With the chemsex scene booming, are gay men using drugs to medicate complex issues around sex?
Experts say many men have a ‘sex problem’ and are using drugs as the solution. Traditional treatment methods may not be enough.
Kos’ weekend escalates quickly. He planned to have a quiet few days off work but a couple of drinks and a line of the party drug mephedrone later, he’s ‘slamming’ (injecting) crystal methamphetamine and having sex with multiple men at a stranger’s party. He doesn’t leave until Sunday evening.
The party in question isn’t a traditional gathering. It wasn’t organised weeks in advance on Facebook. It’s a spur of the moment thing, the product of a few messages on the gay dating app Grindr or a chat in a bar.
Chemsex describes the practice of men having sex with other men and using particular substances, normally GHB, crystal methamphetamine and mephedrone, to enhance the experience. GHB is a colourless liquid used in paint strippers. It gives people a sense of euphoria and increases their sex drive but also has a very high overdose rate. Mephedrone is a stimulant which is used in chemsex as an ice-breaker. However, the real drug of choice is crystal methamphetamine, commonly referred to as Tina after the singer Tina Turner.
The scene began roughly 20 years ago but the advent of gay dating apps such as Grindr has caused it to boom in recent years. In London one survey reported that a fifth of gay men have had chemsex at least once in the past five years.
When chemsex makes it into the news it’s normally for the wrong reasons. We’ve seen stories of young men dying from overdosing on GHB and reports that men involved are five times more likely to catch HIV due to sharing needles and engaging in unprotected sex. So what attracts men, who on the whole have functioning lives, to engage in what some see as reckless behaviour?
Peter Sheath manages Addaction’s COAST service in Liverpool which specifically supports men involved in chemsex. He says that for some, traumatic experiences around coming out as gay have caused his clients to become “hyper-vigilant” in their everyday lives. Chemsex “allows people to be what they want to be and do what they want to do with a level of disinhibition and freedom that maybe they don’t have or can’t enjoy without chemicals.”
Stephen is one of those clients. He describes how at school “I used to throw discus for the north of England, I was an athlete, I had a girlfriend, I was one of the most popular lads in my year.” But Stephen knew “there was a hidden camp lad in there”. He started using drugs to “get away from reality”. One night his girlfriend’s friends saw him kissing another man in a bar.
When the news of his sexuality filtered through his peers, many turned on him. They called him gay slurs in the street and he was beaten up on several occasions. He became terrified of leaving the house and his drug use increased because “you don’t want to be sober when you get that shit shouted at you”.
Stephen’s first experience of using substances for sex was drinking GHB. But, after getting a taste of crystal methamphetamine on a trip to London, it became his “mission every Thursday to hunt round for Tina.”
He has experienced low self-esteem, depression and OCD. Yet when he’s “slammed” Tina and is “steaming” off GHB he feels “gorgeous, you’re like Jean Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger and everyone else is below you.”
The reference to two macho movie stars is indicative of another defining feature of the scene. Sheath says that he sees a lot of ingrained “toxic masculinity” among his clients. Characteristics like “having the large penis and being able to sustain an erection, being really fit and hot” are often “more important than anything else”. Kos describes how at a chemsex party “the person doesn’t matter at all. It’s all about what’s below the waist.” Everyone I speak to scoffs at the idea of finding a long-term partner through chemsex.
But people have used substances to initiate and enhance sex for centuries. Is chemsex really that different to people all over the country getting drunk on a Friday night to help find a partner in a bar or club? Both work to remove inhibitions, creating the possibility of engaging in behaviour that the person in question may think twice about if they were sober.
David Stuart is a global LGBT activist who first coined the term chemsex, now an officially recognised word. He argues that chemsex is a “uniquely gay cultural phenomenon as gay men are using specific substances to medicate some complicated issues specifically around gay sex, issues that might include shame associated with gay sex, complications around HIV or negotiating gay-specific online hook-up culture.”
He describes how “society might be accepting of homosexuality when gay men mirror ‘normal’ hetrosexual behaviour, such as getting married or adopting children, but the act of gay sex is still something that many cultures and religions consider to be a thing of disgust, sin or abnormality.”
He says that for many men he has worked with the “spectre of shame” often looms large in the bedroom. It could be the judgement of their family or possibly their religion, coupled with the fear of contracting HIV or living with the virus. For many this has “ruined sex”. They have a sex problem to which the drugs are the solution.
The popularity of crystal methamphetamine reflects Stuart’s position. Cultures of drug use are normally driven by ‘pushing’. Since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act banned doctors from prescribing heroin, shifting sales to the illicit market, the number of heroin users in the UK has spiralled from under 500 to over 250,000. Drug dealers have a huge final incentive to push the drug on people and users often start selling on the side to fund their habit.
