What Is Chemsex?Isabel Freire
The opinion of…
David Stuart is recognised as the foremost expert on chemsex, having tailored and developed the world’s first chemsex support services that remain models for public health organisations globally. Manages the ChemSex support services at 56 Dean Street (an NHS sexual health clinic in central London). David is a writer, researcher, campaigner, and his work was featured in the 2015 VICE UK documentary “Chemsex”.
Dezember 4th 2017
Chemsex is a word that describes the use of specific recreational drugs by gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM), specifically for the purposes of sexual arousal.
Those drugs are crystal methamphetamine (“tina”, “meth”, “ice”, “crystal”), mephedrone (“meph”, “drone”, “meow meow”) and GHB/GBL (“G”, “Gina”). Collectively, these three are referred to as “chems” (other drugs, including alcohol, might be a part of the chemical repertoire, but crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and GHB/GBL are the chemsex-defining drugs that are associated with specific sexual behaviour).
Despite some flagrant mainstream media reports that have confused chemsex with the use of any drug (including alcohol) used by any population in sexual contexts, chemsex is a word that specifically relates to a particular cultural phenomenon that is affecting gay communities around the world. That phenomenon is the product of some idiosyncrasies unique to modern gay culture; they include some widespread proliferation and availability of certain recreational drugs via online gay sexual networking platforms (better known as “hook-up” sites, or sex-Apps; the most commonly-known of these is Grindr). The chemsex phenomenon is also a product of the influence this international sexual/technological revolution had on gay men’s concepts of relationships, intimacy and sexual recreation. And of course, one cannot ignore the significance of chemsex emerging as a phenomenon during a particularly impactful time in gay cultural history; that being the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has been so devastating to generations of gay men, in regard to their understanding of sexual wellbeing and identity.
Understanding gay culture, and specifically the complexities of gay sex in modern times, is crucial to understanding the chemsex phenomenon. It is also crucial to understanding and empathising with the person engaging in chemsex. Although a lot of people use chems purely because they feel good, a great many more use them to medicate some complex psychosexual issues associated with gay sex. Those might include shame about gay sex practices or fantasies born of internalised concepts of disgust inherited from family, religious or social environments and influences. They might include issues to do with high expectations about body image or sexual performance. They might include concepts of masculinity, camp and femininity that might be acceptable in a Gay Pride march, but a source of internalised shame or rejection in the bedroom. Fear of rejection can be a powerful motivator for chem use; inclusion and disinhibition within a sexually successful community can be highly important for an isolated gay man seeking community and inclusion after a childhood of secrets, sexual shame and the ever-present potential for rejection.
These are just a few of many reasons people might seek chemical disinhibition for sex. There are many more; many of them unique to the gay male experience, and many others more generic. To summarise the most common reasons; life as a single, sexually active gay man seeking love, and sex and connection in modern gay communities requires a specific skill set that includes:
- an awareness of (and an affection for) one’s own vulnerabilities, given some of the emotional consequences of growing up gay in a climate of societal homophobia.
- an understanding of one’s sexual and emotional needs in the climate of modern gay hook-up culture.
- the ability and courage to communicate those sexual and emotional needs via online sites, using an emoji, a limited number of abbreviations, and an avatar.
- a robustness to handle the trolling and rejections that are part of online hook-up culture.
- a robust set of boundaries and/or harm-reduction information in regard to invitations/temptations to use chems.
People use different drugs for different purposes.
It’s also important to understand the uniqueness of chems, in comparison to other recreational drugs and alcohol. People use different drugs for different purposes. And different drugs serve those purposes differently. A person using heroin for instance is unlikely to be using that drug to go out dancing or partying, or looking for sex. Heroin serves a very distinct purpose; heroin is a great comforter, a great way to dissociate from chronic self-loathing or unmanageable emotions. Heroin can make a person numb to the effects of trauma.
Around the world, public health organisations and healthcare providers, as well as NGOs, activists, artists and researchers have rallied to develop responses, awareness and dialogue around chemsex. Gay communities have responded brilliantly as well, incorporating chemsex into popular culture and the arts, into Drag performances and theatre. These community responses have created safe spaces for the complex issues associated with chemsex to be explored, for stigmas to be busted and shame to be banished
Ecstasy is more of a party drug. A person on ecstasy feels emotionally safe, and particularly empathic toward other people’s experiences or truths. This state allows for appreciation of music, colour, the sharing of emotions. Two people having sex on ecstasy will be sure to kiss a lot, feel very connected. They are likely to be incredibly interested in each other’s life stories, and find a great deal of powerful identification in each other’s stories. A great deal of trust and warmth will exist within this connection, and each will want the absolute best for each other while under the influence of ecstasy.
