Opium, Cocaine, Fairies, Prohibition & the Gendering of Drug Use

By Terry Gotham

I wasn’t sure how to order the stories I’ve been preparing for this series on the History of the Addict & Society. Instead of using something pedestrian like chronology or chemical family, I went a little more esoteric. I hope you’ll come with me as I move from notion to related notion in the series, starting the original justifications for anti-vice laws in the USA, ones you may have never considered.Check this out: The use of drugs by prostitutes in the early 20th century attracted men to a lifestyle alternative to the protestant work ethic, gay and straight, such that the substances needed to be controlled. It wasn’t just the substance use, but the perversion (or in this case, inversion) of the masculine gender role that ensured substance use went from uneasy toleration in the late 19th Century to outright prohibition before WWI broke out.

In the late 1800’s, the predominant users of hard drugs (opium & cocaine) were Victorian upper middle class women. By the time the first World War began, morphine and heroin (both invented in the last quarter of the 19th Century) had been declared controlled substances under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, being blamed for creating the modern “drug addict” by anti-vice & anti-drug reformers. But how did this change happen & why? An academic paper written in 2009 by Mara L. Keire in the Journal of Social History (full text here) explains.

While most Americans consider drug dealing/using to be masculine (quick test: Imagine a junkie in your mind. What gender are they? What race are they? Keep what you thought in mind.), and many think of the “drug addict” being male, there’s been an epidemic of female deaths in this country as the opiate tide continues to ravage our working poor. 115 years ago, the majority of new opiate users weren’t your friend/neighbor/co-worker who got a prescription to Oxycontin 9-15 months ago. They were part of the “sporting class,” which included sex workers, gamblers, gangsters, entertainers, johns and fairies (a technical term referring to homosexual male entertainers who consumed cocaine at clubs at the turn of the century, I swear I’m not making this up). The association of drug use with the criminal, or sexually deviant (depending on how pearl clutch-y you were at the time), influenced men to incorporate drug use into their rejection of traditional gender roles, which led to drugs being scheduled. Let me explain how.

Up until the turn of the 20th century, women were 67% of the opiate consuming population, being prescribed it for all manner of “feminine troubles,” which, astonishingly wasn’t just a euphemism for hysteria or lack of orgasm. Feminine troubles (as per the Courtright book on opiate addiction in America, Dark Paradise) included dysmenorrhea, injuries from childbearing, ovarian cysts, uterine cancer & assorted venereal diseases. In 1880, Charles W. Earle observed that 75% of the opiate addicts in Chicago were women, and 1/3 were sex workers. But, in the first 15 years of the 20th Century, a peculiar shift took place. Drug taking expanded from the traditional settings of parlor houses & saloons to cabarets, movie theaters, cigar shops, pool halls & dance halls. The shift of drug use being done in hiding to openly in public, by both sexes, had three effects. First, it caused the substance use to become cool, or en vogue, which raised the price (drug gentrification!). It also encouraged anti-vice squads to start viewing opium smoking and cocaine use as a priority alongside of alcohol consumption. The third effect is a more complex. Essentially, drug use began to be an identifier of a social grouping, beyond race, region of origin, or social/working class membership for the first time.

The reason that the anti-vice reformers were particularly sensitive to opium & cocaine use by sex workers was because of how it contradicted the narrative of the passivity/sanctity of women being violated by these substances, that they had been peddling as a reason for prohibition. To the pearl clutchers of 100 years ago, the idea that a woman would decide to be a sex worker meant that she had to be despoiled or controlled by substance. The idea that these women may take it upon themselves to go out, make cash for themselves and their partner, and purchase drugs as a knowing rational actor for fun and profit, kind of neatly obliterates that narrative. Police records, documented in the 1908 report to the United States delegation of the International Opium Convention, indicate sex workers being tracked and monitored, with their drug use documented. If the “reformers” narrative was the case, pimps would be injecting enslaved women with heroin away from prying eyes. Single ladies would not be snorting fat rails of crushed up heroin pills at the bar and buying shots. But, by 1914, that’s exactly what was happening. Sex workers were buying the drugs, making the money, acting very much like the “men” were “supposed” to be working.