Yet crystal methamphetamine is barely used in the UK outside of chemsex. And within the scene the drugs are often provided free of charge by the host of a party. Sometimes they charge an entrance fee to cover costs but they very rarely make a profit.
Its prevalence is due to its unique ability to remove people’s inhibitions while increasing their sexual abilities. Stephen describes how “when I was on drugs I didn’t realise I was human. I didn’t realise if you cut me I bled.” Kos explains feeling like “the hottest guy in the room” when he’s slammed. Under Stuart’s definition engaging in chemsex must achieve these ends. If two men were to smoke cannabis to enhance sex this isn’t chemsex as it wouldn’t disinhibit the men in the same way.
It’s important to note that the majority of men who use substances for sex are able to dabble in the scene while also leading a functional life. They tend to require no more than some harm reduction advice on how to use drugs safely and HIV prevention techniques.
Yet for a minority it can take over their lives. Stephen contracted HIV through sharing a needle and lost his job because he’d go into the office “stinking of mephedrone.” At one stage he was going on week long binges. Kos is on probation at work due to having too many sickness days and admits he hasn’t had sober sex in months.
The first stage in providing support to the people that are struggling is getting them to come forward. Sheath explains that this can be difficult as “you’ve got gay guys who take drugs and both of those worlds are really stigmatised.” He’s delivered training to services across Liverpool on what questions to ask, focusing on issues with sex rather than specifically drug use. He would also like to place harm reduction adverts on Grindr but the app doesn’t make concessions on its astronomical prices. Two adverts, one on a Friday evening and another on Sunday, would cost £6,000.
Observing Sheath’s one to one sessions at the Armistead LGBT centre in Liverpool city centre, it’s clear that, while he works for a drug charity, his work is not confined to substances. One minute he’s giving detailed HIV prevention advice, the next he’s using psychodynamic techniques to help his client understand how early trauma has made him fearful of intimacy. He teaches his clients meditation techniques to help manage their anxiety and is always only one text away. At the end of a session he gives the client a ‘slamming pack’, including clean needles and condoms and gives them a demo in safe injecting. One client also complained of physical symptoms similar to those of Hepatitis C, so Sheath organises for him to be checked by the nurses at the centre immediately.
Sheath’s clients don’t have to follow any kind of stepping stone programme and abstinence isn’t always the end goal. He says that setting targets would mean he might “reach a point where I’d have to be saying that this relationship is due to end and many of the men I support would see this as another rejection in a long line of rejections.”
Instead he sees himself as a “therapeutic friend” to his clients. “I represent somebody that they can trust, somebody that isn’t going to judge them, somebody that is prepared to enter into their world.” He laughs at the notion that not focusing on abstinence legitimises dangerous behaviour and instead maintains that the relationships he has developed are sincere and intimate. “If I’m coming at it through targets or protocols is Kos going to listen to me? He’s probably not.”
But Addaction’s COAST service is the charity’s only service tailored specifically to chemsex in the UK. Stuart is extremely sceptical of large charities offering orthodox drug treatment to this group in order to get “bums on seats”, rather than following COAST’s example and treating chemsex as a unique issue. He’s adamant that gay men won’t engage directly with traditional drug and addiction services as they don’t see themselves as having a drug problem. Many lead glamorous lives and would balk at the thought of sitting in a lobby waiting for an appointment next to a traditional opiate or Spice user.
Instead he advocates a “three pronged approach”, comprising of sexual health services and LBGTQ activists in the foreground with drug charities “only intervening to offer harm reduction services such as needle exchange, safer injecting advice and support for people who develop a serious dependency on the drugs.”
He is also hesitant to send gay men who engage in chemsex to a rehab. “Despite learning some brilliant relapse prevention techniques, and benefitting from some important therapy, gay men emerge from rehab to find themselves home alone, isolated, horny, with Grindr and drugs available on their phone. Nothing they learned in rehab fully prepared or equipped them for that scenario.”
Stuart believes that for the gay men who struggle with chemsex, their future liberation rests on a cultural shift which de-stigmatises gay sex. He’s adamant that this cannot be a “token approach”. It must be led by the gay community, those who understand it, speak the language and are bound up in the struggle.
Sheath has a mantra, taken from an Australian indigenous activist, that guides his work. “If you’ve come here to help me you’re wasting your time. If you’ve come because your future liberation is bound up with mine then maybe we can talk.”
If you or someone you love needs help or support, reach out. You can chat to a trained advisor at addaction.org.uk.