It's Friday night and a group of gay men is gathering in London for a party in one of their homes. They're of different ages and backgrounds but all are in the professions, many of them affluent and enviably successful. The party has been arranged via Grindr and other sexual-networking apps – and it will last for the whole weekend. It begins when the men strip to their underwear, watch porn and then snort, swallow or “slam” (inject) drugs until they're overwhelmed by the urge to have sex.
More and more gay men are going to parties like this to indulge in “chemsex”, or sex under the influence of drugs. Its popularity has been fuelled by advances in smartphone technology and the increasing availability of cheap drugs such as mephedrone, crystal meth and, most importantly, GHB (or just “G”, a mixture of floor stripper mixed with drain cleaner).
These drugs induce euphoria and reduce inhibitions to such an extent that the user might have little idea who they're having sex with, let alone if that sex is safe. But if we in the gay community think this is a problem that can be obscured from the world at large, pretending that it affects only a rogue subset among us, we are wrong; chemsex is merely the most extreme indication of a hidden burden many of us still carry, despite the rapid development of gay rights over the past decade and a half.
Because little research has been conducted into chemsex, there's a lack of reliable statistics about the number of men involved. However, the staff at 56 Dean Street, London's pioneering sexual-health clinic, estimate that 3,000 gay men who use recreational drugs in sexual contexts come through their doors each month. It's also difficult to obtain reliable evidence for the link between chemsex and rising rates of HIV, but a study commissioned by three south London boroughs, published in 2014, found that three out of four gay men who had attended chemsex parties had engaged in unprotected sex, with a potentially high risk of passing on the virus. Those injecting drugs increase the risk if sharing needles.
Perhaps more worryingly, men who misjudge their dose of G or mix it with alcohol run the risk of going into a coma or even dying. Although most deaths related to G are recorded as heart failure or some other form of bodily malfunction, over the past five years a handful of deaths have been attributed to G, such as those of three men in London's Pleasuredrome sauna in 2012.
I've never been attracted to chemsex, but a couple of my friends are. They're in their late twenties and early thirties and both have successful media careers. A while ago I noticed that after attending parties they were often too exhausted to go to work on Monday and spent most of the following week plagued by depression, anxiety and paranoia. When I expressed my concerns, they insisted they were just having fun and I was accused of morally judging them. Nevertheless, I started to become seriously worried when one of them told me that at a recent party he had misjudged his dose of G, “gone under” and had come round three hours later to discover someone was having unprotected sex with him.
The following weekend I decided to witness chemsex culture for myself. My friends took me to a party hosted by a professional fiftysomething at his flat in north London and attended by around 20 guests. They all sat around the living room in their underwear, chatting and listening to music, breaking away to take drugs in the kitchen when alarms on their phones reminded them to top up their dose of G – and occasionally retiring to the bedrooms to have sex. They stressed that it wasn't a chemsex party but a “chill-out”, so the objective of the event was to take drugs, with sex an expected by-product rather than its primary focus. Except that what I saw wasn't remotely sexy; as the men became more and more high, some of them began thrashing around, twitching and gurning, unable to maintain an erection without taking Viagra, and appeared to be possessed and desperate. By the time I left, at 4am, I felt very sad but also slightly hopeless.
Scenes such as this are documented in the film Chemsex, which premiered at the London Film Festival this weekend (it will get a wider release in December). Exploring the UK chemsex scene, with unrestricted access to several parties, it offers interviews with current and former participants. While upsetting to watch, the film does manage to explain the appeal of chemsex. One interviewee says that having sex on G is “like a firework display going off in your soul”. After it, he adds, sober sex is just dull: “If I have to spend the rest of my life sober,” he says in the film, “you might as well take me to the euthanasia clinic.”
The film's portrayal of the chemsex phenomenon will no doubt shock straight viewers who've been seduced by the vision of a newly emancipated community of proud and happy gay men that many of us have been so willing to project. Yet while the behaviour the film documents may seem repulsive to many, I found myself moved to tears by the men interviewed and the experiences that had driven them to chemsex.
