Chemsex: the self destructive behaviours become the whole story. Credit: Shutterstock.
Have you heard about the ‘rise of chemsex’? During chemsex parties, men who have sex with men (MSM) take the recreational drugs GHB, mephadrone and crystal meth to fuel group sex. These parties can last more than a day.
Two weeks ago I went to an event organised to discuss chemsex in Soho, London, in which someone compared it to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. My jaw dropped. Although well meaning, this comparison is historically inaccurate and does a tremendous disservice to the memories of all the people who died such gruesome deaths at that time.
Unfortunately, this is not the only hysterical note being hit in the recent outpouring of discussion on the chemsex phenomenon. Amongst much of the good work being carried out that deals with the harms associated with chemsex, a moral panic is beginning to take shape, itself reminiscent of the 1980s, which is unwittingly painting a homophobic picture of gay men and our sexual lives.
What began with a 2013 Vice.com article has been followed this year by the Vice film ‘Chemsex’; a Radio 4 documentary which has been linked to a long BBC news feature; two plays; and multiple items in the Guardian and the Observer, the Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard and Attitude magazine.
Common themes have emerged across this coverage. That chemsex is on the rise amongst gay men. That most, if not all, gay men’s engagement with chemsex is a form of self-harm rooted in internalised homophobia and the resulting inability to form meaningful relationships with other gay men. That chemsex frequently leads to physical and mental health issues and sometimes death. That chemsex is linked to the recent increase in HIV transmission in the UK and therefore poses a public health crisis.
Like all media debates that verge on moral panics, this particular version of chemsex is partial, distorted and, on occasion, hysterical. It not only draws on a familiar repertoire of homophobic tropes for its coherence but also on some pretty flimsy ‘science’ for its legitimacy. From all the data that has so far been collected on chemsex since it was identified as a trend amongst MSM at the beginning of this decade, we can definitely say that chemsex is a growing phenomenon, but one that only partially resembles the image that has recently emerged in the media.
There are a number of reasons why.
Why have a particular cohort of gay men stopped taking certain party drugs on the dancefloors of Vauxhall and started taking others in these different, often sexualised, settings?
The first is that although chemsex is on the rise, there is no evidence to suggest that it is on the rise amongst Britain’s gay community as a whole. According to the ‘The Chemsex Study’, the most rigorous and comprehensive study on chemsex in Britain to date, chemsex is on the rise in London, more specifically in the boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, Vauxhall and its surrounding areas. There has been some recent evidence that chemsex takes place in gay urban centres like Manchester and Brighton, but on a much smaller scale than in London.
What can be most reasonably deduced from this is that similar numbers of men who used to take cocaine, ecstacy and other party drugs on the dance floors of Vauxhall gay clubs like Fire and Orange in the 2000s are now taking primarily mephadrone and GHB, but also some crystal meth, in more sexualised ways in private accommodation and gay saunas. This is a subtle but important difference to the representation the British media is currently constructing.
The question to ask about chemsex is not “Why are more gay men engaging in it?” but the more precise “Why have a particular cohort of gay men stopped taking certain party drugs on the dancefloors of Vauxhall and started taking others in these different, often sexualised, settings?”
This question both enables a much tighter focus on who is actually engaging in chemsex, as well as widening the frame through which it can be understood.
The answers to this question are more complicated than the over-simplistic reasons given in the mainstream media. These include the gentrification of Vauxhall and its commercial gay scene; the unsustainably high cost of living across the capital; the increased cost of much gay nightlife; the normalisation of precarious employment arrangements as well as the cuts on local community services; the issues migrants face (many residents of these boroughs are migrants) when they move into these sorts of conditions.
Ultimately chemsex should be explored as a particularly intense way for groups of people to attempt to form intimate, if transient, collective bonds during an historical moment when neoliberal social and economic policies are making collective care impossible.
But this is not the account given in the media. The most common explanation of chemsex is that gay men have internalised homophobia in ways that make it difficult for them to make meaningful connections with other gay men and cause them to engage in self-destructive relationships with drugs and sex. There is some evidence to suggest this is the case for some of the men who engage in chemsex. But this is a very limited way to make sense of any gay man’s life experience (and not all MSM define as gay men).
Gay men are not only gay men – we have different class, ethnic, national, generational, regional and gender identities, each of which will intersect with the different ways we live out our sexualities in variable ways. This opens us up to a whole range of other structures of oppression aside from homophobia, including racism, xenophobia, transphobia, not to mention the hostile economic environment created by neoliberal austerity, which chemsex might plausibly be seen as an attempt to negotiate.
If chemsex can be seen as an attempt to negotiate any of these oppressive structures, who is to say that it is necessarily always self-destructive? No doubt it, like many different types of human behaviours, can be.
The problem, when it comes to both the scientific and media representations of chemsex is that the self-destructive behaviours become the whole story. In terms of scientific representations this is because, firstly, current sexual health research agendas are rightly dominated by HIV prevention and harm and risk reduction. A byproduct of this is that chemsex research is only ever framed in relation to harm, risk and HIV transmission, as opposed to the various other sorts of complex ways people might engage with it.
This problem is deepened by the fact that most of the first hand accounts generated in chemsex research is from people who present it as a problem at sexual health clinics. This all affects the representation in the media, which often selects the most horrifying and harmful behaviours associated with chemsex in order to create click-bait and shift content. The fact that MSM might have sex on drugs simply because, as academic Kane Race puts it, “it feels nice” is a perspective that its persistently under-researched and under-represented in the dominant discourses on chemsex.
The final problem with mainstream representations of chemsex is its connection to HIV transmission. There has not been enough evidence collected yet to establish a direct causal link between chemsex and the recent rise of HIV transmission. Our common sense understanding of how drink and drugs work to disinhibit our behaviours would suggest that one naturally follows the other. However there is little consensus in the academic field of risk taking in sexual health over this issue, with about half of the studies saying there might be a connection and the other half saying there is none.
There has not been enough evidence collected yet to establish a direct causal link between chemsex and the recent rise of HIV transmission.
What The Chemsex Study has provided evidence of is ‘sero-sorting’ at chemsex parties, whereby men disclose their HIV status to each other and will decide to have protected sex or not accordingly. This is an imperfect practice. The times when HIV transmission can be connected to an unprotected sexual encounter at a chemsex party, it is difficult to establish whether this has happened because of the drugs and multiple partners, or whether those men would have engaged in unprotected sex anyway.
The recent rise in HIV transmission rates is more likely to do with the poor quality of gay sex education available in Britain (as well as in the various countries that MSM migrate here from) plus the diminished horror of HIV in the west because of the widespread use of more successful retroviral treatments over the past decade.
I am not a ‘chemsex-denier’. Chemsex clearly provides very real problems for some MSM, and we need more health services like those provided at 56 Dean St, Antidote and Afterparty as well community initiatives like Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs and a Change of Scene, that address the very specific problems that different types of MSM face in relation to chemsex.
But what we also need is a calm, measured, and rigorously researched approach to chemsex to really understand not only the very specific nature of the problems it poses for a particular cohort of MSM, but also a real grasp on what the more complex engagements with chemsex do for these men as they live their lives within the specific historical conditions of neoliberal London.
A shorter version of this article was first published by the Independent on 25 November 2015.