Whose personal is more political: Women who use drugs and the feminist movement
I am a feminist. I am a woman who uses drugs. Up until recently, these identities have been mutually exclusive, having rarely been held together in the same conceptual space. Only now are the links between drug policy, feminism and drug use beginning to be drawn. Feminism, I took to early on, as any woman who questioned dominant paradigms, interrogated inequities in political and social life and was sceptical of the ways gendered norms condition how we speak, act, behave and interact with one another. Twenty years ago, university life introduced me to the feminist movement. Grounded in radical politics, it was liberating, insightful and welcoming of diverse communities and identities, including women of colour, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual, queer and trans* women and women living with disabilities. The only exceptions, at the time, were female sex workers and women who use drugs.
Twenty years ago, I also started injecting heroin: the part of myself I hid and suppressed. Whilst diversity was embraced in feminism, particularly for those who faced intersecting oppressions, drug use and sex work seemed to provoke profound discomfort in the women’s movement. Women who use drugs were, at best, invisible, but more often than not, pitied and/or loathed and rendered irrational, useless and hopeless. On the mere basis of our consumption patterns, we were somehow to blame for our own oppression, bereft of self-awareness and incapable of knowing our own minds and controlling impulses, and therefore undeserving of participation in the feminist movement. Women who use drugs issues are feminist issues.
Due to criminalization, punitive policies and stigma and discrimination, women who use drugs are two to five times more likely to experience gender-based violence and intimate partner violence compared with women who don’t use drugs (El-Bassel et al. 2011, Gilbert et al. 2015, Moore 2008). It is not just the violence itself that is the problem, but that it, more often than not, is perpetrated with impunity. Gender inequality means that we face higher mortality rates and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence compared with men (Larney et al. 2015, Esmaeili et al. 2017). Our sexual and reproductive health rights are suspended, where we are at times subject to forced abortion and sterilization, routinely denied child custody rights, turned away from health services and treated as second-class citizens. Harsh drug laws coupled with patriarchal norms and assumptions have led to the mass incarceration of women who inject and use drugs. In many parts of the world, women who use drugs are more likely than men to be incarcerated for the same offence or face harsher sentencing laws.
Due to the double, sometimes triple, stigma faced by women who use drugs, the rights violators are not held accountable. With all of this in mind, it is troubling that empathetic links of solidarity have not been extended by many mainstream feminists to women who use drugs. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 theory of intersectional feminism is a useful framework to examine the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination women face, based not just on gender and sex, but on race and ethnicity, sexuality, economic background and other status and other axes, including drug use. As much as it helps us to think through differences, it can also help in considering the commonalities between systems of oppression, in this case, patriarchy and drug prohibition.
Both of these are predicated on the same objectives and principles, the suppression and subjugation of difference, the control of bodies, limitations on personal choice and freedom and the silencing of dissenting voices. In such a society, women are necessarily judged more harshly for their drug use than men. We are judged more harshly than men are for taking personal risks, for being cast as putting our own needs and the pursuit of pleasure above “caring for others”. Twenty years later, I have seen the feminist movement be changed thanks to the advocacy of sex workers and transwomen. Just like feminism was challenged and inevitably changed as a result of the agendas of second-wave feminism of the ’60s-’80s and third-wave feminism, it must continue to confront racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia and able-bodyism, as well as whore phobia and drug user phobia.
We’re no longer willing to be marginalized by a movement that we hold claim to, where our bodies are deemed impure or our behaviour unnatural or immoral. What, after all, could be more patriarchal than telling a woman what to do with/put in her body? Women who use drugs need our space and voices heard. There is movement; one of NarcoFeminism. We are coming together, caring for each other, mobilizing and organizing, coming out at conferences to demand self-determination and empowerment. For feminism to move forward, it must resist and challenge outdated norms that are incompatible with real-world realities. If the claim of feminism is to stand up for women, it must be to stand up for all women.