There are many good reasons to oppose U.S. drug policy and the abysmal failure that is our so-called war on drugs. As is often pointed out, the war on drugs isn’t really a war on drugs at all. It’s a war on people. People who use certain drugs, most of which were made illegal for political, not medical, reasons. But this post isn’t about the relative risks and dangers of illegal versus legal drugs or the history of the drug war. What I want to discuss is how our drug laws not only turn countless rape victims and survivors of childhood sexual abuse into criminals, but dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be raped again.
Sexual assault is one of the most violating experiences a person can endure. The trauma is exacerbated by a culture that routinely blames, shames, and disbelieves rape victims, and a justice system that denies all but a very small minority of rape survivors the opportunity to hold their attacker accountable. Studies show that at least 80% of rape victims suffer from chronic psychological and/or physical conditions as a result of being attacked. It’s not unusual for rape trauma, especially when compounded by a hostile or dismissive community reaction, to trigger suicidal ideation, resulting in a drastically increased suicide risk for rape survivors: 1300% higher than individuals not victimized by crime and 600% higher than victims of crimes other than rape.
Consequently it shouldn’t come as a surprise that drugs and alcohol are commonly used as a coping aid post rape. A study examining a random sample of sexual assault victims found that 44% took prescription drugs (mostly sedatives, tranquilizers, and antidepressants) to cope with the attack. How many self-medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs? We don’t know. We do know that close to 90% of women who are habitual heroin or cocaine users are also sexual assault survivors. Many have been raped more than once. And nearly two-thirds were children when they were first sexually assaulted.
While rape survivors of all socioeconomic groups may self-medicate with illicit drugs in their attempts to cope with rape trauma, low income women are particularly vulnerable. In more ways than one. Most lack health insurance or the funds to pay for doctor’s visits and therapy out of pocket, making self-medication with illegal drugs more likely. While certainly not all, or even most, illegal drug users become addicts, using drugs to numb pain or escape from intolerable circumstances frequently leads to addiction. Middle class women usually have sufficient wealth and income to afford their addiction, at least initially. For poor and working class women, however, things tend to get real bad real fast. Lacking the income to support an illegal drug habit, most must turn to prostitution or petty crime to finance their addiction.
When I tell people that I became a heroin addict after being raped, the usual assumption is that that’s a very bad thing. And in many ways it was. My addiction to heroin made me vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, forced me into prostitution, and eventually landed me on the street. First, though, heroin saved my life.
No, I’m not kidding. After the man I thought I loved had me raped and the people I had considered my friends took his side, I became increasingly distraught and got to the point where I was on the verge of committing suicide. I turned to heroin literally as a last resort. If it hadn’t worked, I would have killed myself. But it worked. That’s the thing about heroin. It’s a very powerful painkiller. It allows you to live with shit that no one should have to live with.
Bad things happened to me as a result of my heroin addiction. In almost every instance, though, the negative consequences were the result of the drug’s criminalization. The high price and lack of widespread availability (neither of which would exist without criminalization) made me dependent on a sadistic drug dealer who took full advantage of the fact that I couldn’t leave him. I don’t talk about the things he did to me. He finally got tired of me and threw me out, expecting me to be dead in a matter of days. But I survived, turning to prostitution to get by.
Sometimes I made enough money to afford a room for the night. Usually I didn’t. I needed every dollar I made to support my drug habit. I crashed in people’s apartments or people’s cars or abandoned buildings or I didn’t sleep at all. One night I ended up with a guy who told me about all the “junkie whores” he killed. I didn’t go to the police.
None of us did. In the eyes of the law, we were the criminals. Virtually every one of the women I knew on the street had a history of sexual abuse, often starting when they were little girls, and the men who raped and abused us were never punished. We were the ones punished. We were the ones who lived in fear of law enforcement, not our rapists. The fact that we weren’t hurting anyone was irrelevant.
Being drug addicts made us more vulnerable than other prostitutes. It’s difficult to say “no” to something you don’t want to do when you’re getting dopesick. Not surprisingly, some men specifically target women who look like they’re going into withdrawal. You learn quickly never to wait till the last moment to make the money you need and when you mess up and some maggot manages to take advantage of your desperation, you blame yourself. I know I did.
