No chemsex please, we’re British. It has widely been reported this morning that the UK government is gunning for chemsex in its new drug strategy, published today. But what is it, and is it really that bad?
It’s when people take drugs that enhance sex and make them feel uninhibited, more often in some gay communities. Typically it involves crystal methamphetamine, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) or mephedrone, also known as miaow miaow, which can be snorted or swallowed. There’s also “slamsex”, which is when the drugs are injected for a more intense high.
The trend has taken off in the last ten years or so, probably because of the rising use of these particular drugs along with the boom in hook-up apps.
It raises the risk of sexually transmitted infections, like HIV and hepatitis C. It’s thought that the drugs can make people who usually use condoms feel less inhibited and have unprotected sex. Needle sharing for slamsex can also spread STIs.
To be fair to ministers, chemsex is a relatively new behaviour that is raising concern among sexual health doctors as well as gay rights groups. People have always had sex while drunk or high, but these three drugs in particular make people lose their inhibitions.
GHB is also a mild anaesthetic, which can encourage forceful anal sex, which heightens infection risk. Typically people engaging in chemsex spend two or three days sleeping with multiple partners.
According to a survey of over a thousand gay men in London, one-fifth had had chemsex in the past five years and one-tenth had done it in the past four weeks. According to a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal, some people said they do it to cope with internalised homophobia and negative feelings about their sexuality.
They haven’t gone into much detail yet other than saying doctors should support targeted interventions and collaborate with community groups.
Hopefully something more effective than just telling people not to do it. There are harm-reduction approaches that could make chemsex safer. For instance, some sexual health clinics provide batches of colour-coded needles, which helps participants stick to their own needles and avoid needle-sharing.
What is chemsex?
From the sexual revolution of the 1960's through to the present day, drugs and sex have been entwined. This is represented across a broader swathe of society, but a recent subsection within the gay men's community is chemsex.
While chemsex is appearing with growing frequency in the media, it is important to note that the phenomena of chemsex is not the norm for most gay men in Britain, even in major urban areas like London where chemsex practice is relatively prevalent.
What does chemsex mean?
The origins of chemsex originate on sexual networking apps for gay men, the phrase coined by the gay men's health sector, referring to the use of any combination of drugs that include crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and/or GHB/GBL by men who have sex with men (MSM), before or during sex.
The result or aim is sex that can sometimes last for several days. There is little need for sleep or food (Reshape). Chemsex is characterised by the easy availability of these drugs through geo-sexual networking sites.
Due to the sexually disinhibiting nature of the 'high' provided by the chems it is often associated with multiple partners and a sense of invulnerability to harm/risk.
This can translate into reduced concern for safer sex practices and feelings of confidence, being sexually adventurous, heightened sense of pleasure, stamina, and endurance that may last for days without sleep.
Unwanted side effects while under the influence can include aggression, paranoia, hallucinations/perceptions of persecution and overdose.
The opportunity to get hold of the substances is a key component of addictive behavioural problems. As the substances involved with chemsex are so easily available (predominantly through networking on geo-sexual sites like Grindr) then dependence and addiction to the substances as well as the sexual acting out is hugely increased in this population of users.
Tolerance and withdrawal can occur with frequent and excessive use of Crystal Meth, GHB or Mephedrone, thus the user could become dependent. As a physical dependence grows, so does the likelihood of risky behaviours, such as sharing needles and ignoring safe sexual practices.
Due to the increased likelihood of risk-taking, participants may be exposed to HIV or Hepatitis C. Sexual health clinics are also vital to helping gay men stay safe.
Obtaining substances becomes easier by the creation of esoteric language. 'PnP' is shorthand for 'Party and Play', often used to arrange meets online, and 'parTy' means the use of crystal methamphetamine (which is smoked or injected).
Unfortunately, these and other terms are often lumped together which isn't conducive to gaining a fuller understanding of what's happening.
The chemsex phenomenon is still unfolding and the long-term social implications for those involved are yet to be completely understood. However, while the use and easy availability of hard drugs remains at its centre,
the healthcare industry needs to be watchful for potentially complex, longstanding consequences for those taking part on a social, psychological and physical level.
Chems are taken to get high, chill out, to be part of the crowd, feel comfortable and to lose inhibitions. They can enhance feelings of pleasure, friendship and intimacy but when the user sobers up then there are often periods of regret, depression and realisation of the risks taken.
Chems are easy to access (widely offered / requested on grindr and other hook up apps) and often not associated with traditional (heroin) drug taking.
