Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Crack and Prostitution: Gender, Myths, and Experiences

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Crack and Prostitution: Gender, Myths, and Experiences

Article excerpt

This paper presents the results from in-depth interviews with 30 crack-using women also working in the sex trade to support their drug use. The gender roles perspective highlights traditional beliefs from past decades about the appeal of cocaine to women, its effects on their sexuality, and the reasons they become prostitutes. These are contrasted with the harsh realities of the dangers and marginalization faced by female crack users who work the streets in the contemporary sex trade. These women operate at the lowest levels of street drug use and prostitution, experience a considerable amount of violence and sexual exploitation, and are subject to riskier practices in their sex work. Their crack addiction fuels this extreme vulnerability and contributes to their highly deviant and stigmatized social image. We conclude that, similar to findings in other studies, the increase in crack consumption and availability has had serious negative repercussions for poor women who were, or became, involved in the sex trade. Moreover, the powerful appeal of crack to these women poses a challenge for harm reduction alternatives and other services that might improve their health and safety.

Who wants to be a crack head when you think about it? Who wants to fucking stand on the corner in the fucking -18C and sell their body for a piece of rock that's going to be gone in fucking 10 minutes? ("Jenny," age 25)

The woman who sells her body for drugs is the most dependent person in the world.

(Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman, p.6)


The image of the crack-using prostitute has come to epitomize the ultimate shame and sexual degradation of women, but this portrayal is merely the latest in a long series of linkages between "fallen women" and substance use (Carstairs, 1998). The drug use experience of women has long been interpreted through the lens of ingrained cultural assumptions about their "remarkable vulnerability" to addiction and their inevitable downfall once they succumb to intoxicating temptations (Fillmore, 1984). In the early decades of the past century, indulgence in alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and heroin for pleasure or "highs" was subject to severe social disapproval, while consuming the same substances in medicinal form was acceptable (Gomberg, 1982). Despite Freud's early enthusiasm for the effects of the drug, cocaine use was particularly identified for fanning the sexual appetites of women, as a stimulus for prostitution, and even a modest degree of medical approbation was soon withdrawn (Kalant, 1987; Murray, 1987). When cocaine use resurfaced in the modern era, and particularly with the advent of crack cocaine, both previous stereotypes and new formulations about women's involvement with this drug have been put forward for examination.

In the early 1980s, the gender roles perspective articulated a broader view on substance use within the framework of women's normative role as nurturer and caregiver (Colten & Marsh, 1984). Concern about women who use alcohol or other drugs is seen as rooted in the perception that such behavior impairs the performance of their primary role; thus, they are viewed as more sick and deviant than male substance users (Marsh, 1982). Women who engage in illicit drug use are doubly deviant because they are not only breaking the law but also engaging in a predominantly male activity (Erickson & Watson, 1990). The negative sanctions applied to women who depart from mainstream standards serve as a form of social control and warning to all women to stay in their place (Rosenbaum, 1981). Like women who reject the housewife role for less traditional pursuits, women who use cocaine pose a particular threat to the gender role expectations of society. Sometimes these images have been combined in a punitive manner. For example, numerous popular media and women's magazines in the 1980s portrayed successful career women as especially prone to take up cocaine and quickly lose control; this modem myth was perpetrated despite any evidence that women's use patterns and problems with cocaine were different from those of men's (Erickson & Murray, 1989). …

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