In recent years, Australian researchers' interest in the use of performance and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDs) has grown, in part because PIEDs use is thought to be on the rise. In much existing research, PIED consumers are described as a new and unique cohort of service users, with distinct needs, expectations and views regarding service provision, harm reduction and risk. There is some evidence that policymakers and service providers have been unsure of how best to support this seemingly distinct cohort. Are their needs different to those of people who use other illicit drugs, or the same? How so? And how might we design services with these similarities and/or differences in mind? As these questions suggest, understandings of PIED use and our efforts to address it are often heavily reliant on comparisons, including between people who consume different kinds of drugs. This article engages with the central role of these comparisons in shaping understandings of PIED-related service delivery and design, and considers what is at stake in the drawing of comparisons. We explore these issues through an analysis of 20 interviews with Australian healthcare professionals conducted for a major research project on PIEDs. As we explain, comparison was a tool commonly used by many of our participants - a way of thinking through who PIED consumers ‘are’ and what they need. Drawing on the work of philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (2011) and an application in research on the politics of comparison in drug treatment (Fraser & Ekendahl, 2018), we argue that such comparisons can work to reproduce normalising ideals and flawed hierarchies, with PIED consumption positioned as less desirable than ‘mainstream’ ways of being and living, but more desirable than other forms of drug use. The comparisons we identify may also concretise or naturalise differences between consumers, positioning difference as somehow linked to the individual attributes or capacities of people who use different kinds of drugs, thus foreclosing questions about the political contexts in which comparisons are made and which give them their meaning. In concluding, we encourage other ways of thinking about difference, including whether the differences identified by our participants might be shaped by forces beyond those raised in their accounts, and what this means for both future policy responses to PIED consumption and future PIED research.
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