Pharmacology, physiology and performance: occupational drug use and HIV risk among female entertainment and sex workers in Cambodia.
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In Cambodia, HIV prevalence among female entertainment and sex workers (FESW) is up to twenty times higher than in the general population. Use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) has been associated with increased risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in key populations, including FESW. While one in four Cambodian FESW report recent ATS use, little attention has been paid to how the occupational contexts of sex work shape patterns of use. Currently, no HIV prevention interventions target ATS use in this population.We conducted in-depth interviews with FESW (n = 30) with the goal of exploring experiences and motivations for ATS use and informing the development of a conditional cash transfer (CCT) intervention designed to reduce ATS use and HIV risk. Interviews were conducted and transcribed in Khmer and translated into English. Interview narratives were read and re-read and emerging themes reviewed and refined to develop an initial coding scheme. Data were formally coded using both open and axial coding to clarify and consolidate initial themes.The most common driver of ATS use among FESW was increased functionality. ATS was seen as a performance enhancer, acting as an appetite suppressant and enabling women to meet the physiological demands of sex work, including long working hours, multiple clients and extended sexual transactions. While our results are consistent with studies linking ATS use to heightened sexual risk, via unprotected and/or prolonged sex, for women in the current study, the negative consequences of ATS use were outweighed by perceived functional benefits.FESW in Cambodia harness the pharmacological properties of ATS to meet the physiological demands of sex work in a context of limited economic opportunities. There is an urgent need to both provide Cambodian women with options for income generation that do not risk their health and to better regulate the conditions of sex work to provide safer working environments. Structural and economic interventions, including CCT programmes, combined with awareness and enforcement of sex workers' rights, are also necessary to facilitate harm reduction and occupational health and work safety within the Cambodian sex and entertainment industry.