If you’re arrested for the crime of numbing your pain with an illegal narcotic, expect to be treated like subhuman garbage. There’ll be no presumption of innocence for you. Everyone you encounter will assume you’re guilty and treat you like the scum of the earth. You’ll be stripped naked in front of strangers and your body’s cavities will be searched for “contraband.” In most parts of the country, you’ll be forced to undergo a brutal cold turkey withdrawal (talk about cruel and unusual punishment). It used to be that way everywhere, but nowadays some jails are a little more compassionate, providing either methadone (rare if you’re not already in a program) or a medicated withdrawal (which often isn’t as helpful as it sounds and may just consist of OTC painkillers).
You also have a good chance of being sexually assaulted while behind bars. Most people think of prison rape as a problem affecting male prisoners, but incarcerated women (over 85% of who are non-violent offenders) are actually more likely to be sexually assaulted than incarcerated men. Having male guards supervise female inmates is a colossally bad idea and prohibited by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In the U.S., however, jails and prisons routinely hire men to guard female prisoners because refusing to do so is considered employment discrimination.
Even if you’re never arrested for illegal drug possession, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to be treated like subhuman garbage. And to be sexually assaulted. Drug dealers are so used to desperate addicts offering to trade sex for drugs that many feel entitled to demand sex even if you have the money. Saying “no” can make the dealer decide not to sell to you (a big problem if you’re on the verge of getting sick or can’t get in touch with anyone else); it can also get you forcibly raped. Sometimes you end up going along with the demands because you know what will happen if you don’t. Crooked cops may also prey on you, threatening to arrest you if you don’t do what they say. And pretty much everyone will treat you like trash. I’ve known women who didn’t get horribly infected abscesses on their arms treated because they knew that medical personnel would treat them like shit. As in, “you did this to yourself; you would deserve it if we just let you die.”
But you don’t have to become addicted to heroin or cocaine post rape to be treated worse than your rapist. If you’re raped while attending college and subsequently convicted of using any type of illegal drug–even pot–as a coping aid, you’ll lose your financial aid eligibility for a year. Convicted rapists, on the other hand, do not lose their eligibility. Neither do any other criminals. Clearly drugs are such a singular evil that drug users and sellers alone deserve to be punished.
Or maybe not. What I would like to see happen is for all drugs to be legalized. They used to be legal and could be legal again, but I’m not holding out much hope that will happen. So I’ll settle for decriminalization. Stop treating drug users and addicts like criminals–that should be drug policy priority number one. And I’m not talking about offering drug users treatment instead of prison. Treatment should be available on demand, but it should never be mandatory or coercive.
Forcing someone into treatment before they’re ready can have disastrous, even fatal, consequences. But what if they’re never ready? They may not be. We like to believe that no matter how much trauma someone has suffered, there’s always a way to press the “undo” button. It’s just a matter of finding the right treatment, and voila, they’ll be back to their old self. Or at least functioning well without drugs. Alas, that’s not how it works. Some countries have started to make prescription heroin available to long-term addicts who, often as a result of severe PTSD, are unable to function without the drug acting as a “buffer.” Having legal access to heroin allows them to get off the prostitution/crime/jail merry-go-round and get their lives in order. Prescription heroin programs have been very successful, but what do you think the chances are we’ll give them a try in the punitive, moralistic US of A? Right.
That leaves treatment. Drug rehab, especially for female addicts, must offer therapy for sexual assault survivors as an option and should not have a moralistic component. Female drug addicts already feel like crap; the last thing they need to hear is that they’re “bad” people who’ve made “bad” choices. In many cases they made the only choice they could to go on living after having suffered unbearable trauma. Was turning to drugs a bad choice? Only if you consider suicide preferable to being a drug addict. No, the person who made the bad choice is the rapist or child molester who set the whole thing in motion. And the community that looked the other way. And the friends and family members who sided with the rapist. If anyone’s to blame it’s the rapists and the rape apologists and the rape enablers. But of course we’d much rather blame the victim.