Ending violence against women

As part of our series looking at where the London Mayoral candidates stand on particular issues

Whoever wins on Thursday 1 May - be it Boris, Ken or Brian - will face the challenge of one of the biggest, most persistent inequalities in London today; violence against women.

Three million women across the UK experience rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, trafficking or another form of violence each year.

This affects all of us, whether we ourselves have experienced violence or know someone who has.

The impact ranges from physical injuries to long-term mental health problems, self-harm and suicide, poverty and social exclusion. And as taxpayers we are paying the price – £40 billion each year according to a recent report.

There has already been real progress in London including the Domestic Violence Strategies, which have cut domestic violence homicides by 57 per cent, and the Safer Travel at Night campaign which has significantly reduced the number of mini-cab related assaults.

However, policies in London, as at a national level, are often focused on just one form of violence (domestic violence) and on the criminal justice system. The reality is that most women don’t report to the police and these women need the kind of specialised support that is all too often last on the list of funders’ priorities. Shamefully there is just one Rape Crisis Centre in Greater London!

If a woman does report to the police she is unlikely to see justice served as conviction rates for all these offences are woefully low. In London, less than 6 per cent of rapes reported to the Met result in a conviction. Assistant Commissioner John Yates said recently that the police still do not treat rape cases with the same professionalism as other cases.

End Violence Against Women has asked the mayoral candidates to commit to develop a London-wide strategy to eradicate violence against women, similar to the approach being taken by the Scottish Government and the Crown Prosecution Service. Such a strategy would ensure adequate support for victims, effective prosecution of perpetrators and long-term work to prevent violence in the first place. So how do their policies stack up?

Boris Johnson says he will provide the funding for four new Rape Crisis Centres in London by cutting the number of GLA spin doctors. He will ask for a review of Home Office resources to support women. But Johnson does not commit to a violence against women strategy, meaning he is out of line with David Cameron who has made repeated statements about the need for one at the national level.

Ken Livingstone sets out his record since 2000 including integrating domestic violence into work on women offenders, ensuring minicab drivers are registered, increases in arrests and prosecutions of domestic violence and rape cases, research on police performance, and lobbying the government on the ‘no recourse to public funds rule’. Livingstone says he has discouraged the growth of prostitution and trafficking and will lobby the government to reclassify lap-dancing clubs. However, he does not commit to a single integrated strategy.

Brian Paddick is the only candidate to promise a London-wide strategy. He says he will set up a Violence Against Women Taskforce with representatives from the voluntary sector to help in establishing the commonalities and connections between all forms of violence against women. He has also pledged to take over as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority to increase the professionalism of rape investigations and to improve conviction rates.

So Londoners can make their choice on these and other key issues when they vote on Thursday.

A final thought - on the other side of the Atlantic a black man and a woman are battling it out to become the Democratic nominee for the most powerful political job in the world. Isn’t it just a bit depressing that all three main candidates for such a richly diverse city as London are white men?

Holly Dustin, Manager, End Violence Against Women

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.