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8 April 2016

What is chemsex? And how worried should we be?

Men using specific drugs to have sex with other men is on the rise, and there is evidence it's taking a toll on the gay community. 

By Barbara Speed

What is chemsex?

Strictly speaking, chemsex refers to gay or bisexual men using drugs to facilitate sex with other men. Culturally, though, it has become a catch-all term for sex involving drugs and “chemsex parties”, where groups of gay and bisexual men meet up, get high, and have sex with one another.

It’s important to note that it’s distinct from drug use which later leads to sexual activity: chemsex is where men take a certain drug or drugs because they are about to have sex.

Why are we hearing about it so much at the moment?

The practice normally reaches the public eye because something goes wrong. This week, for example, the BBC reported on chemsex following the death of Miguel Jimenez an 18-year-old who died in his sleep after engaging in chemsex with his boyfriend, barrister Henry Hendron.

Longterm research suggests that gay men tend to use drugs more than the general population, but the one major UK study into chemsex in particular suggests that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon which is becoming more common.

Adam Bourne, a public health lecturer at the London School Of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the study’s authors, told the Huffington Post that Grindr (a dating and hookup app predominantly used by LGBT men) has made it easier to find partners or groups of partners for chemsex. Those looking for it will include “chemsex”, “chemfun”, “party and play” or “P&P” in their profile.

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What drugs are used?

In the UK at least, research suggests that chemsex usually involves one (or a mixture) of the following drugs:

Mephedrone (also known as m-cat or meow meow): This was previously a “legal high” but is now a class B drug. It is similar to an amphetamine, and makes users feel euphoric and affectionate. It can overstimulate your heart and nervous system.

GHB/GBL (also known as “G”): These two closely related Class C drugs have a relaxing, anaesthetic effect which reduces users’ inhibitions. They can be very dangerous when mixed with depressants, including alcohol – it’s likely that this combination caused Jiminez’s death.

Methamphetamine (also known as crystal meth):A Class A amphetamine which makes users feel exhilerated and energised. It’s very addictive, and some research suggests it can cause brain damage over time.

Why these drugs?

These three substances, especially in combination, make users feel relaxed and aroused. As with poppers, GHB is a relaxant which can make anal sex easier and less painful.

What happens at a chemsex party?

Multiple men get together and take drugs before having sex, usually with multiple partners, and sometimes over a long period of time. The drugs make it dififcult to orgasm but make users very aroused, and can also enable users to stay awake for days at a time.

Alex Klineberg, a journalist who has attended chemsex parties and has written about the phenomenon, told the Huffington Post:

It starts with a bunch of guys in their underwear getting high, and as they get more and more high, they lose their inhibitions. You can find yourself having multiple partners and going for a long period of time… It can last for 24 hours, three days, without people sleeping, new people showing up at three in the morning. It’s very intense, very hedonistic. This is more than a bit of drug use at the weekend.

Is chemsex dangerous?

As with any illegal drug use, chemsex is risky because you are putting a range of substances into your body which can slow and speed your heartrate. Substances can be addictive, and as they’re illegal it’s impossible to be sure what they contain.

Many also claim that the use of the drugs, especially at parties, makes unprotected sex more likely, as they are used as sexual disinhibitors and can lead to increased risk-taking.

What is the association with HIV?

Part of the confusion around unprotected chemsex comes from the fact that some chemsex parties are held by groups of HIV positive men who decide beforehand to forgo protection as they can’t reinfect one another. (It’s worth noting that this is still irresponsible – they could still carry and transmit other sexually transmitted diseases.) This doesn’t mean, however, that chemsex is necessarily resulting in a wave of new HIV infections, or even that all chemsex parties involve unprotected sex.

How worried should we be?

Moral panics often focus around drug use and non-traditional sexualities, so it’s tempting to dismiss the scaremongering around chemsex as precisely that. Reporting on the issue is often muddled and panicky – the Evening Standard called a chemsex party attendee a “survivor“, as those most don’t make it out alive.

Yet more nuanced warnings about chemsex are coming from within the LGBT community itself, and health and public health experts who have first hand knowledge of chemsex’s effects. The British Medical Journal, for example, issued a health warning in 2015 as a result of the “small but important” uptick of patients with psychological and physiological dependence on chemsex drugs.

Drug use can become particularly dangerous when it becomes expected as part of a certain social scene, and also when it begins to disrupt your daily life – which a three day party without sleeping or eating properly is likely to do. Chemsex’s culture of mixing the drugs with each other and alcohol also ups the risk factor.

The stigma around both drug use and gay sex can act as a barrier to those who need to seek help. A report from London Friend, an LGBT charity, noted that drug and alcohol services often aren’t tailored for LGBT people, while Antidote, its dedicated LGBT drug and alcohol support service, reported that nearly two-thirds of those seeking help had used chemsex drugs. Meanwhile, LGBT people are already more likely to suffer from pre-existing mental health problems, which a drug-heavy lifestyle could exacerbate.

Vice’s documentary on chemsex calls the situation a “crisis”, and its directors have stated that some chemsex participants are trapped in “a cycle of extreme pleasure and pain, validation and isolation”. But its worth noting that this stems partly from the drug use (which a sizeable proportion of the general UK population engages in), and partly from the other difficulties associated with living as a gay or bisexual man.

Silence, secrecy and stigma may prevent men deep in the chemsex scene from seeking help, but it also may explain why men are sucked into the riskier aspects of chemsex in the first place.