Let’s talk Chemsex
Posted on 23 Aug 2018

The life of a thirtysomething gay - The Stephen Spinks Column

Do you do chems?’  ‘What?’ ‘Chems’, ’slammin’? ‘Er…’?

I don’t know about you, but as I flick through Grindr and Scruff, I’m asked whether I want to join a party. Having moved back into the city over 18 months ago, I get this question more than ever, like when I stay in London. It wasn’t something I came across living out in the sticks. As far as I’m concerned, each to their own. Everyone is entitled to make choices about what they do, and chemsex is just one more in the long line of highs people are free to explore. It’s just that chemsex is not my thing, and I’m more than happy to pass. I don’t feel the pressure or the need to do it, and I guess I’m pretty comfortable with that.
But for someone who’s not doing it, what is it? Truly? What’s with the parties, and why should Public Health England be so concerned about it? Chemsex, after all, is not new, having emerged from international cities like London, New York, San Francisco, Berlin and elsewhere since the clock struck 12 at the Millennium. Hedonistic chemsex culture now abounds, finding its way around the globe. Yet for the best part of a decade since 2000, it flew under the radar, being only a small part of sub-gay culture, enjoyed by the few. In 2018, its growing presence is now felt in all major cities, in part made more evident through apps like Grindr and Scruff.  


The combination of drugs and gay sex is far from new, of course - our history is written in partnership. The party drugs of gay culture - cocaine, MDMA, ecstasy -have always been the go-to drugs of choice, the ones to blow the mind through intensified feeling and emotion. You didn’t need to search hard on a night out for someone to share with - and no wonder, given that they facilitate connection, belonging and a sense of intense pleasure. On ‘E’, your inhibitions are thrown aside and the sex is amazing, as you both share in that moment - a deep, albeit artificial, connection. Anyone who’s taken ecstasy will know it’s the empathy drug. Yet despite the high, it’s relatively fleeting. Chemsex, however, is not.  


The chemsex drugs of choice are different. ‘Tina’ (crystal meth), mepthedrone, GHB and GBL make up its canon, and poly-use of them makes for a heady cocktail. These drugs, the chemsex-specific drugs, produce a very different type of high, raising the body’s dopamine levels. More than any other drug, it rages through the body, giving an intense and powerful feeling. Those on Tina and other chemsex drugs push their boundaries and need more of everything. The intense high is so overwhelming that it typically lasts for three days.


As the body demands intense stimulation, boundaries get pushed. Sex becomes more intense. The need to fuck other guys grows rapidly; two becomes four, and four quickly becomes a party. The sex is more extreme - rough, bare and evermore risky. Often the guys ‘slam’, preferring to inject rather than smoke their meths, to get a more instant high. Before chemsex, typically we gays didn’t take drugs by injection, but the rise of Tina and mepthedrone has seen this trend steadily change. When you’re high, clean needles are naturally not a priority, and with that comes all the associated risks. It’s no surprise that with the increase of slammin, bareback and rougher sex placing guys at risk of physical injury, the rate of HIV and other STI infections is rapidly increasing among those who are taking part in chemsex.


So why worry unduly? Guys are free to make their own choices, and who are we to judge? Well judge we should not, but sexual health clinics, especially those in large cities around the globe, are worried - and without judgement - because a rise in HIV and STI infections is bad news for all of us. Chemsex drugs are powerful and can have unintended side-effects. Unlike the party drugs of the past, chemsex drugs are resulting in higher rates of addiction, overdose, drug-induced psychosis - especially when guys are on crystal meth - and all the problems associated with a lack of sleep over a sustained period of time. Lives are being broken, and in ever-increasing numbers.  


Also, with the major advances in HIV treatment and prevention, some of these amazing gains are at risk of being unwittingly undermined. The availability of PREP, to prevent HIV infection, is compromised if it’s not taken to a strict regime. Guys having chemsex are at risk of not taking their PREP or HIV meds properly, and are therefore at greater risk of HIV infection or passing on the virus to others. Equally, those taking no precautions at all are at an even greater risk. Rates of infection are exploding.


Guys may do chemsex a couple of times a month, then more often as time goes by. They are not typically seen as in a high-risk group, like, say, a heroine user is. The signs are more discrete. Guys contracting HIV while doing chemsex are most likely themselves unaware for quite some time that their status has changed. And the time of seroconversion, the point at which a person has the virus in the first few weeks, is when they’re most infectious. The stats indicate guys doing chemsex may have sex with between 30 and 60 men in that period. The possible symptoms of HIV  infection, including fever, sweating, a mild rash or cold, are often the side-effects or come-down of chemsex drugs, so will mostly go unnoticed. We are heading for a perfect storm.


So what should we do? Well, for starters we need to talk more openly about chemsex - and without all the negative slut-shaming baggage that usually comes with it. We need to understand that chemsex is a choice, and those who take part in it are free to make up their own minds. But we should also highlight the risks and provide opportunities for people to have access to clean needles, exceptional advice and support.

Our sexual health workers are more aware than ever before of the chemsex culture. Questions are becoming more focused; targeted to help people think about the benefits and risks. If we all take the time to know a bit more about chemsex, then we can all play a role in that. There are some great YouTube clips to watch by David Stuart from 56 Dean Street, and there’s also info available at the LGBT Centre in Birmingham and other health clinics across the country.


Let’s all try hard to play our part.

 

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