Chemsex

How are drugs changing the way London’s gay men have sex?

An in-depth investigation into the men, meth and mechanics of the city's ‘chemsex’ communities

“I’ve been politely asked to quieten down and get on with it – which I can fully appreciate – since I was probably sharing my thoughts on animal cruelty while simultaneously attempting to give someone a blowjob” explains James, a 23 year old actor from London. He is describing his experience of chillouts, an emerging subculture featuring drugs and group sex amongst urban gay and bisexual men, principally in London but, increasingly, across other cities in the UK.

Gay chillouts are often an event in and of themselves (rather than an after-party) and they aren’t for smoking weed and comedowns: the purpose is to get high. As James’ anecdote encapsulates, it’s a strange confusion of the social and sexual – where drugs can allow groups of strangers to be both gregarious and gratified without some of the awkwardness such anonymity might produce. The other slang term used for this, now adopted by clinicians and health workers is "chemsex".

"Chemsex" sounds like it could be steampunk copulation in futuristic fanfiction. In fact, it refers to men having sex on mephedrone (a noisome powder previously available legally as plant food before being criminalised), GHB (a liquid measured out with a pipette, presumably giving the most wild of orgies the atmosphere of a Year 9 chemistry lesson) or crystal meth (on the gay scene meth is given the nickname "Tina", making a highly addictive drug that’s either snorted, smoked or injected sound a bit like the woman who does your hair).

Of course, this grouping is reductive – not all men who have chemsex take all of these drugs, others will take them all together – different combinations producing different effects and changing the level of associated risks.

My own experience of chillouts is vicarious: comical anecdotes and Facebook messages from friends on comedowns, my interest in them more practical than prurient. Who in London can host them when the housing crisis has forced us all to have housemates? Who pays for all the drugs? (in response I’m told that even the homeliest of housemates go away for weekends, there are some older hosts who can afford to live alone and drugs are usually "BYOB").

My most direct experience is politely leaving a party-turned-chemsex orgy when three men suddenly stripped down to their underwear. I sensed the general mood had shifted and no one wanted to listen to Beyoncé anymore. As they headed off to a side room to have sex with each other and I headed to my Uber, I heard one asking the other two “so, what do you do for a living?” – that most middle class of icebreakers, a reminder that in the midst of the Bacchic, people still seek the banal.

“On the gay scene meth is given the nickname "Tina", making a highly addictive drug that’s either snorted, smoked or injected sound a bit like the woman who does your hair” 

I first asked actor and musician James about his experience of the scene after seeing him at a queer performance night where he performed a song on the accordion. The lyrics were all things one would typically hear said by guys at a chillout. The line in his song that got the biggest laugh from men in the audience was the repeated hook “does anyone have an iphone 5 charger?" It was laughter of recognition. Above all, this piece of technical admin stood out as a defining experience. Though perhaps its humour also comes from a darker nod to the relationship urban gay desire has with smartphones, amplified during chemsex.

Away from his accordion, James reflects on this point, “Maybe it's just the little things? For example, there is nothing more degrading than someone fucking you while they’re on Grindr searching for the next venture.” To me that does not seem like a "little thing" at all, though James still goes to chillouts. After hearing this, I ask every man I speak to if someone has used Grindr to look for others whilst still having sex with them, or if they have used it during sex. Pretty much all of them tell me this has happened at least once.

On Grindr, that digital grimoire of erotic insecurity, which promises users the power to summon endless sexual partners to themselves with brief, ritualised incantations (“u top or bttm?””can u accom?” “more pics?”) it’s also increasingly common to see the veiled language of chemsex littering profiles “chillin”, “h&h” (which stands for ‘horny and high’) and “p&p” (‘party and play’). Dealers use the app to sell their wares in coded language. Grindr is as integral a stimulant to chemsex as any drug, a 3G signal is this scene’s invisible lifeblood.

And now, Grindr, chillouts and chemsex are going mainstream – documentaries are being made and health experts are issuing warnings. Here, a stark beam of scrutiny and opinion is being shone down on the city, to search for ‘explanations’ and ‘solutions’.

In fact, combining drug taking with gay sex is nothing new, as many older sexual health activists who lived in London through the 70s and 80s assure me. Gay sex and drug use both share centuries of being suppressed, stigmatised, criminalised and pathologised with little achieved beyond discouraging those who engage with them to do so in a healthy, honest way that addresses their own and others’ wellbeing and happiness.

There are some legitimate concerns. Andy, a 34 year old primary school teacher and father of two ended his marriage after realising he was gay. Shortly after coming out, he acquired HIV. Previously teetotal, it was after his diagnosis that he first started taking drugs to have sex. “I felt disgusting and it helped me escape that – I wanted to be out of my head. It defined the way I had sex. Soon I couldn’t have sex sober.” Andy says he in turn became unkind and disrespectful to those he had sex with. “I didn’t even feel real desire for them, I just wanted to use people and be used.” Andy’s is an extreme example – eventually he needed to call his dealer to supply more drugs to him at his school after being at sex parties all night. Eventually, he was hospitalised after a psychotic episode and, since that, lives free of all drugs.

