“I would do anything but that”: Attitudes towards sex work among rural people who use drugs

BACKGROUND: Stigma towards people who use drugs and those who engage in sex work is well-documented, leading to consequences such as reduced access to health services and support, especially in rural milieus. Stigma reduction has been recognized as a priority in the opioid overdose crisis, but little attention has been paid to within-group attitudes and beliefs. This study aimed to explore how people who use drugs in rural counties across the United States appraise sex work by themselves or other community members.

METHODS: Qualitative interview data came from the Rural Opioid Initiative (ROI), a project coordinated by research teams across 65 rural counties in 10 states. Interviews were individual and conducted from 2018 to 2020. All participants reported past 30-day opioid use and/or any injection drug use. A working group coded the data, then used an iterative inductive-deductive approach to organize data into themes of stigma among people who use drugs, focusing on stigma towards sex work.

RESULTS: Across sites, 355 interviews were conducted. Mean participant age was 36, 55 % of participants were male, and 93 % were white. Participants expressed negative attitudes towards sex work as a function of its criminal-legal repercussions or framed sex work as morally transgressive. Many appraisals were gendered, with the behavior conveyed as being “easier” for women who were often described as “whores,” with more neutral terms used to describe men. Some viewed sex work as an implicit “exchange” for drugs. Several participants noted a lack of agency as a feature leading to involvement in sex work, with partner power dynamics influencing an individual’s behavior. Finally, a few participants acknowledged the circumstances under which they would newly engage in sex work.

CONCLUSION: We identified several patterns by which people who use drugs evaluate community members who sell sex. These included gendered and morally-charged forms of stigma, which may represent barriers to community acceptance and support among this subgroup.

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Full citation:
Rains A, Sibley AL, Levander XA, Walters SM, Nolte K, Colston DC, Piscalko HM, Go VF, Friedmann PD, Seal DW (2023).
“I would do anything but that”: Attitudes towards sex work among rural people who use drugs
International Journal of Drug Policy, 122, 104237. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2023.104237. PMCID: PMC10842447.