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The NS Interview: Linda-Gail Bekker

“So many of our people live daily with the effects of HIV”

Your work focuses on HIV and tuberculosis. What does that involve? What's the plan?
Here in Southern Africa, children are getting TB in huge numbers. They don't get the disease immediately, but they become infected. When you superimpose the HIV epidemic on top of that, you speed up the progress of the illness - so the TB infection becomes TB disease in young adulthood because of their immune deficiency. We have to think of TB and HIV together almost as a new disease. That requires us to go back to fundamentals, but also to think outside the box. What will be the new interventions? What else could we be doing?

What drew you to work in the field?
I was born in Zimbabwe, and came to UCT [the University of Cape Town] to do my medicine degree. It was the late 1980s and the HIV epidemic was just breaking for us. I remember a strong sense of frustration, anxiety, impotence - I didn't fully understand what was going on and wanted to know more. I went on to do my PhD in host immunology, which I am still fascinated by. But as time has gone on, I've been drawn to the hands-on side of things. I'm really a closet social worker these days.

Are you engaged in the politics of South Africa?
Well, I think we are activists at heart simply because, again, you can't work in this field and not be politically aware. We work hard to change policy, but through evidence. And that's a slow and often arduous process.

Do you personally feel political? Do you vote?
Oh, yes. I came from Zimbabwe, perhaps politically quite naive, to UCT, which was a very liberal university in those days. I had quite a political awakening as a result of that.

In what way?
I came to university in the 1980s, an incredibly volatile time in SA's history. And the 1990s was the most extraordinarily liberating period. That initial starry-eyed, honeymoon phase is a little bit over. We really need to roll up our sleeves and say: "What are the issues at hand?"

Do you think there's been a lack of political leadership in South Africa?
Yes. Civil society became the leaders: we have had to take on the government on some occasions. On other occasions we've taken on the pharmaceutical companies with the government. SA has huge challenges still - some days you kind of recognise that it's a big job, and how ever are we going to meet all the challenges? But the little triumphs along the way do count. I think we are making progress.

You've just won the Royal Society Pfizer Award for your research into HIV and tuberculosis. What does the prize mean to you?
I'm overwhelmed. I think one of the aspects of working in this part of the world is that you get on with the job, you get lost in the day-to-day work. So when somebody stops and acknowledges you, it's a very pleasant surprise.

It's said you marry science and humanity.
HIV and TB are just so much a part of our lives. A good part of our workforce lives openly with HIV. I have had TB and had to take treatment.
It really is very tangible for us: you're dealing with it not only at work, but in everyday life.

How do you balance your work with the rest of your life?
I married someone in exactly the same field. He's the director of the HIV centre at UCT and I'm deputy director, and we run the foundation together, so a lot of our work comes home. But we have a great work team who can be relied upon. We have two grown-up children and a seven-year-old, Oliver, who started life with an embryonic carcinoma, so the first three years of his life we camped at the Red Cross children's hospital because he needed chemotherapy. Once you've got beyond that, you pretty much feel you could cope with most things!

Is there anything you regret?
I've loved being a mother. I could have quite enjoyed another child. But no, I don't think I have any regrets at all. The only thing is that I would have done more of everything.

Would you ever like to live anywhere else?
I'm inherently an African: I'm fourth-generation. It's hard for me to think of living anywhere other than Africa. Certainly, the work I do seems most relevant here. I lived for some time in New York and I loved it. But what makes me want to stay here for the moment is just the relevance. I'm a hands-on person. I like to engage with the community, with the staff. I think that's where my talent is.

Are we all doomed?
I don't think so, but I can see why you would ask. When you look at TB-HIV figures you wonder what the next terrible virus or pathogen is that's waiting around the corner. But the thing that strikes me daily is the resilience of humanity. Human beings find a way.

Linda-Gail Bekker is deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the University of Cape Town and chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.

Read a longer version of the interview.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro