There is no denying that our society has a toxic relationship with drugs. Drug abuse is extremely common, yet many people are afraid to speak openly about these issues. Despite increased national attention to opioid overdose deaths, many service providers are untrained and uncomfortable working with clients who use drugs. As sexual assault advocates, we know that the relationship between drug use and sexual assault is complex. People who use drugs may be at increased risk for being sexually assaulted, as perpetrators target drug users, who are vulnerable when intoxicated and less likely to be believed by the criminal justice system. People who use drugs are shunned, shamed, and ignored. Perpetrators take advantage of their societal invisibility. After an assault, survivors may turn to drugs as a coping mechanism for the trauma they have experienced. Survivors who use drugs may face increased barriers in reporting their assault and in seeking services. It is our job as providers to make sure that we are accommodating all survivors, including those who use drugs.
Harm reduction is a principle and a set of practices based on the foundational belief that people who use drugs are people. They deserve the same dignity, respect, and empathy as any other person. Like sexual assault advocacy, harm reduction works to meet people where they are. Harm reduction acknowledges that we may not be able to eliminate drug use, but we can help people by giving them tools to make their drug use safer. A key thread between harm reduction and sexual assault advocacy is the focus on survival. Sexual assault advocates give survivors tools, such as breathing exercises or new locks on their doors, to help them get through another day. Harm reduction advocates give drug users clean needles or Narcan to help them continue to survive as safely as possible. Both groups have the ultimate goal of empowering others to heal and live full lives through small actions.
Want to learn more about harm reduction? Join LaFASA and harm reduction network Trystereo for a webinar on January 25th at 10:30 on creating safe and nonjudgmental services for survivors who use drugs. Email email@example.com to register.