Monday, April 6, 2009
hos and junkies unite?
(A public "sharps container", a receptacle where used syringes can be safely disposed of, next to a condom machine in Lausanne, France)
It warms the cockles of my little junkie heart to see SWOP (Sex Worker's Outreach Program) and SWANK (Sex Worker's Action New yorK) send me a message over facebook about a workshop they're holding on using Narcan/naloxone as an antidote to opiate overdose.
Not only because I think more people need to be given the knowledge to use these tools and have Narcan dispensed to them before the ambulances come to late, as they often do, to what they think of as another dumb drug overdose call ("when people are *actually* suffering out there...") (Even when paramedics are well intentioned and speedy in arriving, the neccessary delay still often kills. "If people have to rely on paramedics, more often than not, the overdose is going to be fatal, just because of the amount of time for people to get there," explained Casey Cook of Prevention Point Philadelphia to the Associated Press on August 1st, 2008.) Not only because these life saving tools have been denied to us for so long,with the last drug czar expressing disapproval over such workshops in Philadelphia, saying they encouraged drug use by eliminating the risk, making users feel too complacent, the old not-giving-them-condoms-keeps-them-from-having-sex argument.
(If the czar had ever taken Narcan while he was habituated to opiates, he'd know that no one *planned* on taking a super high dose and then banked on torturing themselves with the pain of naloxone ingestion afterwards.) Not even because we need to make sure that these methods are not exclusive to medical professionals because of how these medical professionals so often use them: naloxone is often used *punitively* in hospitals or in ambulances after an overdose, as junkie punishment medicine. What naloxone does is inhibit opiate receptors, thus, it takes out the high and often plunges a person into a concentrated bout of withdrawal--plus pain, seeing as how opiates are so similar to endorphins. Often, EMTs and other health professionals use twice the effective dose in order to Teach The Junkie A Lesson. The results can be traumatic. (Sometimes it just teaches the person never to trust doctors, hospitals, or ambulances.) On the other hand, harm reduction workshops which dispense Narcan and teaches users how to administrate it usually tell them to use the smallest effective dose on the overdosing user, taking most of the horror out of the experience.
No, all of that is important, but not as marvelous to me as the fact that this particular workshop is being sponsored by a sex workers' rights organization. For far too long, the sex workers' rights movement has been distancing itself from harm reduction and drug decriminalization movements. Some of this has been understandable, at least from a strategic viewpoint if not from a moral one. Even though most prostitutes work middle or upper class venues, the TV image still casts us as the desperate, mangy street worker. That media phantom uses loads of disreputable drugs like heroin and cocaine, injecting herself on scabied and abcessed skin. (This imagined street worker doesn't even bear any resemblance to the street workers of actuality, who are agents of their own destiny who deserve the public's respect.) The sex workers' rights movement needed to normalize ourselves to the outside world, show them that no more of us are desperately poor drug users than they are. It's easy to feel alienated from "hard" drug users that the drug war so effectively demonizes, so we needed to make sure people knew we were not them--which, in fact, we weren't, not many more of us use drugs than people in any other profession. When we struggle to show that the vast majority of us come to our work voluntarily, that we are not victims of human trafficking or patriarchy, it's hard to demonstrate that if people think you turn tricks to support your habit--people have come to think of addiction as as powerful a force at destroying agency as demonic possession, and if we acknowledged drug use in our midst as anything but the bad habits of a sad, pitiful, tiny minority, we risked having people think that we can't freely choose to perform sex acts for money since we depend on that money for our next fix. ( An argument we had to defuse, but a ludicrous one, really--so a heroin addict accountant can't freely choose her job because she depends on her salary to buy bags, among other things? And trust me, there are plenty of "functional" heroin addicts in "straight jobs" out there, living necessarily totally closeted lives. I'll link to some of their stories in a later post, perhaps.)
But the pendulum has swung too far. Because while we probably don't have many more drug users in the sex industry than other professions do, we have as many as they do--a lot, because the fact is there are quite a few drug users in this country. And the issues are inextricably linked--how can sex workers fight for a person to have control over how they use their body and the kind of goods they choose to sell, in the context of a nonviolent crime that hurts nobody, and not realize these very same arguments apply to drug use and sale? People sell drugs for the inflated black market money when other choices become limited, just like sex workers go into the business during those kinds of times. They also sell because they aren't made for and don't believe in traditional legitimate job wageslave labor--and that's why many sex workers choose to work off their ads as well. Drug users take risks, but no more than extreme sports enthusiasts do (perhaps less), no more than people who like to drive fast, and using harm reduction methods and researching the drugs they ingest, they minimize those risks. A call girl takes a huge risk every time she enters a room with a stranger, but by screening callers and using other harm minimization techniques, she cuts those risks down to an acceptable level. Sex workers and drug users are both scapegoated for evils spread by non-pros and non users--sex workers are accused of spreading HIV, whereas in the First World they're much more likely to use safer sex methods than people having noncommercial sex and one is much more likely to pick up HIV from a free fuck one finds at a bar. Illegal drug users are seen as being crazed and super violent, impervious to pain when on a Reefer Madnessesesque rampage, yet alcohol, the *legal* drug, is the only one with a significant statistical correlation to violence. And while both sex workers and drug users and sellers are victims of the violence of the black market, sex workers who don't manage other prostitute's earnings are only facing a misdemeanor, while drug users and sellers often face mandatory minimums that leave them rotting in prison for years longer than rapists and murderers.
How can we fight for the decriminalization of one and not the other?
A long time $pread, the great sex worker's glossy based in NYC, commissioned a article from me about drugs and sex work. I balked, I wrote thousands upon thousands of words but couldn't put them together neatly in any way. I never sent it in. The article was a political justification of my whole life--what, a junkie ho who considers herself victimized by a society that controlled the way we use our bodies, not a victim of her own bad choices? A junkie ho who--ha, ha, ha--considered herself an *activist*? And I looked over the pages of $pread, and while I loved this magazine, over and over I saw nothing but contempt in interviews in memoirs for "girls who worked to feed a habit", and never a word from those girls so dismissively referred to. I remember doing the research for the article, and looking at one sex worker blogger's little rant about how tired she is of liberals who say "legalize it all--sex, drugs, and gambling!" Not the same thing, she fumed, without even bothering to explain why--the difference was self-evident to her readership, obviously. She was a a lady courtesan, & this other marginalized group of people were just trashy junkies. What more needed to be said?
And while sex workers constantly questioned the way they were psychopathologized because of their profession, labeled masochists and nymphomaniacs, they used traditional tropes about addiction and trauma and self-medication to talk about drug use. There was never the consideration of the wide range of reasons that people had to use illicit drugs--for fun, for ritual, to "expand the mind", to socialize, to cushion a difficult time, as therapy--even though sex workers in the movement write about the huge variety of different reasons people have to do sex work all the time.
Why, I wondered, was the sex workers' movement's view of drug users as one dimensional as the public's view of sex workers?
I'm not saying things were totally bleak. At the 2006 Desiree Alliance conference I helped find methadone treatment for me and others, and helped accomodate and especially invite drug using sex workers and ex-sex workers by offering them scholarships. And now SWOP-NYC & SWANK send this. Hopefully it's not just about Helping Their Downtrodden StreetWalking Sisters, who are the only ones who would Stoop to *That*. Hopefully it's the beginning of real change, of a united movement to decriminalize nonviolent crimes, nonviolent practices as old as human history hit hard in the last couple of centuries by an upstart Puritanism that does not know when to stop when controlling the behavior of consenting adults.