior, but it’s not necessarily true and at a certain point I think it becomes super-unhelpful to the individual and definitely to the community.”
“This is why, after many years of 12-step, I ultimately distanced myself from the program,” she says. “You can transform radically in recovery—I know I have—but it’s not black and white, it’s a slow process and it’s different for everyone. For me, sex work was a bottom—and it would definitely, definitely have been problematic if I had returned to sex work while in recovery—but certainly, this isn’t true for everyone.”
Class-based judgement raises its ugly head here, as well.
Read more from The Influence:
“When I was in rehab,” Alana remembers, “I hadn’t started doing sex work in any professional sense, just trading BJs for weed mostly, and I got told by the director that I was in the best position to recover of any of the people there. And it was very much this classist notion that I would do okay because I was in university and had a future. [But] I was told I wasn’t really taking my recovery seriously because I didn’t have any horror stories about drug dealers forcing me to suck their dicks—I’m sure they imagine a Requiem for a Dream type situation.”
“Oh my god!” Sunshine exclaims. “The first thing is being told you cannot do sex work while clean: ‘You are still using if you are a sex worker in NA.’…They even teach shame and guilt if [you’re] not moving on to get a degree or buy a home, as clean time is measured by this.”
“It was the shifting glances and disappointed faces that were my most direct acknowledgment at the meetings I attended. No one was willing to touch me,” Fae comments bitterly. “I felt that [they thought] my demographic overcame my capacity for change…I think they assumed I fucked for cheap and was always tweaked out and sought sex work as a last resort. Fuck them.”
It’s also possible that there’s a more complicated reason for the specific stigma around having sex for drugs which goes beyond the extreme marginalization the people who offer sex in that exchange face, or the recovery community belief that it is a degrading consequence of disastrous addictive behavior.
“The equation changes significantly when you lose that intangible autonomy associated with providing a service and getting paid in cash,” Fae says. “I believe in the dominion of the dollar. It’s the only transparent exchange we have to represent (sometimes very poorly) our work … When I have money in my hand, there’s still a choice, a personhood behind my addiction.”
The Capitalist Context of Trading Sex and Drugs
In University of Massachusetts academic David Lenson’s 1995 text On Drugs, he posits that the direct trade of drugs for services is a sort of hypercapitalism, one that satirizes our legitimate economy. ”Of all heterodox moneys, drugs are the most complex and subversive.” He uses the example of cocaine used as currency in the ’80s and ’90s by radio DJs, politicians, musicians, strippers, full-service sex workers and, most notably, the CIA.
“Cocaine represents desire which at least temporarily overrides money’s limiting aspect and permits the illusion of infinite consumption, infinite profit, or infinite expenditure,” he wrote. “The dream of an eternal high is like a capitalist’s reverie of economy without cycles… Cocaine [ultimately] cannot be accepted as a medium of exchange because it is more like money than money itself is.”
That is, the greed revealed in exchanges in which drugs are payment—especially, I’ll add, those which involve another urgent desire in the form of sex—reveals the squalid nature of capitalism itself, the true face of which is usually disguised by the niceties of the licit marketplace.
Maybe that’s also why Fae and many other sex workers who use drugs cling to the neoliberal ideas of choice and class that being remunerated in legal tender gives them. Otherwise, the bleak transactional reality of both the drug world and global capitalism might be too much to bear.
Whether or not these sorts of abstract notions can explain the disdain the world and even other drug-using sex workers have for people who trade sex for drugs, it’s certainly true that this act has become heavy with symbolism over time.
It’s Not All Bad—And How to Make It Better
But, as is the case with most drug war tropes, the reality is a much more nuanced experience than all the hype about wretched people who fuck for drugs suggests. Sometimes people who trade truly feel they’ve gotten the best end of the deal.
“My experiences with sleeping with dealers actually usually worked out better for me money-wise, in comparison,” says Lily, an East Coast street worker. “They were always eager to give me extra samples of this or that, and I hustled them pretty hard… Plus, you don’t have to hide your habit and you can be totally high the whole time.”
Sometimes the situation is more complex. “It definitely is more complicated than can be summed up by an empowered/exploited dichotomy to me,” Mercury tells me. “[What trading sex for drugs was like] really depended on where my head was at and what was going on in my life. Sometimes I thought I was going about things the right way and then other [times], usually after I got fucked over or had a falling out with someone, I would try and switch things up.”
“ I am empowered now by [having had the experience of exchanging sex for drugs,” Sunshine says, “because I know without a doubt I can do what’s needed… to get anything I want.“
There are many ways that people exchanging sex for drugs can protect themselves and make their experiences with these transactions work for them. Many of the interviewees I spoke to had tips for people in that situation on how to keep safe and get what you need out of the exchange.
“Make them give you the drugs and whatever cash first,” Dawn urges. “Always try their product first make sure that it’s good.”
“At least do a tester shot/line so you know that what he is giving you is legit,” Mercury advises. “ If it is someone who you haven’t traded sex with before … then try not to get too high so that you can get yourself to safety if need be. If you are using opiates, carry naloxone and make sure the [client] you are with knows how to use it too. If you are shooting, use all your own supplies.”
“A guy I traded sex with told me once that I can’t get anything from sharing needles that I didn’t already get by having unprotected sex with him,” she adds. “[It] seemed logical. I now know this isn’t true and hepatitis C is a blood transmitted infection. It is very easily spread by sharing injection equipment; it very rarely is spread via rough sex where micro-tears occur. So, use lube and protection when possible.”
But regardless of how people exchanging sex for drugs help themselves, what’s even more vital is what we can do as a society to help them.
“Receiving condoms from outreach workers is a blessing, as the amount they cost can get a person high,” Sunshine says, explaining how it often frees up funds so that a drug user can score that particular day without having to trade sex.
“[We also need] mobile needle exchange on strolls with no police presence,” she adds.
Besides the long-term goal of policy change to end the drug war and decriminalize prostitution, people trading sex for drugs are the ones who know what works best for them regarding which harm reduction resources they need today. Nonprofit groups, activists, and municipal and state agencies need to take note.
As the sex workers’ rights movement becomes more powerful and we gain resources to offer our community, it also needs to learn how to offer drug-using sex workers what they need without judgment, whether these workers trade sex for money or drugs.
“I was [in a phone] call recently … discussing the applicability of drug policy reform measures with sex workers,” Mercury recounts, “and someone said that drug users need treatment but sex workers don’t.”
“That statement just simply isn’t true,” she notes. “Some drug users don’t need or want treatment or services. [Treatment] should be readily available and low-threshold if a person wants [it] and there need to be lots of treatment options available. Our society doesn’t operate this way yet. Similarly, there are many services a sex worker might benefit from such as counseling and sexual health services, [though] coercive services are never okay.”
The more we conceive of people who exchange sex for drugs as beyond the pale, disassociating ourselves from them instead of seeing ourselves in them, the longer both the sex workers’ rights movement and the harm reduction movement, by excluding this population, will remain incomplete.