In the wake of campaigns such as #metoo and Time’s Up, and with relationships and sex education becoming a mandatory part of the curriculum in England and Wales, consent is being discussed as never before. Campaigns such as Yes Means Yes are already doing a lot to promote the concept of affirmative consent. The next step is to ensure that people understand other particulars of consent, and not least what it means to have capacity to give it.
It’s crucial to break down the idea that a “yes” in the moment is always enough – especially when people are using recreational substances that alter their capacity to make decisions.
Humans have used drugs for sexual purposes for millennia, starting with easily found plant and animal substances. The perceived positive psychological and physical effects of drug-taking on sexual experiences are well established: increased confidence, pleasure and intensity of experience. And the consent issues this raises are particularly apparent for some men who have sex with men, a particular set of practices, known together as “chemsex”.
Although it’s been practised for years, chemsex was brought to wider public attention in 2015 by a documentary depicting the sexualised drug taking of gay and bisexual men in London. Unlike most sexual experiences involving drugs, which take place spontaneously, chemsex involves purposefully using drugs to facilitate, enhance and extend sex. The drugs typically involved include GHB, methamphetamine (crystal meth) and mephedrone.
As far as the participants are concerned, chemsex usually entails positive sexual experiences – but for a minority, it can involve sexual coercion and violence.
In 2017, a survey conducted by Gay Star News found that one in ten men who participated in chemsex said they had been sexually assaulted while doing so. And other news outlets have reported on men being sexually assaulted in chemsex settings following voluntary drug consumption or after they had been given too much of a drug by another person. Until sexual violence in chemsex settings is addressed, it will continue – and more and more gay and bisexual men will enter the criminal justice system for sexual crimes committed in these settings.
Findings from The Chemsex Study, commissioned by three London local authorities, suggest that many sexual assault incidents in chemsex settings happen following accidental drug overdoses, for example, where men had passed out and woken up to find they were being penetrated without their consent. By definition, these experiences meet the legal criteria for rape – yet the men who experienced them were hesitant to label them as such. As one man interviewed by Buzzfeed News put it: “By some people’s definition I have been raped more than once … but I would never define it as that in my head – it doesn’t feel like that.”
Some of the men who spoke to The Chemsex Study’s researchers described consent as complicated when drugs were involved. This was predominantly because while consent was being given, there was a question surrounding whether or not the capacity to make that decision was present. As one of the men interviewed said:
If someone had had too much and their inhibitions are reduced and none of it is really consensual, but then none of it is against anyone’s will. I think really it goes with the situation, it goes with the territory … Some people are giving consent but I mean is it really consent when someone is literally on the verge of passing out?
And for all that the chemsex context is highly specific, the consent issues it presents are hardly unique.
Creating clear consent norms
As has long been clear to public health researchers, voluntary drug use is also a risk factor for sexual violence in the wider population. Heterosexual women report being taken advantage of sexually following voluntary drug use. Drug use is also connected with university-aged men’s propensity for sexual aggression. Discussions surrounding the law, sexual consent and drug-taking must extend to the wider population.
More broadly, it’s abundantly clear that people in general struggle to define “sexual consent”, and that understandings of what constitutes consent vary widely. Given that these questions of definition exist among experts – whether in popular culture, the academy, or the criminal justice system – it’s hardly surprising that some people who voluntarily have sex under the influence of drugs consider consent to be unclear in these situations. We now have an opportunity to come up with unified and consistent definitions of what consent is and where it can be given, and to break down misconceptions along the way.
Behaviour change can only be achieved once both behaviour and the individual and cultural attitudes that surround it are understood. That means we need to have a better understanding of the extent to which people using drugs during sex have the capacity and freedom to consent – but also, the extent to which those people believe themselves to have it. Where they do consider themselves able to consent to sex, we need to observe how the people using drugs communicate that consent. And we must try to understand how different drugs at different doses affect users’ capacity to give consent and communicate it. This is something we’re hoping to find out more about in our current UK research project, Let’s Talk About Sex, in which we are learning more about people’s alcohol- and drug-involved sexual experiences. (To take part or to find out more about the project, click here.)
Ultimately, if we want to make practices like chemsex safer and establish a culture of clear consent norms, we need to do more than explain what consent should look like and start understanding what it actually does look like to people when they are gaining and giving consent under the influence of drugs.