Sex, Drugs, Pity and Anger

Putting the Progressive Christian carnival together, while an immensely enjoyable and decidedly worth it experience, took most of my already small portion of blog-energy this past little while, so I’ve only been able to scan recent posts on all those other topics I care about. So despite my as usual late-to-the-party status (not to mention all those parties I’ve now completely missed), I couldn’t quite let this one go.

Background: Nine Deuce wrote this post asking a series of questions about the existence and philosophy of “sex positive” male feminists. The questions themselves, to my mind, are exceedingly disingenuous, and the fact that the original author and several agreeing commenters can’t seem to see just how the wording practically guarantees that it will be impossible to provide a satisfactory answer…well, let’s just say that I’m extremely impressed with those who managed, in comments or in their own posts, to put forth the effort required to answer all of them.

But the one I find myself unable to let go is the following:

If sex work is a valid, feminist choice for individual women, what are we to make of women who say that their participation in sex work resulted from dire poverty, drug addiction, etc.?

Emphasis, obviously, mine. Those who have responded to the question have already made the most important point here, which is that if sex work results from dire poverty and drug addiction, then talking constantly about eliminating sex work is really demonstrating an inability to understand the basics of causality. In other words, treat the poverty and the drug addiction, and you’ll eliminate the need for those particular women to turn to sex work. Eliminate the sex work, and you’ll eliminate one of the few options these particular women have for survival while their dire circumstances continue, likely, to worsen.

But see, beyond all that, I have to come right out and say that the beating of this particular drum angers me, and I’m not having an easy time putting words around exactly why, aside from that whole causality thing. The way addiction is discussed in these conversations seems cursory at best and decidedly lacking in compassion/understanding. There’s this vibe that people who have never dealt with drug addiction can just use the words and we’ll all understand the pathos that this entails. The desperation. The despair. The last gasp. I mean, we’ve all seen Leaving Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy, Walk the Line, whatever. Ren did a great job dissecting the difference between fighting for sex workers’ rights and waging a “save the whores” campaign, and I feel like the talk about drug addiction adds this extra layer of condescension to the bullshit saviour complex. “Of course they need saving! They’re addicts for God’s sake!”

Pity is not the same thing as compassion. Pity continues to see the pitied as other, lesser-than, subhuman. The dregs of society.

You know what scares me about the correlation between drug addiction and sex work? It isn’t sex work. I don’t know if Nine Deuce realized the implications of the causal chain she was connecting there, but she didn’t say (as some do, and as is no doubt true in some cases) that women are inclined to turn to drugs and become addicts in order to cope with the horrors of sex work. She said that they turn to sex work to feed a drug addiction. What scares me about that is that there’s a market that allows some women to realize, when they’ve been assured that they’re essentially worthless, useless, and good for nothing, that this is the last thing they have that they can barter. There’s a market for that because of misogyny, because of the specifically sexual exploitation of women’s bodies, and also because of all of the ways that drug-addicted women have already been assured that they are worthless. But that’s not really a feminist issue, because, I guess, it’s not an everywoman issue. Sex work is the feminist issue, sex work is the thing we need to talk about. If these drug-addicted women were not also prostitutes, they would not ping the radar of feminists in this contexts.

Nobody’s ever going to argue that drug addiction is a good thing, or even a redeemable thing (and here, I decidedly mean to describe the addiction, not the addict, as being irredeemable). It’s damn tough to talk about this beyond just “so treat the addiction”, because I feel like I’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner that suggests that in order to talk about sex work being potentially redeemable, I have to suggest that it might be okay or a good thing or empowering/ful to be addicted to drugs. Believe me, I have no romantic illusions about addiction. This pity schtick? This is a romantic illusion about addiction. I’d really like to see how this attitude toward addiction when it comes to sex workers translates to an understanding of addiction in men. Because, y’know, it’s the same damn disease. The actions and manifestations and strategies for how to survive are likely different based on gender as well as class, community etc, but it’s not like women are victims of it while men are criminals of it.