Longer rougher sex sessions using chems increase the risk of hepatitis C being transmitted. Sex on chems can cause people to take sexual risks they wouldn't normally take, increasing the chance of picking up HIV and other STI’s.
The After Party service run by TVPS is able to provide information, help and support to anyone using chems. For more advice and support, contact [email protected]
Your local sexual health service provides a full sexual health screening service including tests for: Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, rapid HIV testing (60 seconds), Hepatitis B and C as well as vaccinations against Hepatitis A and B,
free treatment and advice. All the services offer professional, non-judgemental care and support for sexual health problems to everybody, irrespective of their sexuality or sex life
The Gauge clinic at the Florey Clinic in Reading is a specific weekly clinic for gay and other men who have sex with men.The LGBT+ clinic in Reading also operates weekly.
Gay and other men who have sex with men are welcome at any clinic session at the Garden Clinic. There is a men only clinic at the Garden Clinic, Upton Hospital from 5-7 pm on Mondays for booked appointments only.
Three quarters of men who have sex with men have used at least one recreational drug (excluding alcohol). It is important to remember that not all gay guys use chems guys and that chems are not soley used by gay guys. Knowing what is around and how the drugs can affect your body and mind can help you play more safely.
Traditionally the party drugs were cocaine, MDMA, Viagra and poppers but increasingly these are being replaced with other drugs such as;
Crystal methamphetamine (meth, crystal, methamphetamine, ice and Tina)
GHB/GBL (G, Grievous bodily harm, Gina, or liquid ecstasy)
Mephedrone (Meow meow, MCAT, m-cat, meph, miaew, bubbles, white magic and plant feeder)
Brian Paddick, the former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, have spoken out movingly about the dangers of the chemsex drug, GHB. Paddick’s ex-boyfriend, Michael, died of a GHB overdose at a chemsex party in 2013.
Speaking out publicly for the first time about Michael’s tragic death, Paddick is calling for a government-funded publicity programme to raise awareness about chemsex drugs. But what help is there to stop for people who get addicted to chemsex?
GHB or GBL: GHB (gammahydroxybutrate) and GBL (gammabutyrolactone) have sedative and anaesthetic effects. They are used at chemsex parties to reduce sexual inhibitions and bring about euphoria and drowsiness.
Accidental death is a risk because people can ‘go under’ when using the drug – experiencing fits, slipping into a coma or suffering respiratory arrest. Accidental overdose is a serious risk because the drug comes in liquid or powder form; sometimes potency is very unclear and it’s easy to make errors or take risks with dosage.
It’s also easy to get addicted if people use GHB or GHL frequently. If physical addiction develops, then withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, shaking, sweating and insomnia. In extreme cases, people need to dose every hour in order to prevent the onset of severe withdrawal symptoms.
With GHB or GBL addiction, it’s strongly advised to seek medical support or addiction treatment, to manage detoxification safely and rehabilitate effectively.
Mephedrone (meph): mephedrone is a synthetic stimulant that brings about feelings of euphoria and causes a speedy sensation. Side effects can include hallucinations, insomnia, inflammation, heart palpitations and anxiety. It can be psychologically addictive.
Many of the longer term effects of mephedrone are not known, however, as there isn’t much evidence available. Methamphetamine (crystal meth): this drug is highly addictive and can be very potent. It releases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.
Crystal meth can make people feel extremely high, charged, alert and sexually aroused with decreased sexual inhibitions. Using and withdrawing from crystal meth is often extremely distressing, both physically and mentally – in some cases inducing heart problems, paranoia, aggression and even suicidal ideation.
Associated risks of chemsex: Apart from the risks of drug poisoning or fatal drug overdose, chemsex has also been connected in some cases to violence, rape and even murder of gay men.
Chemsex also carries a risk of contracting STIs including HIV, due to the effect of reducing sexual inhibitions or safe practices. There’s also a risk of transmitting blood-borne viruses including hepatitis and HIV through injecting drugs with shared needles.
People have also been victims of theft at chemsex parties, where money and/or drugs have been stolen from them while they are under the influence of drugs
For many people, gay and straight, hedonistic sex-fuelled with drugs starts off as experimentation. It’s about fun, thrill seeking and pleasure. It’s a heady mix of risk and reward, which taps directly into human motivational processes..
For some gay men, chemsex is a form of self-expression and liberation, in a world that has felt isolating or prejudiced at times. For tourists in big cities, chemsex can be a way of connecting very quickly with the gay community and enjoying sexual experiences.
