Drugs, Alcohol, and Pornographic Sex Work
Drugs, alcohol, and pornographic sex devoid of meaning are often intertwined symbols of the darker side of the human experience, evoking strong elements of secrecy, shame, desire, lust, and escape in some form or another. Often times, the three go hand in hand, as drug and alcohol abuse is a prevalent theme among porn stars, escorts, strippers, and other sex workers. In fact, the relationship between involvement in the sex industry and drug/alcohol addiction is so strong that the Sex Workers Outreach Project posted an article providing tips about how to incorporate drug use and sex work “safely”. Some of the tips included in the article recommend trying “to inject into a different spot for every hit” when using intravenous drugs, or cautioning workers about letting clients know that they use drugs due to the risk that clients may try to tempt them with drugs as payment in lieu of cash.
Drugs and alcohol are also popular tools used in the coercion, manipulation, and entrapment of victims of sex trafficking. The connection between these elements is strong yet unclear, for there seems to be both cause and effect in the instance of drug and alcohol addiction among sex workers. Many young women and men turn to sex work as a means of funding their drug addiction, yet find themselves spiraling downwards into a greater need to feed an even more insatiable appetite for drugs and alcohol as they struggle to cope with the mental and physical consequences of their behavior.
Sex Work as a Means of Funding Addiction
Funding a drug or alcohol addiction comes at a high cost. When the money eventually runs out, the need for the drink or drug persists as the addict’s capacity to function in a more common or socially acceptable work environment decreases. This often leads addicts to resort to sordid means of gaining access to their drugs or money for their drugs, such as participation in the sex industry. Working in the sex industry promises quick, easy money. Some adult film stars are paid thousands of dollars to complete a single scene within the span of just a few hours, depending on the type of scene and popularity of the porn star. Escorts can charge upwards of $500-$5,000 for an hour of their time with clients. Strippers can bring in major tips within a single shift working on a busy night at a strip club.
Sitting in an office and interacting with coworkers and customers for eight hours each day can seem impossible for someone severely physically and/or mentally dependent on alcohol or drugs. Working in the sex industry can present them with the opportunity to make the same amount of money in a couple of hours that they would make in one week working at an office or restaurant, and does not necessarily require that they maintain a professional demeanor throughout their shifts. One young, crack-cocaine addicted woman living out of an abandoned truck in a junkyard in New York shared that she works as a prostitute despite the many risks associated in order to fund her addiction. When asked why she engages in such a risky and emotionally damaging practice, she responded, “when you need that drug, you take that risk.” Her lifestyle allows her to continuously get high throughout the day and turn tricks when she needs money for more crack.
Ali*, a young woman currently in recovery, explained that after she lost her job at a coffee shop as a consequence of her addiction to heroin and crystal meth, she began working at a strip club and eventually got involved with pornography to earn money to fund her drug habit. Ali recalls, “I earned so much money in so little time, which was perfect for me. I made what I would have made working for a month working only a few days out of the week and I got to spend the rest of my time getting high”. Ali also recalls that working in both settings was incredibly tough on her emotionally, but what got her through the experience was the promise of a fat paycheck to fund her high. Often times, Ali worked while under the influence of alcohol or drugs so her discomfort didn’t get in the way of her work, which is representative of another major role that drugs and alcohol play in the sex industry.
Drugs and Alcohol as an Escape from a Painful Reality
If a young man or woman does not enter the sex industry with a drug problem, the likelihood of developing a drug problem increases drastically the longer he or she is involved with the industry. Drugs and alcohol are ubiquitous in the sex industry, and many young women and men are introduced to different drugs for the first time by coworkers. The appeal of drugs and alcohol tends to increase as well, as the need to escape reality as a sex worker grows exponentially stronger as the objectification, dehumanization, and trauma continues. Cases of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are extremely common within the sex industry, and serve as further incentive to escape. Ex-pornstar Brittni, or “Jenna Presley” became dependent on drugs and started engaging in other self-destructive behaviors during her seven-year involvement with the adult film industry. Brittni recalls she used the drugs “to numb (her) pain, to get (her) through”. She began using cocaine towards the beginning of her career and eventually transitioned to heroin as she continued to work in the industry.
This is an incredibly common practice among other sex workers. Many claim that they could not go through with their work if they were sober. Many pornstars, strippers, and escorts report that they typically work while under the influence of alcohol or drugs because it allows them to fully immerse themselves in the experience and earn higher tips or more substantial paychecks as a result. Porn actress “Amanda Blow” relies on a combination of crystal meth and marijuana before shooting a scene. She says, “Drugs are 110% necessary for (her) production”. Drugs and alcohol provide an escape before, during, and after engaging in some form of sex work, whether it’s prostitution, pornography, or stripping. Ali, the aforementioned young woman, believes that she could not have performed without drinking or using drugs before her jobs. She recalls that she once had to take a break from shooting a pornographic scene so she could inject herself with meth in the bathroom before she could continue so she wasn’t “too in (her) own head”.
A Means of Coercion in Sex Trafficking and Sexual Abuse
Not everyone currently working in the sex industry is involved voluntarily. Sex trafficking is a form of exploitation and slavery that involves the trade or transport of people for sex or hard labor against their will. Victims of sex trafficking are typically young women and children (though there is a small reported percentage of male victims) that are tricked into working in the sex industry by a number of manipulation tactics. Victims become trapped by their captors through abuse, threats of violence towards themselves or their loved ones, or the belief that they owe their captors a great deal of debt and will be killed or face major legal consequences if they do not comply. Another major tactic utilized by traffickers is getting their victims addicted to drugs so they are forced to work in order to get high. Traffickers also often drug their victims to prevent them from escaping or weakening their ability to refuse to work. The levels of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that occur throughout the entrapment perpetuate the need for escape through drugs and alcohol that so many others involved in the sex industry experience.
A young woman currently in treatment for a heroin addiction shared that she began having sex with her drug dealer in exchange for heroin. After about a month of regularly sleeping with this man in exchange for drugs, he demanded more. The woman recalls, “One day I showed up at his house and he told me that what I was doing wasn’t enough anymore, and that I owed him for all those times he had supplied me with heroin. He then invited his friends over and accepted their money as they all got to take turns having sex with me. I felt trapped. I was sick without the drugs and terrified he was going to hurt me because I owed him so much money for all of those times. I felt like I had no choice.” In sex trafficking, drugs are used as a means of enslaving the young women, girls, and men and forcing them to participate in such degrading, abusive, traumatic work against their will. In this context, drugs are the weapons that are being held to the victim’s head or throat forcing them to comply with the demands of their captors.
Drugs, alcohol, and the sex industry are intertwined in a complex, dark, and powerful manner that seems to feed off of itself. Many young men and women become involved in the sex industry as a means of funding their drug and alcohol addictions due to the promise of fast, easy cash, while others turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to cope with the trauma, degradation, and loneliness they experience as a natural result of their occupation in the industry. Drugs and alcohol are also used as a means of coercion and manipulation for those being trafficked against their will into the sex industry, as the need for escape through intoxication continues to grow for the victims. There are numerous support groups, programs, and rehabilitation facilities that offer hope to those who feel trapped in their addiction and the sex industry. Many former sex workers have gone on to create organizations that provide help to the men and women that remain stuck in the vicious cycle, and work hard to relay the message that transformation, healing, and recovery are possible.
*Names have been changed to respect anonymity.