Wine, chocolate, cigarettes: psychoactive substances have long been trappings of romance. As far back as high school English, I was instructed that the definition of romanticism owes a debt to the Shelleys and their opiates. For lovers who make substance use a routine rather than a romantic ritual, the days of wine and roses turn tragic. Psychologists have other words for this dynamic: codependency, misplaced loyalty, marital dysfunction.*
Some anthropologists take issue with the way substance-using couples are depicted in mainstream public health scholarship: “While other people have lovers and spouses,” wrote Nina Glick Schiller, “drug users have only ‘sex partners.’” People who use drugs—whether in couples or subcultural social networks—are seen as a special population at greater risk for contracting and transmitting infectious diseases such as AIDS or hepatitis. Neutral scientific terms like “sex partners” are designed, at least in part, to de-stigmatize at-risk populations by objectively describing pathways of disease transmission that might necessitate public health interventions.
But even before the AIDS crisis reinvigorated the perception of substance-using sex partners as vectors of disease, self-help and social science literature depicted the relationships as degrading.