Insider: meet the men having chemsex
According to James Wharton, a gay ex-soldier who released his memoir, Out in the Army, in 2014, being in the throes of a chemsex high is like “walking into someone’s flat and having sex with 10 people you’ve never met before within five minutes of arriving. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d have the balls to do that in any other sense.”
While he was under the influence of a number of chemicals, it was normal for James to entertain multiple men after parties at his London flat, often forgetting to even eat during weekend-long sex and drugs marathons. It might sound more Game of Thrones than reality, but to the gay men who practise chemsex, it’s a regular part of living.
‘Chemsex’ is having sex using drugs – mephedrone, crystal meth, and gamma- hydroxybutyrate (G) – known to heighten libido. In James’ words, “They make you horny as hell and lower your barriers.” For him, newly single in his twenties, chemsex filled what he identifies as a “void”. There is no better source of validation than “a group of people telling you that they want to have sex with you.”
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
For most chemsex exponents, the early stages of the experience are likely to be positive, validating, thrilling. Like numerous drugs, they can be relatively harmless. Crispin, who practises chemsex regularly in groups and one-to-one, tells me, “It creates a really beautiful, intensely sexual safe space where everyone feels comfortable.”
Chemsex though, has a dark side, with deaths linked to the practice becoming prominent over the last five years. In 2015, the British Medical Journal identified it as a health priority; in 2017, the European Commission included it as one of various “new and emerging risk behaviours” contributing to the rise of syphilis and, as I learn from activist David Stuart (who coined the term itself) one gay man dies in London every month in a chemsex context.
David tells me the term encapsulates “a very highly-charged and emotional issue, very specific to the gay experience.” As recovering addict Mark S King says about crystal meth, “It was a drug that exalted my sexuality. Anything which lowers our inhibitions is ideal for a community raised to suppress those very sexual desires.”
But, despite it clearly helping gay men have inhibition-free sex, Mark believes chemsex is a crisis. David agrees, saying it causes suicides and overdoses. “Ten years ago, we saw more gay men flirting with chemsex, often managing the consequences quite well. A decade on, many thousands are further down a ‘problematic’ path, experiencing poor mental health, loss of jobs and estrangement from loved ones.”
Mark, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985, saw an acquaintance die after overdosing on G. He says crystal meth destroyed him “because it was the first time I encountered something I couldn’t control. By the time I was done, I had ruined a couple of relationships, lost a partner and a job, and I’d been arrested.”
ALL ABOUT CHEMISTRY
The phrase ‘chemsex’ may be inextricably bound up in gay culture, but plenty of straight people also use drugs to enhance sexual pleasure. Sex educator Ashley Manta is an advocate for pairing cannabis with sex and while this has long been a practice, it’s only relatively recently entered the mainstream. Ashley says the drug enhances sexual pleasure by addressing the things that often stand in its way, for example “If a partner has chronic pain, high stress or just wants to intensify their tactile sensations so they feel even better.” Most studies, she says, discover around two-thirds of respondents find cannabis sex-enhancing.
As for other highs, Crispin says drugs like poppers (“in five seconds you’re overcome by light-headedness and are very aware of every part of your body”) and ecstasy (“it takes sexual pleasure to a new realm”) enhance his sexual experiences. But, for him at least, mixing sex and drugs isn’t compulsory: “It’s just another fun way of doing things.”
Everyone is different. Mark, who experienced the intense lows of chemsex has now been clean for six years. Even though he admits our conversation causes him to wonder what it might like to feel “the warm rush of that drug in my veins” again, he tells me: “Caring for my partner and his satisfaction is a turn-on to me in a way I couldn’t have imagined before. I wouldn’t trade that for all the meth in the world.”