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The Stigmatised Intersection between Sex Work and Drug Use

Recent events have reignited the debate around prostitution laws in the UK. Sex workers and human rights groups are calling for policy change, as well as an end to stigmatisation – an issue that particularly harms sex workers who use drugs.

In July 2016, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) published its interim report on prostitution, which advocates the decriminalisation of sex workers soliciting clients and sharing premises. Despite the report being lauded by sex worker rights groups, the validity of its conclusions became shrouded in uncertainty when the HASC Chairman, Keith Vaz, was alleged to have had clandestine involvement with sex workers, including offering to pay for cocaine for them. 

The most prominent depictions of sex workers and people who use drugs in political and media discourse fail to account for the complex experiences of these often-marginalised communities. Stereotypes of both these groups regularly serve to dehumanise them, reducing them to “vectors of disease“ who lack morality or self-respect.

This stigma leads to both sex work and drug use being treated as matters of criminal justice, rather than with health or rights-oriented approaches. This subsequently affects the policy decisions that are made, leaving sex workers and people who use drugs at disproportionate risk of ill health, economic inequality, and violence.

Many of the same principles which underpin the harm reduction approach to drug use are equally central to the sex workers’ rights movement; the importance of bodily autonomy, access to comprehensive and non-judgmental health services, and the right to live free from stigma, criminalisation, and violence.

From chronic pain management, relief from mental health issues, to sheer enjoyment of the high, there are myriad reasons why sex workers use drugs. For these sex workers who use drugs, what are the consequences of the two stigmas combining? M, a 22-year-old trans sex worker from East London told TalkingDrugs of the struggles that result from the overlap between drug use and sex work:

“Because I cater predominantly to gay male clients, the chemsex scene is a big issue. Most of my clients want to party during the session and it’s incredibly difficult to […] not use when it’s offered to you all the time. I’m more anxious now that I’m getting high with clients; the police could get involved, clients can become violent, and – because of stigma – health professionals are usually trying to get me to leave the industry or get clean, rather than [helping] me feel safer at work”.

Sadly, these challenges do not stop when sex workers who use drugs enter sex worker-positive spaces, or when they attempt to engage with sex workers’ rights activism. Prejudice is consistently directed towards those who have sold sexual services in exchange for drugs, or those who use drugs with clients.

Some sex workers’ rights advocates attempt to obfuscate the existence of the intersection between sex work and drug use, ostensibly with the hope that doing so will help sex work be considered to be a legitimate profession which should be decriminalised. This approach, regardless of its intentions, is dangerous; it erases and ignores the experiences of those who use drugs, namely the challenges that they face in navigating criminalisation and incarceration.

B, a 24-year-old sex worker from London, started smoking heroin and crystal meth when she was 16:

“I’ve been in recovery for 5 years and still work in the industry. I find other sex workers can be extremely judgmental about my past. They don’t want to be lumped in the same boat with the ‘junkie whore’ because those who seek to criminalise our work say that I can’t make my own choices and should be ‘saved’ from sex work.”

While the public discourse on the ‘War on Drugs’ may be gradually shifting, the stigmatising discourse on sex workers’ rights rages on. Only one country, New Zealand, currently implements outright decriminalisation of sex work, the approach favoured by many sex workers’ rights groups.

Some progress has been made in recent years; the World Health Organisation, Human Rights Watch, and UNAIDS have publicly supported the decriminalisation of sex work. Additionally, Amnesty International has publicly stated their support for decriminalisation, despite hostile criticism from abolitionist campaigners. Nevertheless, many drug users and sex workers, especially those who identify as both, know that any policy or legal responses to these issues should be centred upon harm reduction and human rights.

In order to make real change to the lives of drug-using sex workers, we need to end the stigma and punitive laws which put them at risk of violence, criminalisation, and incarceration.

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