The death of pop star Whitney Houston resulted in more than 2.5 million tweets in just the first hour after her passing was announced, the proliferation of numerous fan tribute videos, and most regrettably, the resurgence of the term “crack whore.” I personally hate the term and never use it along with others like “crackhead” and “crackish.” My self-inflicted ban comes from the belief that being addicted to crack is not something to be taken lightly. Furthermore, “crack whore,” a term reserved for women offering their bodies for a taste of the drug, has the added bonus of misogyny and slut-shaming that our society employs so well. No, I cannot clap to that.
Just last week, radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou of the “John and Ken Show” were suspended from LA’s KFI AM 640 for calling Whitney Houston a “crack ho” as part of their usual offensive schtick. There was plenty of outrage to go around for the shock jocks as calls for accountability rang out. While the hosts offered an apology, I was left wondering who was going to sound the call to the rest of us – many of whom were all too eager to laugh at a “crack whore” joke about Whitney Houston or anyone else just two weeks ago.
Addiction specialists, psychologists, legal theorists, and others have been debating whether drug addiction is ultimately a choice or a disease for centuries. This is an important distinction because where there is choice, one can be assigned blame and held accountable. Where addiction is characterized as a sickness, people are less inclined to assign full accountability and instead offer sympathy and aid. Advancements in science and medicine have allowed us to take a closer look at the mechanics of addiction, resulting in the official U.S. government policy that drug addiction is a disease, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
We now know that while the initial decision to use drugs is voluntary, drug addiction is a disease of the brain that compels a person to become singularly obsessed with obtaining and abusing drugs despite their many adverse health and life consequences. Research has revealed that addiction affects the brain circuits involved in reward, motivation, memory, and inhibitory control. When these circuits are disrupted, so is a person’s capacity to freely choose not to use drugs, even when it means losing everything they used to value. In fact, the inability to stop is the essence of addiction, like riding in a car with no brakes.
Even those inclined to agree with the above might point to the drug abuser’s initial choice as reason enough to laugh at their expense. I suppose the argument goes that they put themselves in that position, but being intimately familiar with the many facetss of crack production, sale, use, addiction, and recovery, I can tell you that it’s just not funny.
The image of the “crack whore/ho” is especially tragic. According to Urban Dictionary, a “crack whore” is someone who sells her body in exchange for drugs or money to feed her addiction. As it’s more broadly understood, a “crack whore” is a woman who neglects her children, reveals her body while letting it waste away, and acts “crazy” in the street – all due to drug addiction. Wow. That’s so hilarious.
If we can accept the fact that drug addiction is a disease and that crack addiction – notably difficult to kick – has had a deleterious impact on our community for nearly three decades, how can we continue to be so flippant? Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism that tells us it’s better to laugh at a seemingly insurmountable problem than it is to face reality. We seem to have done the same with AIDS and intimate partner violence.
The public has been asked to respect the deaths and families of celebrities like Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse by focusing on their work instead of their well-publicized struggles with addiction. I agree with that request, but I do think it’s time we had a more frank discussion about the way we view drug addicts and how those views might impact individuals in need of support and services. Just like negative stereotypes about black women as whores or Jezebels might impact policies effecting social services and access to resources, negative views toward those suffering from the disease of addiction can impact policies regarding treatment programs, criminal and family law and healthcare. Creating a caricature out of addiction through the use of language like “crack whore” is not just a bad joke when employed by a couple of shock jocks out for attention, it’s a harmful image we all uphold through our complicit giggles.