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Chemsex: A dangerous shortcut to intimacy

According to a recent study, Brits are more likely to take drugs before having sex than anyone else in the world. Alexandra Jones investigates.

Tuesday 30 April 2019 17:39 BST

“I love smoking a spliff while my boyfriend goes down on me. It makes the experience, you know...tingly.” Thirty-year-old Helen* and I have been friends for more than ten years. She’s a wildly successful sales exec working for one of the UK’s biggest tech companies. She’s also a stoner (“and proud,” she laughs). Though we’ve been friends for a long time, this conversation is uncharted territory. “We smoke most days, but sometimes make a point of doing it for sex purposes,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “It definitely lowers inhibitions, you really relax into it. And I think it makes me feel more connected to my boyfriend – partly because it makes me more sensitive.”

Last week a new report from academics at University College London alongside researchers at the Global Drug Survey sent ripples through the media with the announcement that we Brits are more likely than our counterparts in Europe and the US to combine drugs with sex. More than 22,000 people globally took part in the survey, which found that more than 60 per cent of British respondents had drunk alcohol before sex in the past year.

Admittedly, this isn’t groundbreaking news – many of us would consider a large glass of red an excellent aphrodisiac (hell, some of us would even consider a large glass of vodbull an aphrodisiac), But, as Professor Adam Winstock, consultant addiction psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, explains, “Part of the point of this report is to bust some unhelpful stereotypes which exist around the intersection between sex and chems [meaning all drugs, including alcohol]. Everyone seems obsessed by the idea that the only people who have ‘chemsex’ are gay men. It’s unhelpful because almost everyone at some point has probably had sex on drugs – as researchers we need understand how and why people do it, so that we can offer the best harm reduction advice.”

It definitely lowers inhibitions, you really relax into it

And as my chat with Helen illustrates – even if alcohol is the most common ‘chem’, it’s certainly not the only one. Alongside cannabis (36 per cent of British respondents had combined it with sex), around 13 per cent of Brits surveyed had combined sex with cocaine and 20 per cent had combined sex with MDMA. My friend Rachel*, 28 and working in PR, is an advocate of the latter, arguing that it allows for a more “transcendental experience,” she tells me. “I’ve had some great sex on MD, it’s like this whole other, deeply emotional vibe but I’ve only done it with a partner – I’ve never just hooked up with someone while on MDMA,” she explains. “I don’t understand that at all; it makes you really empathetic, which I think adds to the sexual experience, but I wouldn’t want to be baring my soul to someone I picked up in a club.” In fact, according to one study of 35 recreational users, consuming MDMA led to an increase in desire for and satisfaction with a sexual encounter, but not in likelihood of orgasm. “I don’t think orgasm is the point,” says Rachel. “It’s more about the journey. I know it sounds really hippy-dippy but if you do just a little with the right person, it can be great.”

A recent report found that Brits are more likely than our counterparts in Europe and the US to combine drugs with sex (iStock)

My own experiences have varied wildly. Recent research shows that about a third of women in the US have, like Helen, used marijuana before sex and those who did were twice as likely to say they had “satisfactory” orgasms. But personally, I couldn’t think of anything worse than smoking cannabis while having sex. Through trial and error – emphasis on the error – I’ve found that cannabis makes me heart-palpitatingly anxious. I once took two tokes on a joint while on a beach in California and became so worried that I was getting sunburnt that I put my entire body (head, arms, legs, everything) inside my then-boyfriend’s t-shirt. He came out of the sea to find me huddled like ET while everyone around me sunbathed happily and decided it was best to take me home.

As Winstock points out, “It’s a really bad idea to try having sex on any drug you’ve never taken before, or on one which has led you to have a bad reaction. You’re already in an emotionally charged situation without adding to that.” MDMA too isn’t one I can imagine taking in the pursuit of a “transcendental” shag. I don’t like being pawed at at the best of times, let alone while high, something which Winstock points out is more common than people might think: “Some people become super sensitive, so touch can be intensified...I guess that comes down to who’s touching you and in what circumstances, but it can be unpleasant,” he says.