Moral agency in addiction is a complicated concept, but it sure as hell isn’t different for women than it is for men, though experiences almost always are. Unless you really have an understanding of a lot of that, bringing the topic into a discussion of sex work only serves to add a condescending cherry to the top of a sundae of condescension toward women who are not in this addict/sex worker category and who are actually involved in the conversation with you.

My question on this subject (and I’m only getting angrier as I get more tired and hungry as I write this) is – who is it helping? Who does it really speak the truth to? Not sex workers who aren’t addicts, as Ren and several other commenters demonstrate. Not addicts who aren’t sex workers (because we’re only saving these people from sex work, we don’t need to save them from the addiction, so…). To me, it just serves to emphasize that in the minds of many, addicts and prostitutes are both lower, pathetic, pitiful beings. If we can equate them, so much the easier.

Oh and by the way – what are “we” to make of “them”? Well, for a start, “they” are not theoretical constructs. “They” are people, and what you “make” of them and the “validity” of their lives is not really on the top of their list of concerns. YMMV, of course.


20 thoughts on “Sex, Drugs, Pity and Anger

  1. thanks for the props…and you know…

    I know a shit ton of waitresses who do a lot of drugs…a lot. They also face abusive customers and their living wages are based heavily on tips in an often physically demanding and demeaning job.

    No one is ‘rallying to save them’ now, are they? Or further more, questioning their agency and utterly missing how any sort of stereotype might be offensive to them…

    I really don’t like people a lot of the time, there are reasons.

  2. purtek says:

    Yeah, exactly. Seriously, the assumption that drug addiction is limited to the “outlier” class is as destructive as anything else.

    And props, I mean, damn…I’ve been learning a hell of a lot from your writing, and I’m more than a little grateful for the way you put it out there.

  3. Sarah J says:

    I second you on the learning from Ren. and yeah, when I was a waitress no one wanted to fucking save me, they always wanted to save my best friend the stripper, who was making twice as much money and working far fewer hours.

    And I gave you a blog award, btw.

  4. purtek says:

    What? Award? Aw, blush! You understand I’m not actually very good with the compliments, right?

    On the saving factor: hell yeah on the waitress issue, but also, fuck this “saving” thing. Princes Charming, Captains Save-a-Ho, Martyr Mothers, whatever variation you’ve got – not welcome here. Not if it’s based on pity.

  5. Brown Shoes says:

    I especially agreed with your point about pity vs. compassion – pity demeans and dehumanizes the person to some kind of archetype or cliche.

    Besides, you’re right about the dismissal of drug addiction to the realm of the poorer class (I think) – cocaine certainly wasn’t a drug for the poor in the 80s and it’s not like heroin has ever been either, and anyone paying attention to the war in Afghanistan will tell you about the poppy business…

    But anyway, maybe that’s just a tangent. I quite liked this post!

  6. purtek says:

    Thanks Brown Shoes – and what you said was a big part of my point. I’m glad it came through, because y’know, not easy subject matter and all that.

  7. Rev. Bob says:

    OMG! OMG! OMG! How simple it is!

    We shouldn’t waste our time thinking about outliers. Everybody’s got agency. Problems and dysfunction are individual matters, personal matters, that can be attacked at their roots (if we have the will to take it on) or one by one (if we don’t). And saying a class of people need to be saved takes power away from everybody and feeds the narrative that the motives of people on the left are suspect.

    Why didn’t I know this?

  8. purtek says:

    Okay, Rev Bob – I didn’t say any of the things you’re oh-so-sarcastically suggesting I did in this post. If you’d like to dispute some of the points, go for it (though I will likely be pretty wary given the subject matter, which I was reticent to open up in the first place). If you’d just like to tell me I’m stupid, thank you, your work here is done, appreciate the information and I’ll file it away for future reference.

