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The NS Interview: Donna Marsh O’Connor, peace activist

“I can’t believe I haven’t seen my daughter in ten years”

You lost your daughter in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Does the tenth anniversary feel particularly painful?
You want people to remember the date for the right reason - that hate engenders hideous things. Time heals in some ways, but I can't believe I haven't seen her in ten years. I did an interview in New York City recently and came home on the plane, and when the lights dimmed in the cabin, I lost it. I didn't want to be on my own on a plane sobbing. I just kept thinking about the day of her birth.

Do you remember 11 September 2001 clearly?
Of course. To be honest, I don't want to remember. It was absolutely exquisite: the crispest, clearest, sunniest morning on the East Coast, warm and beautiful, and sad because it was getting near the end of summer - but it was almost so beautiful that it made you OK with that.

How did 9/11 transform the US?
From that moment, there was a decision on the part of the Bush administration to give up the American way of life. In so many significant ways - the constitution, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, military tribunals, torture, water- boarding, Halliburton [oilfields], endless war.

Has your perception of your country changed?
I was raised on this heady idea that America had an ethical and moral standing in the world. I loved America. I would go to assembly and sing "America Is Beautiful", "The Star-Spangled Banner", "The Marine Anthem". To find that at the centre of it was this horrible myth, or the crafting of a lie . . . I don't know any more.

Since then, you've become an activist. Why?
I still cringe when people call me an activist. It had a resonance that you were boringly committed to a cause at the expense of everything else in your life. I taught writing and rhetoric in American public discourse. And then this happened and suddenly everything I valued about this country in fundamental ways shifted.

What did you feel you had lost?
The freedom to speak about any issue and still be patriotic - suddenly there were these subjects that could not be discussed. I think of 9/11 as a hideous murder that was perhaps used as a political measure. It got made into something much larger to keep us at war.

You have said you would never celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Why?
I never could hate Bin Laden. When he decided to bomb embassies and the USS Cole, and make 9/11 his project, he committed suicide. I make no apologies that I see him as a human being. And a murderer - a mass murderer - but there are other mass murderers who aren't held so accountable. Please don't misunderstand me: I am not saying he should be forgiven - but there are people who capitalised on 9/11 to commit even greater atrocities in this world.

How do you think President Obama has handled these issues?
Obama had the opportunity to drive home the cost of war, to talk honestly to the American people about everything George Bush had left us. But his eye was on his eight-year term as president. You are elected for one term, and you need to serve that one term with integrity and dignity. In my mind, he has not done that.

Do you believe that Islamophobia is a growing problem in the US?
Absolutely. People have been set up as scapegoats. They were treated as war criminals. If we give a bunch of zealots microphones as large as the one they've given to Michele Bachmann, we will be fighting each other for a long time.

Is there anything that gives you hope?
I have lived my entire life as an optimist. But everything tells me this is going to get worse before it turns back again. I fear for my children. I'm afraid that things are going to play out in ways that are devastating. Like fires that are natural and helpful because they burn everything off and allow things to restart, it's the same with civilisation - we will probably burn ourselves off until we grow up again.

Do you vote?
Absolutely.

I assume not for the Republicans?
No. Locally, I have a lot of Republican friends; they're dear, compassionate people. So, at the local level, I'd vote Republican, but nationally, when the stakes are this high and the discourse is so fragmented, I have not voted Republican.

Is there anything you regret?
There are a lot of things I regret. Most of them have to do with that morning.

Is there a plan?
The world is very short on compassion. I'm going to continue to write and speak, and hope that has a half-life.

Are we all doomed?
No. Something has to happen so that the ugly doesn't always have to win out. The ugly has much more powerful physical weapons, but we have much more powerful spiritual weapons and we just need to get them heard.

Defining Moments

1950s Born in the Bronx, New York
1984 Begins teaching writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University
2001 Her pregnant daughter, Vanessa Lang Langer, dies in the 11 September attacks
2002 Helps found Peaceful Tomorrows, a network of relatives and friends of the attack victims, calling for an end to war
2010 Speaks out in defence of a proposal to build an Islamic community centre near Ground Zero in New York

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11

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 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11