The reason that a person becomes involved in the sex work industry can vary greatly. Some were kidnapped and forced into prostitution, some ran away and needed the money for food, and others made the conscious decision to enter the industry as a professional dancer. Understanding drug abuse and drug and alcohol addiction in sex workers means looking closely at what happens to sex workers everyday, though it is also important to consider not only the reason for the circumstances, but the effect of continued drug use and abuse in this line of work. Local and international organizations have worked to end the stigma surrounding the work, and make their lives easier with more and better access to medical care and resources. And with up to seven percent of any population of women working in the industry, the possibilities for drugs and violence, runoff from drug involvement and other illegal activity, is high.
What is considered a ‘sex worker’ ?
Not all sex workers are prostitutes. There is no country in the world where sex workers are not present. The industry is one of the biggest on the planet: they don’t call prostitution ‘The World’s Oldest Profession’ for no reason. The sex industry, like the drug industry, can also be incredibly lucrative – recent estimates of how much the global market takes in right around the 200 billion, and millions of people participate in the making of this money. Within the industry, prostitutes, sometimes called, ‘hookers,’ ‘call girls,’ or the antiquated ‘ladies of the evening,’ are generally what it is to which people refer when they talk about sex work. Pimps and madams, though, are also workers, despite not being the people who render the necessary services. Pornorgraphy models are included in this industry, as are exotic dancers, and escorts, even when they aren’t providing sexual services. People who work as sex therapists, trained professionals that can assist with a variety of sexual issues, and anyone working with them are in the industry. Owners and workers of sex shops are industry workers, as are gogo dancers, sex traffickers, trafficking victims, and the people who work for services that provide sexual partners for individuals where sex work is legal and the workers are protected.
A clear definition of what constitutes sex work is missing from a great deal of legislation concerning sex work, and stigmas faced by the workers affects them at a federal level world-wide. The discrimination and criminalization of sex work has had none of the desired effects of creating safer, healthier societies, but sex workers continue to have difficulties receiving the protection that they need to perform their jobs safely, and accessing affordable, high-quality healthcare. This applies to sex workers of all sexes, too – transpeople in the industry are neither unusual, nor untraceable. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 15% of transpeople, globally, are working as sex workers, with most of this number working as prostitutes.
With legal and medical factors actively working against them, sex workers are vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse as they move through an increasingly stressful world where their resources are constantly threatened, and their few chances for legal protection continually stripped away. With violent or difficult clients, thieves, law enforcement, traffickers, and a host of other stresses, without including the trauma that led some sex workers into the industry in the first place, most sex workers seek the temporary relief that drugs bring.
Drugs and Sex Work
Worldwide, the most common drugs used by sex workers, particularly workers not based in a brothel, are heroin and powder and crack cocaine. Alcohol is the world’s most abused drug, but when we examine the habits of street-based sex workers, we find that clients of the workers are far more likely to use alcohol than the hired sex workers themselves. There’s nothing unusual about some sex workers having a drink with clients, but drunkenness is more often something that occurs with clients, not the workers. Alcohol isn’t nearly as effective as stimulants and opioids at keeping a person awake, alert, and sexually aroused. Taking into account what is necessary for a sex worker to survive, most would find the plight of those workers living with drug addiction understandable – relief from a difficult world is relief just the same. Sex workers were among the first, though, to create the habit of sharing needles to use intravenous drugs. As early as the mid-1980s, sex workers in Australia were sharing needles, and the practice moved through the rest of the world. Today, basic drug education includes stressing the important of avoiding using the same needle as another person, as the consequences can be deadly. Sharing needles can transmit disease nearly every communicative disease, included the terrifying HIV.
Justice or Rehab?
Criminal justice systems all over the world have failed to protect sex workers from abuse, which, in turn, means that there are far more workers and former workers in prison than there are where they need to be: in a drug addiction treatment center, speaking to counselors about healing and working in their field safely. Never having the opportunity to heal means that sex workers need to return to the same or a similar situation, as most don’t have the training or education to enter more socially-acceptable fields. While a growing number of correctional facilities offer treatment for extended use of drugs and alcohol, there are still not nearly enough resources actively designated to resolve the humongous problem of drug abuse and addiction among sex workers.
If the situation still does not seem dire enough to you, remember that, despite the fact that there are many sex workers working in the industry as willful participants, traffickers, pimps, and clients make their lives difficult, and drugs and alcohol make things worse. Pimps and traffickers are particularly prone to abusing drugs and alcohol, and then turning around and abusing the sex workers they’ve recruited or kidnapped, and any around them. Some sex workers are dependent on a person to whom they report for drugs, money, and a place to sleep. Simply removing them from the situation, whether they are sent to a reputable rehabilitation center, or jailed for their legal transgressions, isn’t an effective means of protecting sex workers, or society at large.
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