Chems are different. GHB/GBL is a solvent that works as a relaxant/depressant, in a similar way to alcohol. It is the cause of approximately one overdose death per month in London, as well as being highly physically addictive, responsible for some potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. In a chemsex cocktail, “G” is used to counterbalance the very “speedy” stimulating effects of methamphetamine and mephedrone. Crystal meth and mephedrone are strong stimulants with powerful disinhibiting qualities. Methamphetamine releases three times more dopamine than any other drug in existence can do, creating a high that sheds all inhibitions, and switches off our filter for what may or may not be “appropriate” behaviour. (This effect varies person to person.) A feeling of being invulnerable to harm overcomes the user, and though it’s difficult to explain why, gay men experience the drug high as a powerful aphrodisiac, and using it for that specific purpose, almost universally. Heterosexual people, less so. It’s hypothesised that some gay men experience a particular inhibition around gay sexual behaviour, which is then set free by the drug. The dopamine release is incredibly satisfying, stimulating, and confidence-giving. A person who hates and harshly-judges their own naked reflection in the mirror when sober, will see their own attractiveness and sexiness easily while under the influence of methamphetamine; that’s also true of its’ similar (but slightly less powerful) cousin mephedrone. A constant, insatiable drive for greater stimulation begins; more people, more drugs, more sex, more risk, more pornography, more stimulation, greater satisfaction, greater risk, more extreme pornography, more extreme sex… The high is less about empathising with others, or sharing life stories, but more about the constant pushing of boundaries in the search for greater stimulation, while the dopamine receptors are flooded.
It is that particular drug high that defines chemsex. These three specific drugs became popular amongst gay men in cities around the world that hosted large gay communities, practically replacing ecstasy and cocaine overnight as preferred drugs of choice. This happened at the same time that sex-Apps became commonly available on gay men’s smartphones. It is a substance use/sexual/technological revolution that arrived in the middle of a devastating HIV epidemic, and at a time when gays, lesbians or Queer people are only just finding their place in societies after centuries of shame, bigotry and disentitlement.
It’s been a difficult few decades for gay men. And we can see the manifestation of that right now, in our sexual health clinics, our gay men’s support services. In our mental health units. On our gay sex Apps. And I’m sorry to say in our morgues.
That is chemsex. It is a challenging syndemic of circumstances, behaviours, pleasures and harms. There are indeed some uncomfortable truths that ChemSex raises for gay communities. It raises uncomfortable questions about the role sex plays in the lives of gay men and within gay “scenes”. The very gay “scenes” created by a generation of gay men who fought through an AIDS epidemic and fought so defiantly and proudly for equal rights, may not be the most conducive to the wellbeing of a younger generation of gay men, dealing with different risks, stigmas and realities. New technologies. A generation who seek a different definition of sexual liberation, identity or community – and this might be an upsetting truth.
Despite all this, there is reason to be hopeful; and precedent. Around the world, public health organisations and healthcare providers, as well as NGOs, activists, artists and researchers have rallied to develop responses, awareness and dialogue around chemsex. Gay communities have responded brilliantly as well, incorporating chemsex into popular culture and the arts, into Drag performances and theatre. These community responses have created safe spaces for the complex issues associated with chemsex to be explored, for stigmas to be busted and shame to be banished. It’s important to remember, and to have faith, that gay communities have shown historical resilience and genius at banding together in crises – the last 30 years are evidence of this. Few communities could have survived the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people intact. Yet gay men and communities are still thriving, bursting with colour, community and activism at Pride events; still looking out for each other and tackling challenging issues through culture and the arts. There are certainly new challenges to be faced, as ChemSex becomes more prevalent in cities around the world. But if any community has demonstrated time and again the guts and determination to tackle issues head on and come out winning, it is the brilliant survivors, the indefatigable gays. I trust too, that the communities that make up the diverse disciplines of Sexology will be natural allies during this challenging and difficult time for gay communities.