The Blog

Chemsex Has Always Been With Us

Not before time, the gay press in London, realising we have a dangerous drugs-and-sex scene here that is killing gay men, has finally started to cover it in an analytic, compassionate and sober way (pun intended).

I'm pleased about this, and pleased by this powerfully written piece by David Stuart. No one has done more to help and rescue gay Londoners who have got lost in the maze of chemsex, and help them achieve self-respect and structure in their lives, than David.

And yet I disagree that Chemsex is anything new. We gay men have been always been furtive about the sex we sex we want and do, and have always sought private, intoxicated spaces to do it in.

I was listening to "Sister Ray" by the Velvet Underground again (or at least part of it).

It's a description of a gay/trans Chemsex party. From 1968. Around the time I started fully articulating to myself that I was gay.

Look at the first verse lyrics:

"Doc and Sally inside

They're cooking for the down five

Who's staring at Miss Rayon

Who's busy licking up her pig pen

I'm searching for my mainline

I said I couldn't hit it sideways

I said I couldn't hit it sideways

Oh, just like Sister Ray said

Whip it on"...

...and although Lou Reed also wrote about heroin, he made it clear that the drug he was talking about on this track and on "White Light/White Heat" was amphetamine.

So David is right when he says that "the way we understand chemsex sits side-by-side with our understanding of gay sexual liberation. It does an injustice to separate it from our historical relationship to recreational drugs, gay community, gay scenes and gay sex."

Drugs and non-standard sexuality have always gone together.

I did chemsex whan I was young in the 70s, 80s, 90s. I spent a lot of time in public gay sex venues or at parties or one-to-one with hookups, off my face on various things, sometimes having some of the most profound and meaningful experiences I'll ever have in my life, and sometimes having a degraded, lonely, shit time. The experience made me who I am for good and bad.

There is one difference and one difference only today. The drugs are stronger and more dangerous. GHB and GBL are physically addictive and have a very narrow tolerance/lethality range. Meth is simply much stronger than regular amphetamine and lasts long enough to have much more disruptive potential on a person's life. And social media makes them a lot easier to score. You don't have to hang around on Lexington/125 any more.

So I'd agree that gay men are physically putting themselves in more danger than they ever were.

But I do not agree that something uniquely malign and worrying socially is happening in the gay world. We've always done what the straights all do, except we've always done it 5x more than they do. Why we do it more is partly for negative reasons, because we're repressed and guilty, and self-hating, and need to disinhibit.

But it is also for positive reasons; because we as gay men effing well CAN do the kind of sex an awful lot of people and especially an awful lot of men would love to do. Shame and opportunity both drive chemsex.

Much is also made of social media these days, as creating an isolated and unsupportive gay scene. Well, I've never been anywhere as hostile or objectifying as certain gay bars I endured in my youth, and I have never met anyone as lonely or vulnerable as the young Japanese tourist I one rescued on a 1980s winter's night from Hampstead Heath because he was off his face on LSD and couldn't see past the next bush.

I think, and always have done, that the HIV era was the exception in Queer history. AIDS forced us into self-organisation, mutual support, political action and showed that we were actual decent compassionate human beings in the eyes of the non-gay public.

But I always suspected that, having licked AIDS, we'd return to the problems that existed back in the old days gay lib, days I am old enough to remember before HIV ever came along.

We were facing then and, despite achieving legislative change and social recognition, face now, very profound questions. What is a good gay life? What kind of relationships serve us best? How do we overcome, and fast, the inevitable trauma of growing up in families where we are the apple that has fallen furthest from the tree? How do we continue to fight against the sexual norms that demean us without burning ourself out with alienation and anger?

And how do we stop feeling so ashamed? I think one thing saved me from serious addiction. I was lucky enough to be brought up without a lot of shame. That meant I didn't necessarily need intoxication to do the sex I wanted; it was just an extra. I was, in short, sufficiently enough of a brazen whore already to be able to do sober what a lot of guys can only enjoy blasted.

Because of this, I disagree with the tone, if not the message, of this: "Chemsex is upsetting. It's unattractive. It's a blight on all of us. Our mums will think we all do it. The straight media will have a field day. It undoes all the hard work for gay sexual liberation done by our activist forebears. It's just yuk."

That's taken out of context, of course. What David is talking about is his anger with the damage chemsex does to our public image; gay men are doing something that appears to be a step backwards. He himself makes it clear he wants compassion, not condemnation, for people who do it. Nonetheless, there is a very fine line between reporting a 'Yuk' response and supporting a 'Yuk' response.

Yet the very fact that a description of a chemsex party made it onto one of the coolest LPs of all time shows that 'Yuk' is not the only response chemsex engenders. It also engenders 'Wow'. We, gay and straight, react to it with both disgust and envy, pity and fascination.

And thereby, I think, lies the key to dealing with it. It's no use treating it solely as a dead end people get lost in. It's also a way people have, however daft, dangerous and bizarre, to search for meaning.

To what extent is the way we have fun pathological and driven by trauma, and to what extent is it a sought-out, occult, liminal experience that tells us something very profound about living?

The most profound question you can ask someone struggling (or not struggling) with chemsex is not: "Do you want to stop?" but "What are you looking for?"

And if the answer is the ability to enjoy sex without drugs, then personally I think we need to be careful about calling it "sober sex". If what they are looking for is rapture, union, transcendence, surrender, that doesn't sound very sober.

What we really need to be helping gay men achieve is not sex without drugs. It's sex without shame.

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