As with any drug use or reward-seeking behaviour, no-one ever starts out with the intention of doing themselves or other people harm or getting addicted. Many people who attend chemsex parties won’t get addicted or ‘play’ so much that it damages other areas of their life..
For some, however, experimentation becomes riskier as they chase guaranteed highs or specific sensations. As drugs are used more frequently and in greater quantities, the risks of physical and psychological addiction increase too..
When addiction sets in, the choice about engaging in chemsex – including how often, how long and what people do – is diminished or non-existent. As with any other addiction, people can find themselves doing things they did not intend to do, bringing about guilt, shame or disassociation with self.
Brian Paddick has now spoken out very movingly about the loss of his former partner and friend, Michael. Paddick was one of Britain’s most senior police officers, who himself never used drugs. In 2013, he received a phone call from Michael’s brother, to inform him that Michael was on a life support machine at University College Hospital in London.
Michael was brain dead with no hope of recovery. Paddick rushed to the hospital to say goodbye. Within 12 hours, Michael’s life support machine was switched off.At St Pancras Coroner’s Court, the tragedy of Michael’s death was investigated. Michael was at a chemsex party, where he took GHB. He took a second dose of GHB by mistake and then made himself sick, which he believed would prevent an overdose. He returned to the party and lay down on the sofa, where he started snoring.
Other people at the party thought he was asleep, so they moved to another room. At the inquest, the coroner said: “For future reference, if someone has taken GHB and they start snoring, that’s when to call the ambulance, because that’s a sign their respiratory system is shutting down.”
By the time the ambulance crew arrived, it was too late. “The ambulance worked on him for half an hour at the scene and managed to get him restarted and got him to hospital, but they reckon he hadn’t been breathing for about an hour,” Brian Paddick said. “There’s no way back from that.”
Christine Schierano, a criminologist at Liverpool John Moores University, has been observing London’s evolving chemsex scene since 2011. Her research is the only long-term ethnographical study into the chemsex scene.
Schierano happened upon the chemsex world in 2011 through a group of her gay male friends. They invited her to chemsex parties, where she started documenting this element of gay subculture.
She identified the key role played by chemsex dealers, who began to hold chemsex parties in their homes. Dealers mainly supply chemsex drugs face-to-face, as well as via dating apps.
Due to the intensity of the scene, most dealers don’t last very long on the chemsex scene. Of the 23 dealers, Schierano profiled from 2011, only 3 of them were still in London in 2017.
In Schierano’s view, “chemsex is mainly people chilling out, some having sex, some taking drugs, listening to music and laughing”; however, in her opinion, “chemsex is not a happy ending for most people. It does more damage than good.”
She also identified loneliness as a key factor in chemsex. “Even though it’s very multicultural and full of people, London is the loneliest city in world. The chemsex scene is the product of this,” she said.
When substance abuse and/ or sex addiction take over, it can be a very scary, disempowering and isolating experience. The feeling of not being able to stop, even if you desperately want to, can be confusing and incredibly frightening. Increasing consequences of chemsex – such as damage to relationships, health, finances, employment and self-respect
– can mount up over time. Not everyone who participates in chemsex will have a bad experience or get addicted, but for those who do, the consequences can be devastating. As addiction progresses, people can take greater risks to achieve to same highs they achieved early on, increasing the amounts of drugs they take or the kind of sexual activity they’ll participate in.
And there’s a further issue for people from the LGBT community. Often, gay people already feel a certain amount of stigma due to their sexuality and experiencing homophobia in society. Coming forward for help with chemsex addiction can be extremely difficult because it requires an enormous amount of trust that they will not be even further stigmatised.
There are specialist support workers in London, including 56 Dean Street, who are available advise gay men about safer chemsex practices, which is a vital source of information and support.
But what about people who want to stop chemsex altogether? Professional addiction help, including residential treatment, is available for chemsex addicts. UKAT treats all forms of drug addiction, often in combination with behavioural or process addictions including sex.
We specialise in abstinence-based rehabilitation programmes with medically supervised detoxification if required, in order for clients to confront the harms of their addiction, as well as uncover the root causes of addictive behaviours.
Chemsex recovery starts with a willingness to abstain from chemsex, in order to gain understanding into the physical, mental and emotional drivers for addictive behaviours. If you want to stop chemsex but cannot do it alone, UKAT have a range of residential treatment facilities, to suit all budgets and personal requirements
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