Pin It
Male intimacy

Andy’s story is at a significant remove from the boys I know socially who go back into work – some as doctors, lawyers, and parliamentary researchers – on a Monday, leaving behind the debauchery of their weekends. However, it’s a reminder to be suspicious of any broad brushstroke that tries to universalise gay men’s motives or behaviour. It’s easy to fall into two traps – either to retreat into homophobic truisms like “gay men are innately seedy and hedonistic with no regard for their own or each other’s health” or to insist that we must all espouse a joyously permissive attitude in which all sex is positive and life-affirming and to say otherwise is slut-shaming. Both extremes silence people’s lived experience and personal truth. I myself have been guilty of falling into both traps or moving confusedly between them.

In public life, the inclusion of some white, privileged urban gay men into the political mainstream, and their admittance to conservative institutions like marriage, requires the proliferation of a consistent narrative: gays are no different to anyone else! Love is love! In a sense, it’s absolutely true that human beings do share many of the same desires and needs. In another, more societal, sense, this is total bullshit. But perhaps it would be better to start by allowing this contradiction to stand unresolved? Equality and liberation does not have to mean “being the same.” The chemsex scene exposes the flaws in this approach to queerness and sex and trying to gloss over them forces gay men to publicly throw each other under the bus in order to explain it away.

My conversations with participants suggest chillouts fulfil some human needs that aren’t uniquely gay: intimacy, connection with others and tactility – particularly in the city, where it’s all too easy to feel the loneliness and anxieties that come with an atomised existence, where you are surrounded by people and yet often feel no connection to them. Plenty of young straight people I know feel these too (and use drugs for release) – they just have more points of reference, better visibility and a greater support network that ratifies their sexual, social and romantic traditions.

Pin It
Male intimacy

On a purely sexual level, there may be some things I could imagine drugs may help gay men with. The legacy of Section 28 still remains - mostly born to straight parents, gay and bisexual men receive a woeful level of sex education or advice. Gay sex is first used to taunt and mock us as teens; when we recognise our desire for it, this awakening is first marked by secrecy and shame. Many gay men learn how to have sex through pornography, an industry which foregrounds certain bodies and types of sex, and elides many realities: hygiene, lubricant, pain, condoms, the stigma of HIV and other STIs, erection loss and performance stress to name but a few. If being high can augment your relationship with the body you use to have sex, making it more readily a vessel for pleasure, I can see the seductive appeal.

For younger guys trying to socialise, it can initially be confusing if you are expected to view all other queer men either as sexual conquests or sexual rivals. If this is the case, how can personal friendship and political solidarity exist between us within such an oppressive binary? This often has to be deciphered from clumsy trial and error, disguised with bravado.

Yet my friend Jack Harwell, who recently appeared in a Channel 4 show on the subject, points out that even chillouts themselves vary, “according to the specific area and the people at them” – in east London chillouts, for example, he suggests that, beyond sex, “chillouts can be places of creativity” and at them people also talk about drag, discuss ideas with each other or even just joyously play Rachel Stevens’ forgotten 2004 hit ‘Sweet Dreams my LA Ex’. Seen in this way, the chillout is undoubtedly for some a space of sexy, creative community when gay bars and clubs are also closing down in the wake of developers’ relentless assault on nightlife.

“Many gay men learn how to have sex through pornography, an industry which foregrounds certain bodies and types of sex, and elides many realities” 

If so, maybe we should focus less on chemsex as a discrete issue and look more holistically at creating parallel spaces where this can also be on offer without paying the price of a comedown. Two people who appreciate this are David Stuart, drug use lead at the 56 Dean Street clinic in Soho, and Patrick Cash, a writer and performer who set up Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs, a well-attended open forum held monthly. At LTGSD gay and bi men (and their friends) can come to speak, perform or just listen to each other about their experiences in a candid, non-judgemental environment.

David explains the statistics around drug use amongst gay men and the recent rise in HIV diagnoses that have led to his unique role at a sexual health clinic. In reference to the clinic’s sexual wellbeing programme, he explains “we don’t challenge men when they speak about drug use but if they say they want to have a conversation about the kinds of sex they are having or ultimately want to have we can offer this.”

Patrick set up LTGSD with David’s help and asked why he thinks it has become so popular so quickly, he says, “I think gay friendship is very important, that people are searching for it. Gay men look for a feeling that they are not alone and a sense of community with people whose experiences they can relate to.” For my part, I hope that community can also be found outside of the chillouts and the apps, particularly for younger guys and teens. Discussing whether the project will expand, Patrick is hopeful – I point out to him that one issue may be those people who for cultural or religious reasons or because of disability may feel less able to access the forum. “Well we are considering more ways to also reach more people online and through social media. We may even develop an app”, he smiles before continuing, “or maybe work with Grindr.”

Once again there's that downward glance to technology: it feels both ironic and fitting. The chillout is a shifting scene, without a fixed locus. Manifesting temporarily in private homes, it resides invisibly in the desires and anxieties of the men who participate in it – in their minds and their dicks and their smartphones. But to try and map out all of our own and each others' desires in the city's polluted darkness is no easy task; some may see that harsh beam scanning overhead and sprint at once to crowd beneath it. For others, there's just the bearable glow of a hookup app reflected, location services are on, and some guys are chillin (approx a mile away).

Images all taken from Tyler Udall’s "Boys" series, check the rest of his photography here.