Talking sex, drugs and emptiness with a chemsex playwright

The Chemsex Monologues is a theatre production about one of the most-discussed facets of the UK gay scene - here the man behind it says why we need to talk more

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Dionysis Livani

A Soho bender ends in sex, G and crystal meth
A club night poster boy ends up at Old Mother Meph’s with a pornstar
Fag Hag Cath is definitely not doing drugs tonight
A sexual health worker goes to his first chillout
Rob’s snorting mephedrone off a photograph of his parents

The Chemsex Monologues

The UK’s gay community is in a state of flux. While some of us dream of same-sex marriage and settling down in a house in the suburbs, others demand that an anti-assimilationist agenda prevails – we must reject the desire to conform at all costs, and continue to “be” in our own queer way.

In the 80s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, a queer identity was formed and fiercely contended with, but today’s sanitised British gay scene has pushed this debate to the fringes of our community. Super clubs like G-A-Y and Heaven are thriving while dingy, dirty queer bars quietly disappear. Pride in London has become a corporate-sponsored street party, not a boundary-pushing radical protest.

Same-sex marriage was all well and good, but there’s an all too deafening silence when another HIV crisis gets going, when trans people of colour are murdered, when the Home Office demands queer asylum seekers prove that they’re not straight. Some gay men want to keep their heads down, to quietly fit into the heterosexual word that engulfs us, and other simply don’t. To put it simply, there’s a “good gay vs bad gay” divide.

Debate in any community is healthy. But it feels like these discussions are often muted, and it’s dangerous. Men are cast out for presenting as “femme” and refusing to adhere to expectations of masculinity. When we talk about the life-saving HIV-prevention drug PrEP, it’s often fraught with accusations of promiscuity. The chemsex scene can in many ways be seen as the heart of silenced battle. Long, drug-fuelled sex sessions are rife in the UK and beyond, with gay men partying for days on end with bodies charged on a concoction of powders, pills and liquids.

At first glance it would be easy to think that those who take part in these parties are rejecting normal modes of being, but the reality is much more complex. The lines of division in this strange “good gay vs bad gay” rift are blurred. Chemsex sessions aren’t just populated by anti-assimilationist queers who’ve made an active decision to reject the norms society imposes on us.

The Chemsex Monologues, a new play by Patrick Cash, might well provide an opportunity for us to start talking. Patrick’s script tells the stories of five fictional characters each navigating their way through the complex and confusing chemsex scene.

“We get perspectives in the monologues from sexual health workers, a female friend of a guy on the scene, as well as three men making their way inside it,” he says to me, when we meet outside 56 Dean Street.

The Chemsex Monologues might well be the desperately needed conversation starter we've been waiting for, because as a phenomenon it transcends the usual boundaries of 'homonormativity' v aggressively queer. “What’s interesting on the chemsex scene is that the good v bad divide morphs”, Patrick explains. 

“A lot of these guys are practising ‘good gay’ in the week: in their 20s and 30s, holding down good jobs as lawyers, dentists, recruiters in the city.” Only last week Henry Hendron, a well-respected city lawyer, was sentenced to 140 hours of community service for buying the mephedrone and GBL his 18-year-old boyfriend took before tragically dying in their bed.

That veneer of respectability was stripped away. Grindr and private Facebook groups allow for these parties to be organised in secret, with no need to be seen queuing and resurfacing at a visible public club. It took a dire accident to pull the issue to the surface, and yet still the headlines were judgemental. The Chemsex Monologues opened in London this week, and Patrick hopes it’ll provide a catalyst for gay men on the scene and outside it to talk openly about what’s really going on.

“With drama and creating characters you can show the emotional empathy in an arc”, Patrick says, “with no need for snippets of articles or docs. Therefore, you can make an audience feel more connected, make the character identifiable and provide a fuller view.” Chemsex has become a phenomenon – a spectacle that those outside the scene seem desperate to comment on. But beneath the judgemental headlines and voyeuristic depictions on screen lies a debate that needs to be raging amongst the gay community. And right now it's not.

“I see the play as a springboard to explore how chemsex has become a spectacle for those outside the gay community”, Patrick tells me. “It’s a chance to look at how it's being used by some to judge and comment on the gay community. I was interested in the people beneath the drugs. Chemsex has become a buzzword that people talk about constantly – featured in films and articles, and it’s become a storm – there’s a polarisation of the good gay vs bad gay, and I wanted to take that away and see who these people are taking the drugs.”

“I was interested in the people beneath the drugs....there’s a polarisation of the good gay vs bad gay, and I wanted to take that away and see who these people are taking the drugs” – Patrick Cash

Patrick’s interest in the scene comes from his own personal experience. As a student in London he worked in a Soho bar, just around the corner from our little meeting, to make ends meet. “The guys who I worked with were pretty much my age, and we’d head to Vauxhall after work together.” Patrick had taken drugs since 16 – but it was in here he first took G.

“I took a shot of G in a pint – even though you’re not meant to mix it with booze. I said ‘put it in here’, and the guy did as I asked”. Half an hour later he woke up in the medics room. Just a short while later Patrick saw a post on Facebook, a man had died from a lethal concoction of drugs and alcohol in a club down the road.

After a year or two out of the city, Patrick returned and soon found himself immersed back in the scene.

“I started going to chill outs after nights out, and sure there were parts of it that were fun”, he says, smiling. “Going out and dressing up and having fun.” He said to himself at the time that as long as he enjoyed himself while on mephedrone and G, and could carry on with his job during the week, then what was there to worry about?

“The trouble was the Tuesday come down, the irritability, which was a nightmare at work. It got dark, cyclical and I felt trapped. I’d come home and start thinking it wasn’t fun, a little bit sad, lonely, I was taking drugs to express an emotional need through physical intimacy.” He’d go home and never see these people again, it started to feel dangerous and hollow.

“I realised I was chatting between sex about my fears and desires – it’s why I set up Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs. It’s why I wrote the monologues.” He’s right. Instead of sticking up our communal noses, we need to be talking frankly about why it is that gay men are so often looking for community and emotional connection with strangers in the heady downtime between sex. Instead of bemoaning the fact that some within our community want to take drugs and have fun, we need to do all we can to ensure people are safe – ensuring we know the reality of the dangers of certain substances.

“It got dark, cyclical and I felt trapped. I’d come home and start thinking it wasn’t fun, a little bit sad, lonely, I was taking drugs to express an emotional need through physical”

And yes, sexual liberation maybe shouldn’t be celebrated whatever the cost. We’re in the midst of a sexual health crisis, and reckless sexual interactions – however fun – have consequences beyond your own gratification. Drugs like GHB might do wonders for your libido, but at the expense of your inhibitions meaning that unprotected sex becomes increasingly commonplace.

We need to talk about chemsex, and the divide it’s so often accused of representing. There’s a sexual health crisis sweeping the gay community, and a mental health pandemic too. Patrick’s experiences, and those of many others, are of finding a sense of belonging and community on the scene, and with the closure of charities, venues and support spaces it should hardly come as a surprise. We’re taking drugs and mixing them dangerously, and our fucked up drugs laws and education policy encourage it.

And no, that doesn’t mean that taking drugs and having sex is the morally reprehensible cause, or that if you want to make connections with people while fucking and doing lines you’re somehow a lesser person. It simply means that we need to be talking. As Patrick put it to me, if you want to build relationships on substances then that’s up to you, but there needs to be space to build relationships with substance too.

The Chemsex Monologues is running from May 17th-21st (7pm) at the King's Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, N1 1QN. Tickets £18, £15 concs (£10 previews 17th) Click here to book tickets.

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