At the height of his involvement in London’s chemsex scene, James Wharton, 32, would come home to his flat in south London from his well-paid job in the City, log on to Grindr or flick through his Whatsapp, messaging contacts to invite them over to spend the weekend taking drugs and having sex.
As party host, Wharton quickly became an expert both in procuring the drugs guests expected – crystal meth, GHB and mephedrone – and in the unwritten codes of behaviour: a millilitre too much GHB can be fatal, so stick to between 1.2 and 1.4ml diluted in a cup of lemonade; never have two doses within an hour; and if someone ‘goes under’ (falls unconscious) because of recklessness then politely ask them to leave when they wake up.
Despite his preference for rules, Wharton’s hedonistic lifestyle quickly got out of hand. He started going under on a weekly basis. Two different lodgers who rented his spare room left because they couldn’t deal with strangers passed out in the living room. His boss called him out on the number of Mondays he was ringing in sick. Friends became vocal in their disappointment that he was missing yet another Sunday lunch that had been in the diary for months.
Wharton told himself on the eve of his thirtieth birthday he would stop. He’d allowed himself a period of freedom, after a decade in the military and a long-term relationship. But he didn’t feel free anymore, he was trapped. To escape his demons he needed to move away from London and embrace sober sex.
At a parliamentary committee in January, psychosexual therapist Remziye Kunelaki said the UK is experiencing a “significant” increase in patients seeking therapy for ‘sober sex’. While the label can simply denote sexual activity without drugs or alcohol, for clinicians it has become shorthand for the growing number of people who want help to get out of the chemsex scene – gay men, like Wharton, as well as a smaller number of trans women and female sex workers, according to one of seven therapists who spoke to HuffPost UK.
The full scale of the problem in the UK is not yet known, so numbers are anecdotal. Michael Yates, a clinical psychologist at an NHS service in Homerton, east London, says he sees two to three men every day citing chemsex as a problem, a third of the clinic’s overall referrals.
LGBT drug and alcohol charity, London Friend, works with around 450 people a year, 85% of whom have an issue around chemsex, it says. And while experts agree that London is the epicentre of the chemsex scene, they say the issue presents to a lesser extent in others cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Drury says she recently moved to Bristol where she believes the problem also exists, just unrecognised.
“The trigger for many people is having witnessed a death at a chemsex party and wanting out of the scene.”
Of course, drink and drugs play a part in the sex lives of many Brits, and the trio of substances synonymous with chemsex – crystal meth, GHB (also known as the ‘date rape’ drug) and mephedrone – aren’t the only ones to bring feelings of euphoria, to melt away inhibition and shame, and to increase sexual stamina, at least initially. So why is chemsex proving more of a concern than generalised substance use in sexual encounters?
Counsellor and psychotherapist Silva Neves says the most immediate reason is that with chemsex the risk of overdose is ever present because the margin for error is so small. The trigger for many people coming to his clinic, he says, is having witnessed a death at a chemsex party and wanting out of the scene.
Another reason is that addiction can develop as early as the third use of these drugs. Once users are addicted they can develop physical issues like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation and low libido, but also self-esteem issues, loneliness and an inability to have sex while sober. They may also start to engage in more risky behaviours such as unsafe sex or sex without consent.
Some users can start to lose touch with reality. Murray Blacket, a sexual and relationship psychotherapist in Finsbury Park, north London says clients talk about ‘lost weekends’ where they go out for drinks on a Friday night and tumble down a chemsex rabbit hole from which they don’t emerge till Monday, or later.
“This is not the same as having sex after a few glasses of wine,” says Neves.
Lewis* finished university last year and moved to London to live with friends and complete a masters course, funded by part-time work in bars. The 22-year-old who is bisexual but whose long-term partners have tended to be female, began using dating apps to explore sexual experiences with men, keeping it a secret. He picked partners who lived on the outskirts of the city and travelled to them to avoid being caught by his friends and his current girlfriend.
On one occasion he went to a house where a chemsex party was underway when he arrived. He had never taken drugs before but was persuaded to try some. The sex was exciting and he felt safe, which meant he went back again and again. Several weeks later he arrived to a group of mostly strangers. The situation got out of hand and he was forced to have sex against his will.
This was a turning point. Now suffering with anxiety and PTSD, Lewis decided to seek help for sober sex from Michael Yates at the Homerton clinic. Lewis told Yates he still wanted to explore his sexual interest in men but was lost about how to do so outside the context of drug use.
This is one of the biggest issues facing people in the chemsex scene, Yates says. Even if they are able to ditch the drugs easily – and he says many do, and would be offended to be called a drug addict – some struggle to have a sober sex life that rivals the excitement and boundary-pushing sex they had on chems. They may also encounter problems performing without chemical stimulation and issues of intimacy with new partners.
This was the case for John*, 42, a solicitor who – unlike Lewis – came out decades ago. But after years in a long-term relationship, he found himself single and in a dating scene that was largely dependent on apps and chemsex. The sex was great, said John, who found himself being invited to small parties where drugs were used within a safe and closed environment. Soon he was taking them every weekend and started to miss work and lose contact with his social network outside the chemsex scene.
In December his ex-partner got back in contact and they attempted to reconcile their relationship. But when they tried to have sex, John was unable to connect in the same ways he had prior to his drug use. He felt vulnerable and anxious, struggling to perform sexually. And now, John still finds himself being drawn back to drugs because he feels his sex life suffers when he is sober.
Both Silva Neves and Michael Yates say the spike in dating apps has been a catalyst for the chemsex scene, providing an easy platform for distribution and ever growing networks of potential users. Code languages and acronyms indicate to would-be partners if someone has access to chems, says Drury, meaning when someone returns to using apps after leaving the scene, even if only to find a partner, drugs are still close to hand.
“I’ve seen people excommunicated from their culture, suffering trauma and shame, which straight people do not have to deal with”
For some of her patients, says Aoife Drury, chemsex is a “perfect storm”, offering an escape for people finding it hard to deal with their sexual identity, with stigma or with homophobia, internalised or otherwise – but then leaving them with no framework or coping mechanism without the drugs. Some people may have been rejected, either by their family or friends when they came out; perhaps they were from a religious background.
“I’ve seen people excommunicated from their culture, suffering trauma and shame, which straight people do not have to deal with,” says Drury. “They bind together with other people who’ve had the same experience and take comfort in each other but then come Monday morning they realise these people aren’t their real friends and they feel more alone than ever.”
Of course, this isn’t everyone’s story. Some in the scene continue to party happily, while for others, there is life after chemsex. Since leaving London for Birmingham, James Wharton has a new job in the charity sector and is now totally sober and with a long-term partner.
Replicating chemsex sober can be hard, says Michael Yates. The accessibility of drugs makes it easy to fall back into old habits: “Once you’re clued into those networks, you can seek out those people really easily.” The appeal is there.
“In some ways ‘sober sex’ is never going to be as heightened, long lasting and freeing,” he adds, “but it’s about balancing the other rewards you get like having meaningful relationships and connecting with someone.”
* Some names have been changed.