Having a moral panic about chemsex? Here’s why it’s not as bad as you think

There’s no clear evidence to connect the rise in HIV infection to gay sex parties fuelled by drugs – and it can help groups of men to bond

Jamie Hakim
Wednesday 25 November 2015 13:48
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Chemsex has been explored by media outlets from Vice to the national newspapers.
Chemsex has been explored by media outlets from Vice to the national newspapers.

A surprising amount of media coverage has been dedicated to a niche sexual phenomenon known as “chemsex” in recent weeks. First identified by sexual health services around 2011, chemsex refers to gay male group sex parties fuelled by a mix of the recreational drugs GHB, mephadrone and crystal meth. It has been claimed that these parties, which can last longer than a day, have been linked to the spread of HIV infections and could lead to a public health crisis.

As part of our research into the phenomenon, my colleague Alison Winch and I have begun analysing the media coverage of chemsex - which includes a Radio 4 documentary, a Vice film called Chemsex, two plays, and multiple articles in newspapers and magazines.

Some common themes have emerged: that chemsex is on the rise among gay men; that most, if not all, gay men’s engagement with chemsex is a form of self-harm rooted in internalised homophobia; that chemsex leads to physical as well as mental health issues - and sometimes death; and, most critically, that the practice is linked to a recent increase in HIV transmission in the UK. Like all media debates that verge on moral panic, this view of chemsex is partial, distorted and, on occasion, hysterical.

The way chemsex has been portrayed not only draws on a familiar repertoire of homophobic, but also on some pretty flimsy science. From all the data that has so far been collected on, it is possible to say that chemsex is a growing phenomenon – but it only partially resembles its media coverage.

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There is little evidence to suggest that it is on the rise amongst Britain’s gay community as a whole. According to the The Chemsex Study, the most comprehensive study on chemsex in Britain to date, the practice is becoming popular in London; even more specifically, in the boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham – Vauxhall, and its surrounding areas. What can be most reasonably deduced is that similar numbers of men who used to take cocaine, ecstasy and other party drugs on Vauxhall’s dance floors in the 2000s are now taking different drugs, in more sexualised ways, in private accommodation and gay saunas. This is a subtle but important difference.

The question to ask about chemsex is not why more gay men are engaging it, but why a particular cohort of gay men stopped taking certain party drugs on the dancefloors of Vauxhall and started taking others in different settings?

My research suggests a variety of partial explanations: the gentrification of Vauxhall and its gay scene; the unsustainably high cost of living in London; cuts to local community services; and the issues migrants face when they move into these sorts of conditions. Chemsex can be seen as a particularly intense way for groups of people to form intimate collective bonds at a time when the government’s social and economic policies attempt to make this very thing impossible.

This is not the account given in the media. The most common explanation of chemsex is that gay men have internalised homophobia in ways that cause them to experiment with drugs and sex. There is some evidence to suggest this is the case for some men. And if it is, who is to say that it is necessarily always self-destructive? Like all human behaviours, it can be - and clearly it is for some people.

A major reason for the media coverage of chemsex as destructive is that most of the first-hand accounts of the experience come from people who present it as a problem at sexual health clinics. The media then select the most horrifying of these. The fact that men (or anyone else) might have sex on drugs simply because, as academic Kane Race puts it, “it feels nice” is a perspective that is under-researched and under-represented.

As for the connection between chemsex and HIV transmission, there is little academic consensus on this: half the studies state that there might be a link between drugs and sexual risk taking, but the other half say there is not. Where HIV transmission might be connected to chemsex, it is difficult to establish whether the drugs had any influence or whether those men would have engaged in unprotected sex anyway. The recent rise in HIV infection is, in fact, more likely to do with the poor quality of gay sex education available in Britain.

I am not a so-called “chemsex-denier”. Chemsex clearly provides very real problems in some cases, and we need more health services and community support programmes to help those individuals. But what we also need is a calm, measured, and rigorously-researched approach that helps us to really understand not only the problems it poses for some men, but what its pleasures do for others too.

Dr Jamie Hakim in a lecturer in media studies at the University of East Anglia and former deputy editor of Attitude magazine

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