Meth and Sex

Tweakers, straight and gay, are obsessed with sex. The result is that pregnancy and HIV-infection rates among meth-heads are increasing at alarming rates

Nothing about Theresa's Noxzema-fresh face, curvy body, and just-washed auburn hair reveals the hell she put herself through for more than 20 years.

"I know I don't look like it now," Theresa says, sipping an iced chai tea at Willow House, a downtown Phoenix coffee house, "but I did some really bad shit."

She's years past her brief career as a second-grade schoolteacher, when she counted down the hours until she'd get home to do more tweak. That lasted just one semester, before Theresa began dancing at a strip club in central Phoenix, where she graduated from the diet pills she'd been using since she was 14 to smoking the street meth her brother was cooking up.

Stop AIDS Project's Jason Riggs refills display cases throughout San Francisco for the group's "Crystal Clear" campaign. A Stop AIDS survey says meth use by gays there has decreased by almost 50 percent.
Stuart Goldstein
Stop AIDS Project's Jason Riggs refills display cases throughout San Francisco for the group's "Crystal Clear" campaign. A Stop AIDS survey says meth use by gays there has decreased by almost 50 percent.
County health investigator Steven Varnadore visits a gay bathhouse in Phoenix once a week to perform free HIV screenings.
Peter Scanlon
County health investigator Steven Varnadore visits a gay bathhouse in Phoenix once a week to perform free HIV screenings.

After grinding poles in Phoenix strip clubs, Theresa scored a contract to work in the South Pacific as a stripper, for $5,000 a week. There, she began smuggling "glass" -- one of a dozen street names for high-grade crystal meth -- back and forth between Guam and the Philippines.

She came back to the Valley, worked as a high-cost hooker for an escort agency, made a couple dozen porno films, and never stopped tweaking.

"I was always high, and I was always having sex," says Theresa, who -- like the other meth users in this story -- asked that her last name not be used. "The two just went hand-in-hand."

Not just sex.

But the kind of uninhibited, disconnected, sometimes violent, and often unprotected sex that tweakers obsess about, hunting for orgasms as they would a gram of meth.

"We've compared meth to cocaine, opiates and alcohol, and have found much more of a connection between sex and meth than those other drugs," says Richard Rawson, a researcher and associate director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Program at the University of California-Los Angeles. "It increases sexual pleasure, it increases sexual activity, and it increases the extreme kinds of high-risk behavior that lead to HIV and other STDs. More so than any other drug."

Theresa is sitting inside a smoke-filled room at the Willow House today with two fellow ex-tweakers, Randy and Robert. The three are here to share a graphic, cautionary tale. Just 20 feet behind the coffee house is a meeting hall, where their 12-step recovery program -- which they prefer remains unnamed so they're not seen as speaking for the group as a whole -- gathers weekly.

The stories pour with the coffee.

As an escort, Theresa says, she once "double-fisted a guy" while high on meth.

She worked in a dominatrix's dungeon, and allowed her clients to hang her upside down with her arms tied behind her back until she passed out. Then they had their way with her.

She liked to smoke meth -- or sometimes "slam" it (intravenously) -- while a trick "fucked me from behind," she says.

And when she wasn't "working," she still needed sex -- from her boyfriends, girlfriends, and from herself.

"I would masturbate for eight hours straight," she says. "I remember once that the dildo I was using got so hot, I had to wear an oven mitt."

But such occasions were rare. There was almost always someone willing to pay for the pleasure.

"I've had sex with over 2,000 men, at least. I can't say exactly how many," she says. "And most of them were unprotected."

Unlike other narcotics -- namely cocaine, universally regarded as the sex drug of the 1970s and '80s -- crystal meth makes women just as horny as men. It turns them into raging sexaholics, just like their male counterparts -- gay and straight -- looking to live out the most deviant of their sexual fantasies.

"Our data shows there's almost a negative reaction to sex among women using cocaine. But with meth, it's very powerful and positive," Rawson says.

Theresa was lucky. She caught herpes, and a bad case of crabs once. But she's never tested positive for gonorrhea, syphilis or HIV.

She's been pregnant, though -- a lot -- but never had kids. Theresa ended up having 12 abortions, and doubts she could ever get pregnant again.

Officials at Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona estimate that the number of abortions had by meth users has quadrupled in recent years.

"We get these women coming to us for an abortion who can barely get through their appointments because they need to hit the pipe," says Joseph Feldman, Planned Parenthood's director of counseling and education.

And one state employee who works closely with Child Protective Services calls meth a fertility drug. "Meth moms are having baby after baby after baby," she says. (See "Ice, Ice, Baby" for more details about meth moms.)

"The meth moms trade sex for drugs, and contraception and prenatal care are not always the highest priority," says the state employee. "There's a bit of a baby boom among women using meth."

As reports of HIV infections increase in Maricopa County, local health officials say widespread meth use is to blame. The meth problem in the Valley's gay community, where most of Arizona's HIV-positive cases have been reported, has been pervasive for years.

Yet even with more than 40 percent of local HIV patients reporting that they are also meth users -- significant because tweakers are much less likely to use protection, HIV-positive or not -- there's been no significant public health campaign in Maricopa County warning of the dangers of having sex while tweaking.

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