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Chemsex review: gay sex and drug use demand more careful forms of attention

A gay subculture revolves around risky, drug-enhanced sex. The reasons why are complex and deserve attention. Chemsex, Pecadillo Pictures.

Chemsex review: gay sex and drug use demand more careful forms of attention

Drugs scare us and fascinate us. Societies might fight “wars” against drugs – but we also drink, smoke, ingest and inject an awful lot of them.

The Ancient Greeks captured this instability with their concept of the pharmakon, which they used to refer to those things that can function as both poison and cure: their identity is unstable.

The instability of drugs has been used again and again to condemn them. We’re much more comfortable attributing stable identities to drugs and categorising them as either good or evil.

But as Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers argued in Catastrophic Times, our desire to categorise drugs definitively,

allows the question of the appropriate attention, the learning of doses and the manner of preparation, to be done away with.

This is a problem, because the propensity for a drug to be good or dangerous depends precisely on these considerations.

Chemsex, intimacy and paranoia

Chemsex. Pecadillo Pictures

I was reminded of the fundamental ambivalence of drugs when I watched Chemsex (2015), a documentary from Pecadillo Pictures, that explores gay men’s use of drugs to enhance sex in London.

It’s the dangerous end of the drug use spectrum that the documentary Chemsex takes as its principal focus: the film sets out to investigate what it describes as a “hidden health care emergency” in London.

The name is a vernacular term, first referenced in a 2014 study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which describes a rise in the prevalence of drug-enhanced group sex and resulting health issues.

We’re introduced to guys who slam (inject) the amount of crystal methamphetamine that would last most users several days in a single hit.

We see disturbing interviews of men in the midst of crystal meth psychoses, or in the throes of the intense euphoria having just injected mephedrone (a drug rarely seen in Australia, unlike crystal meth).

While the film presents footage of a variety of different drug practices, it’s injecting (rather than the much more common habit of snorting, or smoking methamphetamine) that features most prominently in the film, and the eerie soundtrack by Daniel Marle trains the viewer to lump all these practices together as the same, disturbingly abject and sinister, phenomenon.

For those unfamiliar with gay fetish scenes, this effect would be compounded by the documentary’s graphic footage of gay BDSM activities and group sex.

For those not fazed by sexual adventurism, the participants’ openness to allowing straight male documentarians to film them is probably the real source of astonishment. But then, when people are high on psychoactive drugs, they’re prepared to do a lot of things they’d normally be reticent about, as Chemsex amply demonstrates.

There’s a lot to be learnt from Chemsex about the complexities of gay sex in the wake of the HIV epidemic, which has ravaged this community for the past 30 years.

Despite the availability of effective treatment and much better therapeutic prospects for people living with HIV, gay men are still processing the traumatic effects of the epidemic and its cultural impacts on sexual desires, fears and intimacy.

For at least some men, drugs seem to provide the most ready-to-hand contemporary solution to the age-old question, “how to have sex in an epidemic”.

Ultimately, this must be an indictment on the state of sex education today, which tends to be organised around (heterosexual) reproduction rather than the practicalities of achieving sexual happiness.

Dangerous desires

The topic has received a flurry of attention and alarm in British public health circles recently, but the phenomenon itself is not new: it’s been a source of concern and excitement in urban gay centres in the West for over a decade.

In the early 2000s drugs such as crystal methamphetamine and GHB replaced ecstasy as drugs of choice for a subset of gay men, while the internet replaced socialising as the most common way of looking for sexual partners. In this context, it became possible to party at home and cruise for partners without going out in public.

Activities that once took place at saunas, dance parties and cruising grounds were gradually relocated to private homes and became much easier to organise and more accessible from these locations.

Chemsex. Pecadillo Pictures

The communal pleasures of the dance-floorgave way to the erotic intensities of sex on drugs, which – for many enthusiasts – seemed to help cut to the chase.

But many of us gays miss dancing, and the changing geography of gay partying has also given rise to new dangers – indeed, sometimes very serious ones. It’s hard to know when to “call it a night” when there’s no risk of the DJ stopping playing, and drugs like crystal meth can keep you buzzing for days.

