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Rethinking risk: gender and injection drug-related HIV risk among female sex workers and their non-commercial partners along the Mexico-U.S. border.

  • Author(s): Syvertsen, Jennifer L
  • Robertson, Angela M
  • Strathdee, Steffanie A
  • Martinez, Gustavo
  • Rangel, M Gudelia
  • Wagner, Karla D
  • et al.

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Studies of injection drug-using couples suggest a gendered performance of risk in which men exert greater control over drug use and render their female partners vulnerable to HIV infection and other negative health outcomes. This study assesses gender roles in injection drug use as practiced among female sex workers and their intimate male partners within a risk environment marked by rapid socioeconomic changes.


We draw on quantitative surveys, semi-structured interviews, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted as part of cohort study of HIV/STI risk among female sex workers and their intimate, non-commercial partners along the Mexico-U.S. border. This study employed descriptive statistics and inductive analyses of transcripts and field notes to examine practices related to drug procurement, syringe sharing, and injection assistance among couples in which both partners reported injecting drugs in the past 6 months.


Among 156 couples in which both partners injected drugs (n=312), our analyses revealed that women's roles in drug use were active and multidimensional, and both partners' injection risk practices represented embodied forms of cooperation and compassion. Women often earned money to purchase drugs and procured drugs to protect their partners from the police. Sharing drugs and syringes and seeking injection assistance were common among couples due to drug market characteristics (e.g., the use of "black tar" heroin that clogs syringes and damages veins). Both women and men provided and received injection assistance, which was typically framed as caring for the partner in need of help.


Our mixed methods study suggests that in certain risk environments, women are more active participants in injection-related practices than has often been revealed. This participation is shaped by dynamic relationship and structural factors. Our suggestion to consider gendered injection risk as a nuanced and relational process has direct implications for future research and interventions.

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