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The drug dealer said her money wasn’t good enough. Any woman could tell you what that meant.
Sophia, then a 20-something at a New Jersey university, was by herself, trying to buy drugs from a man who was basically a stranger. He refused her cash. Instead, he said, she’d have to use her body.
“I didn’t do that ‘cause I’m not an addict,” she told me this week. “But I can totally see women in less privileged positions falling for that kind of power play.”
One-on-one meetings between women and their drug dealers can potentially be fraught encounters. Locked in an already illegal and secretive situation, women sometimes face unwanted advances, solicitations, and even outright physical threats and rape.
“With dealers, I always felt I had to bring a male friend along and then pay for his stuff in thanks for possibly preventing my rape.”
Sophia, along with several other women who spoke to the Daily Dot, found another way: the Dark Net, where online black markets offer millions of dollars worth of high-quality, illicit drugs.
Buying illegal drugs on the Dark Net—a series of hidden websites accessible only through anonymized networks like Tor—has landed hundreds of people in prison. For women like Sophia, who says she takes security and secrecy online very seriously, it’s the physical dangers right in front of them that loom largest in their minds.
Sophia, who will remain anonymous due to the nature of her activities, discovered Dark Net markets during Silk Road’s heyday. Ross Ulbricht, under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts, created the anonymous website in 2011 using the technologies of Tor and Bitcoin while promoting a radical libertarian-anarchist ideology. He is currently appealing a double life sentence.
Silk Road’s online, anonymous existence meant that one of its chief virtues would be a cutback to the kind of violence that has plagued women and men alike for as long as the drug trade has existed.
Ulbricht—who regularly made charismatic speeches in favor of Silk Road’s revolutionary existence—argued that his invention reduced violence. Scientific research from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) agreed with him, suggesting that markets like Silk Road offered a safer environment for both drug users and dealers.
First, there was the removal of physical interaction between parties, which made violence and theft a lesser threat—though it was certainly not completely removed. Second, there was the eBay-inspired feedback system, which allowed users to warn against impure and potentially dangerous drugs. Due in large part to this innovation, Dark Net-sourced drugs tend to be higher quality in general than their street-bought counterparts.
“This new breed of drug dealer is … likely to be relatively free from the violence typically associated with traditional drug markets,” another academic paper, authored by researchers from the University of Manchester and the University of Montreal, read. “Whereas violence [in the traditional drug economy] was commonly used to gain market share, protect turfs and resolve conflicts, the virtual location and anonymity that the cryptomarket provides reduces or eliminates the need—or even the ability—to resort to violence.”
The researchers were referring to classic drug-war violence like territorial wars and robberies. The quieter but often brutal struggle women face in the drug world seems to have been an afterthought.
Sophia first arrived just looking for a good weed connection but ended up “kind of wild with it” as she tried out the wide selection of substances on offer. When Silk Road was shut down in 2013, she returned to the real world.
Things got messier. She tried apps like Tinder to find connections, searching for profiles with pictures of weed or cocaine and sparking conversation that led to deals. The Tinder drug dealer is common enough these days, but even Sophia acknowledged “it’s incredibly stupid and risky.”
That’s when she found the drug dealers who would demand sex, hit on her, and make unwanted advances. Those things didn’t happen to her male friends, she said, even when they shared the same drug dealer.
“I now exclusively use [Dark Net markets] and no longer have to worry about having my time wasted or physical safety violated, which is nice,” she said. “[Dark Net markets] definitely give you a lot more independence if you’re a girl. With dealers, I always felt I had to bring a male friend along and then pay for his stuff in thanks for possibly preventing my rape. Super lame shit.”
By returning to Dark Net markets, Sophia feels she gained a huge measure of security.
It takes more time and effort to get drugs when she wants them—up to two weeks after an order—but for Sophia and others like her, that’s time well spent.
If you are a victim of sexual assault or want more information on sexual assault, contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.