Virtual chemsex is on the rise in lockdown – but that doesn't mean it's any safer

The move to virtual sex sounds like a safer option as it reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, but virtual activity makes it harder to intervene or save people from overdosing

Ian Hamilton
Tuesday 26 May 2020 08:18 BST
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Combining drugs with sex has been going on for millennia. Stimulant drugs like amphetamine and cocaine not only increase sexual desire but the intensity of pleasure. As with many other aspects of life, chemsex has adjusted in recent months, moving from a physical to a virtual world, according to a recent survey carried out for the Gay Men’s Health Project. Almost half of respondents said they no longer engage in chemsex parties in person; instead they have opted for online chemsex.

The move to virtual sex sounds like a safer option as it reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea, which are on the rise again in the gay and straight community. But as one risk contracts another emerges, specifically the risk of overdose or unwanted side effects that most drugs carry. If you’re in human company someone can intervene, but a potentially lifesaving peer intervention is compromised in the virtual setting.

Paradoxically it’s not just the supercharged sex that’s seducing participants but the need for contact and to feel part of a community when feeling isolated and lonely. Drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine increase confidence and lubricate conversation, although cocaine can make you believe you’re more interesting and wittier than you are. For some, Covid-19 creates excess time, feelings of anxiety and a need for reassurance, all of which can be motivating factors beyond libido for chemsex. Amplifying sex with drugs are some people’s introduction to a longer relationship with drugs, but for many it will just be combining two already well known pleasurable activities.

Although in the UK we think of chemsex as a mainly male, gay activity this isn’t true of other countries. Drugs and sex are combined in straight communities in countries like America and some parts of Asia. Although exact numbers are difficult to find this still appears to be a minority activity. Being part of a minority activity can feel edgy and is woven into some people’s identity. Having multiple partners is not for everyone though. Add to this illicit drug use and the proportion of the population willing to even contemplate doing this quickly shrinks. As a result, some people still participating can feel stigmatised or at least wary of sharing their sexual history with, for example, staff in a health clinic, for fear of being judged or denied treatment.

Looking beyond Covid-19, it will be interesting to see whether this move to online chemsex gatherings is a temporary reaction to lockdown or if it remains a regular feature. What’s looking like it will change is access to methamphetamine in the UK and Europe: Dutch police have recently sounded the alarm about the increasing number of meth labs in the Netherlands. They suggest that facilities set up originally to manufacture ecstasy are being repurposed to produce methamphetamine. Using Mexican know-how, Dutch labs and known inter-European trafficking routes, everything is in place for an expansion of methamphetamine to enter our domestic market.

Last year’s survey of drug use in the UK population barely registered any reports of people using this type of drug. While there may be no current demand in the UK, suppliers will ensure that will change with price incentives and other well-tried marketing activities. The first group to notice this is likely to be those involved in chemsex. But that relatively small group won’t be enough for meth suppliers and distributors. But it is likely to become an all-too-familiar drug in the UK in the future.

The effects of methamphetamine last longer than cocaine, and this could prove attractive if both drugs are priced similarly. Cocaine is already good value and stronger than its ever been; if dealers try to match these two factors with methamphetamine we’re likely to see a significant rise in use. That’s the last thing we need – the UK already has the highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe. Adding another potent drug to the menu will only add to the record numbers dying due to drugs. As a country we are ill prepared for the problems that methamphetamine will cause.

Overall, the drugs that people will use and the way in which they experience them is changing significantly, and not just during the lockdown.

Ian Hamilton is associate professor of addiction at the University of York

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