Not only is crystal easy to integrate into domestic practices and everyday routines, it seems designed for repeat administration (just ask truck drivers or computer workaholics). In short, it’s frighteningly easy to become dependent on it for a range of different purposes.

Meanwhile, taking too much GBH can cause users to lose consciousness, become comatose and (in the worst-case scenario) die. Unlike some clubs and dance events, private homes are rarely equipped the right care and emergency services to prevent these occurrences.

In their own ways, then, each of these drugs demonstrate the critical significance of “the learning of doses and the manner of preparation”, to recall Stengers’ comments.

Gay men and the drug subculture

For some gay men growing up in this context, drugs facilitate a process of what psychologists call “cognitive disengagement” from the many fears and stipulations associated with having sex in the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Some experts attribute the higher rates of injecting among gay men in London to the availability of the drug mephedrone, which is much more painful to snort than most other uppers, but rarely a part of chemsex practices in Australia.

For other gay men, these substances are simply valued for much the same reason that many in the wider community value alcohol: They can make sex more fun, sensual, intense, uninhibited and/or easier to negotiate.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the difficulty of fostering intimate or effective relationships when the process of arranging sex is divorced from other social contexts, as it is on digital platforms – and the dangerous effects of the isolation some men experience as a consequence.

David Stuart. Twitter

We meet David Stuart, the founder of the pioneering program at 56 Dean St, a London sexual health clinic, that provides much-needed services to gay men who find themselves in trouble as a result their drug use for sexual purposes, combined with a sense of isolation.

As Stuart reports, hook-up apps and websites have made chemsex much more visible and easier to access in the course of looking for gay friends or sexual partners in the city.

What the film neglects to mention, though, is that chemsex remains a minority practice within this population, and that many app-users remain quite capable of exercising what they believe to be the best judgment.

Chemsex also provides us with multiple accounts of what people enjoy about sex on drugs and the happiness and connections it has allows some men occasionally to develop. Rarely, though, does it take these accounts at face value. More often they seem to be framed as delusional. But this is it’s mistake.

These “good” experiences are precisely the reason that some men continue to use these drugs in full knowledge of their dangerous possibilities in some situations.

Against the idea that drug use is always the product of some state of reckless abandon, there is rare footage in the film of the careful lengths some men go to arrange group sexual encounters that are consensual, pleasurable and free of unwanted dangers.

One fellow organising a sex party at his home even goes to the trouble of drawing up a detailed timetable to schedule his guests’ G consumption as a way of ensuring their safety.

Indeed, the film could have said much more about the techniques and “manners of preparation” some gay men have devised to occasionally enjoy the pleasures of drugs, while keeping themselves and their partners relatively safe from harm. Indeed, these techniques are much more interesting and important to their practitioners than the film seems prepared to give them credit for.

Unconstructively moralising

Unsurprisingly, normative morality about both sex and drug use is centrally at play here. Chemsex is framed in such a way that the many pleasures associated with illicit sex and drugs are only ever allowed to emerge as dangerous.

The spectacle of non-normative sex and illicit substance-use gives the film an ominous tone that works against a more constructive treatment of its subject matter.

Marc Gélinas, CC BY-NC

If you want to get a sense of how moral fears about gay sex are being exploited to frame our emotional responses to Chemsex, imagine setting the film’s creepy music as the soundtrack for a documentary about the activities and excesses associated with popular mainstream events like Melbourne Cup, or St Patrick’s Day, or Anzac Day. I guess it would make a good comedy.

But most garden-variety, casual drinkers just wouldn’t take it seriously. Nor should they.

By treating the drugs it deals with as inherently bad, and stabilising the pharmakon in this way, Chemsex ultimately fails to find an appropriate “register of attention” to deal with its subject matter.

For this reason, I worry that the film runs the risk of doing more harm than good, by further marginalising the vast majority of occasional users (not to mention casual sex enthusiasts).

This is a great shame really, because people’s emotional and social circumstances change, making them much more vulnerable to some of the situations the film deals with, which are undoubtedly concerning.

Despite the (presumably) good intentions of the directors, what Chemsex demonstrates most powerfully is that the complexities of gay sex and drug use demand much more careful, incisive and intimate forms of attention.


Chemsex was released in the UK by Pecadillo Pictures, in conjunction with Vice, on December 4.