Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Sex Drugs Booze: Prostitutes' Chemical Coping

The Cape Times (16 April 2007)—paraphrasing a report on streetwalkers in Cape Town, Durban, and Jo'burg—says that "reducing the high levels of anxiety and fear normally associated with sex work is one of the reasons why sex workers use drugs."

Charles Parry, a director of the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Unit and co-author of the report, says that violence and fear are key for understanding chemical abuse. He also states that such alcohol and drug use inhibits safe sexual practices, enhancing the likelihood of HIV-transmission between clients and sex workers.

At seamen's nightclubs, all of the prostitutes drink and many also take drugs. The African women in Durban tend to go for dagga (marijuana) while the coloureds and whites of Cape Town may also add rock, tik, ecstacy, or Mandrax to the mix.

But they use chemicals to cope for quite different problems than streetwalkers. Since the women solicit in nightclubs, protected by bouncers, they are relatively free of client violence. When they go to a hotel or their apartment for sex, they are also in spaces that they have more control over than the foreign seafaring clients. Most dockside women report that, if they have ever been raped, molested, or abused, it has almost always been at the hands of relatives or local men. Unlike sailors, locals know what they can get away with.

Dockside women do not experience the same "anxiety" that streetwalkers do because they are not as exposed to negative legal attention (abusive cops), financial predators (pimps), or anonymous men (local johns). This is because police don't bother coming into the clubs, all the women are independent operators (no pimps), and everyone knows which ships the sailors belong to in case they need to complain.

The anxiety they feel is related to more mundane social and psychological stresses: shame, depression, boredom, financial worries, and low self-esteem. Many felt these anxieties before working in the clubs—due to childhood abuse, dysfunctional family lives, and low educational achievement—but the stigma of sex work exacerbates these feelings.

Almost everyone woman I've spoken to says "you can't do this work without drinking. It's not nice to go with a different man every night. It makes us sick to our stomachs. Drinking is the only way to deal with it." Some say that they must drink to "get wet" for intercourse, otherwise they will think too much about their "degrading" circumstances and remain "dry." Alcohol takes the edge off their shame and battered self-worth, they say.

But the women take drugs and alcohol for recreational purposes as well. As we know, plenty of people who are not involved in sex work drink and take drugs because they find it enjoyable. Most dockside women feel the same. Many enthusiastically report that "we LOVE alcohol!" Thus, there is an ambivalence as to whether these chemicals answer a need (which makes them seem helpless and less culpable for their actions) or a want (which highlights their sense of agency).

Either way, alcohol and drugs are a big part of life for dockside prostitutes. Few survive the business without struggling with addiction issues, health problems, or the consequences of drunk/high behavior (STIs or pregnancy due to unsafe sex).

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