The Real Life Experience Of Sex Workers On Heroin

Artwork by Anna Jay
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 realising 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 criminalised 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 stigmatised 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 prioritises getting the hit she needs, spurning her role in the nuclear family and neglecting her children. Chloe Rose, an escort in her 20s 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 behaviour 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 [of selfishness]…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 self-image as someone who fulfils her responsibilities to those around her matches that of many of the opioid-using sex workers I know. However, the trope of the Junkie Whore as only concerned for herself remains. The heroin-using sex worker who is a 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.

...despite what we manage to do, the issue always seems to be how far we’ve fallen.

“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 criminalised. 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, their practitioners amoral members of society, is baseless. It is the criminalisation 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 consequently 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 sex workers, had to suffer without 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 last spring. “The criminalisation of drugs and the criminalisation of sex work combine to affect me in that I’m extremely anxious most of the time,” Rose says, “due to [always] either being about to work or about to score.” 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 organiser 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 lobotomised 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. In Feel Me, Leslie Bull writes: “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.” Not enough has changed since Bull outlined the problem thusly in 2002. At best, sex worker organisations 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 sanitised 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 sanitised 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?” Or, “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 by a few sex-worker activists. One New England escort and organiser 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 criminalised.”

We should not continue to allow our movement to be sanitised for the sake of respectability politics.

Marisa, sex-worker activist
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 parlours — 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 that 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 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 marginalised 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 marginalised 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 decriminalisation of all drugs. We need the decriminalisation 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 criminalise 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 exchanges, 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 marginalised 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 as 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. This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

More from Politics

R29 Original Series