At the same time, their pimps were also subverting the traditional gender role construct, in their own way. Pimps were relying on sex workers to furnish them with drugs and income, an exceptionally problematic challenge to the middle-class masculinity built upon the double helix of Puritan guilt and work ethic the USA had been chained to for centuries. The Surgeon General H.S. Cumming asserted in 1925 “opium makes a man effeminate,” and Lawrence Kolb stated:

“the ultimate effect of opiates is to create a state of idleness and dependency which naturally enhances the desire to live at the expense of others and by anti-social means.”
~The Prosecutor

Their behavior wasn’t repellent because they were abusing women, as the patriarchy gave zero fucks about domestic abuse up until right around the time America decided it hate disco. The behavior was unacceptable because the pimps were providing a viable alternative gender role from the ashamed, buttoned-up, Puritan middle class breadwinner to young men. You could still live a life that wasn’t broke, but you didn’t have to work for it. They inverted the gender role of the day, while remaining consistent with patriarchal, capitalistic ideals, so it wasn’t rejected at large by most people. In fact, that counter-culture soon faced adulation and emulation. By the 1920’s, the majority of new drug users were urban youths, who many believed were attempting to imitate the lifestyle of these “sporting class members.” Why did that include doing drugs? Because substance use was an activity people within the desired group engaged in, and it identified you as a member of that group.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive, because those same habits & signifiers were used by sex workers & pimps to self-identify to potential clients, which made them vulnerable to law enforcement. But once that life became idolized, you had a significant number of posers, “charity girls,” and fairies entering those spaces, and they took on those identifiers. This is like watching the kids from the suburbs wear FUBU in the 2000’s, or the deluge of white people into the disco halls of the black, latino and gay in the 70’s, except with more opium and a vaguely equivalent amount of cocaine. From 1900-1920 you saw a spike in cocaine used as an identifier, not by sex workers with clients, like the vice reformers declared they would, but flamboyantly with each other. This is the equivalent of girls doing bumps in the bathroom of VIP vs. bears doing lines off each other on the dance floor.

The perception that the drugs were associated with femininity, homosexuality & ethnic minorities amplified the “otherization” that pushed drugs from tolerated to prohibited. The conclusion Mara Keire draws is one I strongly agree with. Drug prohibitionists have used the sexual aggression of the cocaine addled black man, the marijuana smoking Mexican immigrant, the opium dazed Chinese railroad laborer, and the GHB weaponizing gay man for as long as America can remember. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t just the race or class of the other that made the drugs repellent to our sensibilities, it was the “They don’t look like you and they’re coming to fuck you,” or some other form of sexual deviance that broke the camel’s back. This fear-mongering stoked resentment, ensuring racially biased policies that continued to this day, but also created fascination by those seeking to reject the mainstream. This last point is crucial. By denoting substance use as dangerous to the individual and society writ large, you inexorably create a reason for experimentation with these substances. It will always be hip to get high, because the squares don’t want you to, to use the lingo of the older and wiser. Drug use is the 3rd rail of rebellion against conventional/mainstream society, and has been for as long as prohibition has existed. And it started because women were enjoying themselves.

Next week, I’ll be exploring another cause of prohibition that we’ve gotten entirely wrong. The idea that the “modern drug addict” was created by the Civil War has been used as an excuse to continue and strengthen prohibition for decades. But it’s totally false. This is Terry Gotham, see you on the dance floor.

4 comments on “Opium, Cocaine, Fairies, Prohibition & the Gendering of Drug Use

  1. Pingback: The Big Picture | Burners.Me: Me, Burners and The Man

  2. Hi Terry, while I appreciate your work, and agree with much of what you are saying, I have found a lack of discussion of the destructive impact drugs can and have had on people in your work? Should drugs be legal? Certainly. Has the War on Drugs been a total disaster? Of course. Has it often been conflated with issues of sex, race, homosexuality, as you so aptly describe? Yes, yes, yes. But I notice within your work a trend towards minimizing the ACTUAL impact that hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, meth have had on individuals and society. Much of the reason that there is such an “anti-drug” mentality among so many Americans comes not from racism, homophobia, sexism, “fear of other”, but from having PERSONAL experience of watching friends or family destroy their lives with hard drugs. I would NEVER mock or condemn those people or accuse them of racism, sexism, irrational fear, etc. They have lived it. I have lived it. I hate what heroin, meth, and coke (and alcohol!) have done to family members and friends. That doesn’t make me a prohibitionist, racist, sexist, homophobe, or “other-fearer”.


    • Feel free to produce whatever content with whatever angle or perspective you’d like on your own blog Gaslighter. Don’t pretend you know my history, the losses I’ve suffered, or the damage I’ve seen drugs do in this country. Have a nice day.


      • Did I say I know all your history? I only know of your work on this page. If you have written about the DARK side of drug use, then I stand corrected. But most of your work here seems to be cheerleading for drug use, and not just psychedelics. Don’t be so sensitive, man! Jeez… Oh, and still waiting to hear why you don’t call out Doblin for his association with Norquist. Crickets….


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