The real link between drug use and sex work

In popular consciousness, sex work is often blamed on drug use. One common view is that the drug dealer who approaches a young and innocent girl, makes her addicted to drugs and pushes her into sex work. Another stereotype is that drugs bear the responsibility for making women vulnerable to the sex-work industry. Most people tend to think that one of the strongest reasons why women start sex-working is because they want to fund their drug habits, once they become addicted. No one denies that there are very important links between drug use and sex work, links that make them belong to the same world. Should sex work be blamed on to drugs? Should drugs be blamed on to prostitution? Or should the whole culture that produces both practices be put in question?

    According to various research studies, conducted in an international level and based on a detailed selection of quantitative and qualitative data-including interviews of women involved in drugs and sex work- , there seems to be a clear interdependence between sex work and drugs. According to a report on prostitution and drugs in Portland, produced by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the interdependence of those two practices is attributed to different factors and it is not at all clear or evident that drugs are usually the cause of prostitution. Drug-using sex workers might have been firstly introduced to drugs before going into sex work but equally might have started using drugs as a consequence of their involvement with sex work. 

   The governments of different countries, in their effort to improve social policies in regards to sex work, have tried to detect the dominant reason why violence and crime are associated with sex work and have ended end up in tackling the drugs problem by announcing measures in favor of the eradication of the illegal drugs market. Their strategy might be based on the premise, that, if the illegal drug industry can be eradicated, then the illegal sex trade will also start to abate. At the same time, the media often enforce the negative stereotypes about drug use and sex work by implying that most of the sex workers are drug addicts who are desperate about paying for their drugs.

  The real relationship and the link between drug addiction and sex work are much more complex than the simplistic causal attribution of sex work to drugs. Drugs and sex work are interconnected in a vicious cycle of violence and corruption and in most instances they affect the most vulnerable parts of society. This link between them does not imply that drugs are responsible for pushing women into sex work. Sex work and drug use can have a merely coincident connection and can both be the symptoms of traumatic experiences in the lives of the women involved.

   According to the useful research and results provided by the Home Office Research Study 268 titled ‘Vulnerability and involvement in drug use and sex work’, where 125 young people involved in drugs and sex work were interviewed, a mutual reinforcement of drug use and sex work has been observed and the following ‘trapping factors’ have been found responsible for this reinforcement: the vulnerability of the people involved, manifested in the homelessness of people in their childhood and adolescence, in the exposure of life in the street, in the experience of living in care and insecure housing and in criminal convictions and the outdoor and independent drift sex work sectors. The people who were most likely to enter the sex work trade were the socially excluded. The same results seem to be revealed by another research study conducted by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, according to which, substance abuse and sex work belong to ‘an endless cycle of victimization’, where the subjects revive the injuries and the wounds experienced in a damaged life, defined by pain and negative reflections.

    Another important link between drug use and sex work, against the popular stereotypes, is that drugs are used by sex workers in order to make them cope with the difficulties they encounter in sex work and as a means of escape from the hard requirements of this industry, but also as a means of escape from the despair and the pain caused by the situations which they are faced with every day. In a study conducted in Connecticut, which involved 35 impoverished women, it became clear that the main reason why some of the sex workers used drugs was a need to escape from domestic violence,  from the violent behavior of pimps or clients, and a need of relief from the tortures they faced. According to the findings of this survey, for three of the six women who started to use drugs as adults rather than as teenagers, the main factor influencing drug-use initiation was the desire to escape from domestic violence. The survey also stressed the fact that, although the women that were interviewed for the purposes of the study were drug users,  there are still many women who are involved in sex work but have no relationship with drugs and that many drug-using women are involved in a number of legal professions or illegal activities other than sex work. Hence, sex work should not be automatically associated with drug use, as this notion sustains and perpetuates negative stereotypes that are way far from any real situations.

   It seems clear that the states, the policy area and the various organizations dealing with sex work and drug use should address the issue of the link between them in the broader terms of poverty, exclusion, violence and traumatic experiences of the people involved in both activities. Blaming the existence of sex work on drugs will not in any case explain why both sex workers and drug users usually face similar difficult situations that are mutually reinforcing. On the contrary, tackling the premises and the backgrounds that generate, enforce and perpetuate this strong link between drugs and sex work would shed some light on how this link should be better be handled, so that the people who are trapped in this link have chances to survive, heal their wounds or possibly be prevented from being trapped in situations that might destroy their lives irreparably. 

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