    Individual problems? Will? I don’t want to feed a narrative about the motives of people on the left, so hush up, there, left-people? Huh?

    But yeah, you know what? I am saying that knights in shining armour are bullshit, and I am saying that suggesting that one class of people can/should/will “save” another class of people has been done to death, hasn’t worked, is hierarchical, dehumanizing and oh yeah, condescending, and I am saying that it’s possible that people on the left maybe actually do have suspect motives because of how they’re people and all that, and actually I couldn’t care less if I’m feeding the narrative that it’s possible that the left isn’t perfect.

    I am perfectly willing to engage disagreement, but if you just want to call me an idiot, well, I can’t say I’m going to find that very convincing.

  9. […] Purtek nails this issue in a brilliant article. […]

  10. purtek says:

    Oh wait, you were maybe serious? Like you meant that you just hadn’t gotten it before?




  11. Rev. Bob says:

    Purtek, read it as you will. My premise is that simplicity is hard>/em>. If I miscommunicated, it’s my fault.

    I think starting with the assumption that everybody’s got agency, as I believe you did, ends us up in the right place.

    Wrt feeding narratives, I’ll show you some real live people who say the people lefties like me sometimes choose as allies are puppets in our hands. It may not be essential to the point, but my friends and I do have enemies who peddle superficially convincing narratives.

    If I got it wrong, I got it wrong and I’m sorry.

  12. Rev. Bob says:

    p.s., as a progressive Christian (perhaps?)you’ve read and maybe sung <a href=””.that poem by Blake. Is there such a thing as positive pity – that empowers and fundamentally respects the person being pitied? And that extends to all humankind?

    Way OT and possibly even topic hijacking, but I’d really like to hear what you have to say about it.

  13. Jay says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on this…I went and took a look, intending to post, but after slogging through a bazillion posts (especially bullshit digressions from “Jerry”), I honestly don’t know if I’ll bother. I might yet…or I might post something on my own blog.

    But really, sex-pos (IMO) isn’t that tough: women (and all people, really) have the right to make whatever choices they want sexually…and should be free from coercion or control over those choices…including judgemental coercion/control from people who “just want to help”.

    In a free society, you have to support people’s right to choose things you don’t agree with.

  14. purtek says:

    Rev Bob, seriously, I’m sorry – I did completely misread you the first time. I’m just so used to people saying things like “Oh yeah, it’s so f’ing SIMPLE, is it???” on the internet with these heaps of condescending sarcasm piled on top. Your trackback & post make it clear that actually, what sarcasm is there is more based on self-mockery than it is on, well, me- mockery. In my defense, I had about two hours of sleep at the time. Like I said, I didn’t mind the possibility that you would disagree with me, but I don’t much like being mocked. Sorry again. And I will look into that link, thank you, and maybe write a post on the topic.

    Hi, Jay! Long time no comment. And yeah, what you’re saying about sex-pos being not that tough…that’s pretty much what I’m using my new snarky category title “Not Rocket Science” for (when I remember to use the category feature in the first place, sigh).

  15. Rev. Bob says:

    Hey, Purtek, I can barely type, much less write. No apologies-back needed. I thought it was a wonderful article that helped me get my motives and not-motives for wanting to be an ally a whole lot clearer in my mind.

  16. Amber says:

    Thanks for kicking ass at deconstructing this. I had been struggling to articulate some of the same sentiments but hadn’t been able to find the right words. You did it perfectly.

  17. purtek says:

    Thanks Amber – this was a tough one for me, on many levels, so I do appreciate the support.

  18. […] Absolutely Wonderful Post On Drug Addiction and Sex Work –  "[I]f sex work results from dire poverty and drug addiction, then talking constantly about eliminating sex work is really demonstrating an inability to understand the basics of causality." Yes! Thank you! Genius. […]

  19. […] written before about the way drug addiction is deployed as a rhetorical strategy in these conversations. In sincerity, I think some of the women writing in […]

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