Perhaps that's because I have my own history of self-destruction. Throughout my twenties I battled a serious problem with binge-drinking and drink-fuelled sex, which is arguably the original form of chemsex and one familiar to a much wider section of the British population. I only conquered my problem after giving up alcohol and seeing a therapist for five years. What I learnt during that time was that my experience of homophobic bullying as an effeminate and obviously gay child had left part of me believing I was just as disgusting as everyone had said – and it was this self-loathing which was motivating my urge to self-destruct.
Of course, there can be all kinds of reasons why people, both gay and straight, try to destroy themselves – and this is something I like to explore in my fiction. (My latest novel is about several predominantly straight characters who for different reasons have all grown up believing they're not good enough and have gone on to try to punish themselves with either drink, drugs, dangerous sex or abusive relationships.) But I'm particularly interested in the shared experiences that can drive gay men to self-destruct through practices such as chemsex.
However happy we like to think we are as adults and however much progress has been made in the field of equal rights, the reality is that most gay men over a certain age have grown up experiencing homophobia. Even those who haven't will have seen it happening to others and subliminally absorbed the message that being gay is wrong. I believe that, like my own problem with binge-drinking, the chemsex phenomenon is a direct result of the lingering shame many of us still feel about our sexuality – and many of the men practising chemsex are looking for a sexual disinhibitor or a means to obliterate their traumatic pasts. Affordable drugs and the use of phone apps for sexual networking merely make it easier for them to respond to these urges.
Perhaps most tragically, many younger men who have grown up in an apparently much less homophobic society now seem to be falling into the scene almost accidentally; anyone logging on to Grindr need contact only a few users before being offered “chems”. And although younger gay men in general might carry around less shame attached to their sexuality, they may have had other personal experiences that motivate them to self-destruct – or may simply be struggling to understand their masculinity or sexual identity.
Of course, not everyone who tries chemsex once becomes a regular on the scene – I know several people who have attended one or two parties and decided it's not for them. Some might also argue there are certain drug cultures that involve harmless recreational use. By contrast, perhaps what is most worrying about chemsex culture is that it can have a much bigger impact on all areas of the user's life.
I chatted about this to another friend, a marketing executive in his late thirties, who stopped practising chemsex six months ago. He told me how he was sucked into a scene he called a “dark underworld”, describing a life of “loneliness and paranoia” as part of an “emotionless” community, and his struggle to get through the week and make it to the next party. “If you work Monday to Friday, you're still high on the Monday,” he told me, “a bit wobbly by Tuesday and dying by Wednesday. But by Friday you're starting to feel OK again and have forgotten how bad you felt at the beginning of the week. So then the cycle starts again. And before you know it you're in hell.”
After a few years my friend finally found the courage to quit chemsex when he realised that while drugs may have been numbing the pain of his past, they were cutting him off from much that he loved about his life. He's since had to relearn how to have sex without drugs and describes the experience of quitting as the hardest thing he's ever done, not least because he knows how easy it would be to re-access the scene. But he has no doubt that he's done the right thing. “The joy of not having to hide anything, of being myself when I'm not trashed is incredible,” he told me. “It's amazing to be interested in the world again.”
It's not just as individuals but as a community that we're starting to confront the issue of chemsex. There are a handful of support networks for men affected, such as the Facebook groups A Change of Scene and Let's Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs. And next year Matthew Todd, the editor of Attitude magazine, will publish a book that examines the damage homophobia has done to gay men, with a significant focus on the issues around chemsex.
But if we are becoming more open about all aspects of the gay experience, I hope people from outside our community won't react against us. And I hope people won't start dividing us into two distinct categories: “good” gays, who assimilate and have relationships and children, and “bad” gays, who go to chemsex parties and contract HIV. Because on the surface I'm a “good” gay but at times I've behaved like a “bad” gay. And if I'd been born 15 years later and gone through my self-destructive period when chemsex parties were popular, I can't help wondering whether I'd still be alive now. It's a difficult question to ask. But I think anyone who has ever battled an urge to self-destruct should ask themselves a similar question.
'Chemsex' is in cinemas from 4 December. Matt Cain's latest novel, 'Nothing But Trouble', is out now (£7.99, Pan Macmillan). For support: facebook.com/achangeof scene, facebook.com/letstalkaboutgaysexanddrugs