Saturday 17 August 2019

Chemsex: how a drug subculture fits into a post-referendum comedown

Chemsex is not a new idea and the furore around it is prurience masked as public health concerns

Controversial: Scene from movie 'Chemsex' which premiered in London last month
Controversial: Scene from movie 'Chemsex' which premiered in London last month
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Ah chemsex. A phrase that most gay men never heard or saw outside of the confines of a Grindr profile is everywhere all of a sudden. A movie, a couple of plays, radio items here in Ireland, a ton of breathless think pieces in the English broadsheets. You could be forgiven for thinking it's the new national pastime for gay people, right up there with being right-on symbols of a new Ireland.

Despite what the UK Independent called a "lack of reliable statistics", it's been suggested that "more and more" gay men are taking part in epic drug-fuelled sex parties, the popularity of which has been fuelled by advances in smartphone technology and the increasing availability of cheap drugs such as crystal meth and G (a synthetic hypnotic, also known as 'the date rape drug').

A report in the British Medical Journal also recently warned of a "small but important" increase in the use of mental health services by chemsex drug users.

"Chemsex drug users often describe losing days - not sleeping or eating for up to 72 hours - and this may harm their general health. Users may present too late to be eligible for post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV transmission", say the authors. Psychological and physiological dependence on the drugs can become permanent, they add.

The Chemsex film, which premiered at the London Film Festival last month, explores the razor-thin edge between joyous excess and wilful self destruction. Memorably, one interviewee tells the interviewer that having sex on G is "like a firework display going off in your soul". After it, he adds, sober sex is just dull: "If I have to spend the rest of my life sober," he says in the film, "you might as well take me to the euthanasia clinic."

What to make of this? After all the inclusive happy clappyness of the marriage referendum, it was perhaps inevitable that the public discussion would turn to the wilder side of gay life.

Some of them take drugs! And have sex! At the same time! All weekend! Where was all this gratifying sordidness, the bruised and beaten No campaigners must have been wondering, when we were all discussing the relative merits and dangers of gay parenthood?

If it could have been introduced into the mix that both gay Dads might well be off their tits on poppers and G for most of the weekend, it would have been checkmate for the referendum.

But, like the racist grandmother you hold back on introducing to your new boyfriend, chemsex is a niche aspect of gay life that has always been there but seldom put front and centre for fear of frightening the horses. Suggesting there might possibly be consequences to a subculture of drug-fuelled orgies, or even pointing out that such a subculture exists, would have been seen as offensively homophobic party pooping.

But now, post liberation, we have a cast-iron pretext in the form of public health. Each to their own, the subtext of the discussion around chemsex goes, but "health workers" and some guy from an AIDS trust are pretty sure that many of these guys are heading home from these Vauxhall-based shindigs with their own little doggy bags of HIV. Or alternatively: they're worried that all this revelry is a symptom of "internalised homophobia" and poor mental health in young gay men. Worthy concerns, to be sure, but in the coverage, between the lines, clear as day, is the prurient fascination with an all-weekend sexual underworld presumed to be light years away from the couple reading the papers in bed on a Sunday morning and the carefully curated image of gays as the new suburbanites and the ultimate pillars of society.

It was always likely that fissures would start to appear in that image at some point. After all the triumphalism of the Yes campaign, the street parties, the endless back slapping, the ubiquity of Panti, a mere 600 people came forward when the law changed recently as ready and waiting to actually get married. And that number, don't forget, includes the couples who have been together for years and waiting to tie the knot.

If the situation here is anything like England and Wales we can safely presume that in coming years, the numbers of gay people looking to get married will dwindle somewhat again.

Marriage wasn't something most of us wanted for ourselves (at least not yet) - it was a catch-all proxy for social, moral and legal equality. It was laying the ground so the next generation would have a level playing field.

It always seemed ironic that a grouping in society which had historically prided itself on being an achingly cool subculture would grapple so furiously for this most bourgeois of institutions.

Marriage is something that most straight men associate with a loss of freedom, a creeping domestication. The synonymous phrase "settling down" says it all. The only change left thereafter is decay.

The industry of marriage is by women for women. There are no magazines devoted to the anxious groom. There is no reality show called Don't Tell The Groom. This has nothing at all to do with the difference between gay and straight people, it is the difference between male and female.

What you have in the gay community, then, is a vast cohort of unmarried childless men with disposable incomes who don't have women to put manners on them. It shouldn't greatly surprise anyone that some of these men avail of their great freedom with the odd burst of Dionysiac excess.

Only another tiny subset of that grouping will actually engage in the G-and-meth-fuelled orgies that have been making headlines recently. They are a minority within a minority, but unlike the couples who are about to get married, they are a subset that has always been there, even if the substances were different. With the hysteria around chemsex, we are in danger of falling into Philip Larkin's trap of thinking sex was just invented as we started to notice it.

Despite the film, the plays and the commentary, there really hasn't been a documented "rise" in chemsex; not a single piece of creditable academic research proves that the combination of drugs and sex is more prevalent now than it was 20 years ago, although certain drugs have in that time become common currency.

When I lived in New York for a summer 15 years ago PnP - Play and Party - (sex and drugs, basically) was such a long established trope it may well have been covered in my J1 induction. I grew up in an era terrorised by the prospect of HIV/AIDS and that alone was enough to steer me away from youthful experimentation.

What you have instead now is a perfect storm of a generation which is feckless about HIV transmission compared to the one that came before, a mass media pruriently eager to shine a light on a sordid corner of gay life after a decade of liberal inclusionism, and the prevalence of social media which in turn gave rise to all those irresistibly catchy acronyms.

But before we judge those who do indulge in it we might do well to remember that the bacchanalian details - the saunas, the after-hours parties in grimy corners of London, inhalants, amphetamines and hypnotics - are really just jazzed up versions of their straight, Irish equivalents: tons of booze and the odd line of coke in a nightclub on Harcourt or Leeson Street.

And that the need to numb yourself before the most soul-destroying forms of casual sex isn't gay or straight - it's human.

Sunday Independent

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