Taking a line or two with my then boyfriend, we had this wild, urgent, uninhibited sex

Then there’s cocaine, which I stopped taking a while ago (when I became more cognisant of the hypocrisy of doing a line and then despairing over climate change and human trafficking), but is probably responsible for my only good chemsex experience. Taking a line or two with my then boyfriend, we had this wild, urgent, uninhibited sex. As with most drugs – including alcohol – one of its main functions is as a disinhibitor, it makes you feel more invincibile, which might be great in the moment, but it can lead to some poor decision-making. Luckily I was with a partner I trusted but I’ve had many friends wake up with deep regrets after a combination of wine and cocaine meant they did things they’d usually never dream of. (Notably one friend tried anal sex for the first time while on cocaine, and in the heat of the moment didn’t realise that she’d sustained, erm, tearing. As well as stitches, she had to sit on a donut cushion for a week, which made for some awkward conversations at work.)

As for me, well, what goes up must comedown and the next day I woke up hungover and feeling emotionally bankrupt – which somewhat coloured the sexual experience. Was it worth it? In hindsight, with a blinding headache and a numb nose, probably not. Cocaine is also, often, a tricky one for men who want to engage in sexual activity. “When men choose which chems to use ahead of sex, it’s all about their dicks,” says Winstock. “Viagra, crystal meth...drugs that allow them to keep an erection for longer. In comparison, for women, the drugs that were rated most highly were those that promoted sexual intimacy, emotionality and sensuality. That’s why they tended to favour drugs like cannabis and MDMA.”

I started sweating, and my heart was hammering in my chest. I had to stop everything

Cocaine, however, is a notorious boner killer – as 24-year-old Josh* explains. “I met a girl on Tinder, and we came up with this plan to hang out, do cocaine and have sex. It seemed really dangerous, but kind of hot. I knew, though, that I couldn’t keep an erection if I took it, so I decided to get some Viagra.” In the year since Viagra was made available in the UK without prescription, more and more reports have surfaced of young men using it as a kind of sexual insurance policy against drink or drug-induced erectile dysfunction. “We got on the coke, chatted, were kissing and then I took the Viagra. After about an hour it still wasn’t working, so I took another. And then all of a sudden,” he pauses, “Boom. I had this...raging erection – to the point that it was painful. I started sweating, and my heart was hammering in my chest. I had to stop everything, and we opened the windows but I couldn’t get cool. I was really panicking – asking for her to call an ambulance. I really thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

Josh eventually had to get under a cold shower to cool his body down. “I was naked and whimpering in front of this girl I’d just met – it was the worst sexual experience of my life.” Though he says he’s unlikely to try cocaine again (“that was the fourth or fifth time I’d ever taken it, and the last,”) he’ll still keep a Viagra in his pocket “just in case”.

‘It makes you feel more invincibile, but it can lead to some poor decision-making’ (iStock)

Interestingly, none of the friends I speak to would consider what they do as chemsex. “I just imagine chemsex happening in a sex party environment,” says Helen. Rachel adds: “There’s something clinical about the term that I don’t feel fits with what I’m doing, although, I guess it is what I’m doing…” Perhaps to this overstimulated generation (with our busted our dopamine feedback loops) the intersection of sex and chems offers another way to feel the kind of buzz the previous generations would have gotten from some simpler pastime. “I think for me,” says Josh, “It felt like I could get to know this person in double time. We’d only met once before but then when the coke hit we were saying all sorts that we’d feel too embarrassed to be open about otherwise.” Helen agrees: “This is the first time I’ve been with someone who likes to smoke weed, and I feel like it’s made our relationship stronger and deeper in a much shorter amount of time. It’s not for everyone, but that’s the effect it’s had on us.”

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So perhaps it comes down to the fact that we’re too time poor (or impatient) to slow-grow our intimacy. But these shortcuts have a price. The chances of having a bad experience are certainly high – for every great chemsex encounter I hear of, there are three more like Josh’s where someone panics, someone loses their erection or worse. I certainly don’t plan on partaking again, but no judgement on anyone who likes it. As Winstock says, though, “Tread carefully.”

*All names have been changed.

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