Chemsex and the City

It seems incongruous and a little ironic that in the same month that gay marriage became legal in the UK, a new report sheds light on an emerging phenomenon involving some gay men who seemingly have their finger on the self-destruct button.

It seems incongruous and a little ironic that in the same month that gay marriage became legal in the UK, a new report sheds light on an emerging phenomenon involving some gay men who seemingly have their finger on the self-destruct button.

The Chemsex Study was commissioned by three South London boroughs in response to record rises in HIV infection within the gay community. The groundbreaking research for the first time looked at the complex relationship between drug use and sexual behaviour among gay men.

Over a thousand gay and bisexual men living in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham were surveyed about their use of drugs in sexual settings, such as private sex parties. The findings have highlighted a serious threat to individual and public health.

So with the gay community experiencing greater parity in the eyes of the law and society as a whole, why are some still determined at putting their health at risk?

It's a provocative subject, and one the study links to psychological and emotional issues, the consequence perhaps of a lifetime of inequality, homophobia and negative self-image. Is society then to blame, or should gay people be taking more responsibility for increasingly reckless lifestyles?

Modern technology and the growth of social networking apps it seems has galvanised the horny resolve of a whole swathe of young bored gay men who find it evermore a challenge to connect intimately with a longer-term partner in a city with endless socio-sexual possibilities at the tap of a finger.

It's revealing that the chemsex party phenomenon is more prevalent in London, a sprawling and transient metropolis where the greater choice of sexual partners and the paucity of people willing to commit to anything long-term precipitates the growing trend.

Whether it's an alternative to the conventional clubbing scene, which can quickly become mundane and expensive, especially in big cities, it's a substitute which has its hazards. The poet Baudelaire once said 'in great cities, there is something which fortifies and fashions the heart of man, when it does not deprave and enfeeble him.' He wasn't wrong. And while I'm sure some can occasionally dabble without it affecting their life, others have yielded to a disturbing path toward addiction and ill health, both physically and mentally.

The study found that three most commonly used drugs for chemsex were crystal methamphetamine, GHB/GBL and mephedrone. Of those interviewed, three-quarters admitted they'd had high-risk sex while high on these drugs, running the risk of fuelling already rising rates of HIV and other infections.

Figures show an astonishing 21 per cent rise from 1,420 to 1,720 in HIV infection among men who have sex with men in London between 2011 and 2012. And across the UK in 2012 a record 3,250 new cases were recorded, suggesting high-risk drug practices on the gay scene could be to blame.

The study highlights other risks such as overdosing, sexual assault, panic attacks and anxiety, depression and even death, as well as the negative impact on jobs and relationships.

I downloaded Grindr, the social networking app, and a cursory glance immediately proved fruitful. I was invited to two 'chill-outs' happening live within a mile. For the uninitiated, the chill out is a private group-sex party in someone's home which can often last for days. Drugs are certainly ubiquitous at these events, and often necessary.

Undoubtedly we live in a pornographic society and a new generation has grown up on a diet of extreme internet porn and become desensitised to it. It has also fuelled the normalization of group sex with more affordable drugs, and it appears that openly advertising such parties using these platforms is now no longer taboo.

But are chemsex parties a wild and rebellious alternative to the new gay ideals of 'marriage, mortgages and monogamy', or is it simply gay men with too much choice, satiating a demanding sexuality?

In the absence of anything to protest about any longer, some seem keen to remain outsiders by rebelling against the new gay normal, but instead are simply exacerbating long-held stereotypes in the endless pursuit of satisfaction. Not that it's just gay men risking their health. Research also shows a growing number of heterosexuals have been identified as partaking in chemsex, including clubbers and students.

What is most disconcerting is that many youngsters appear ignorant about the consequences of such behavior, compounded by new research from the National Aids Trust. Thirty years after the discovery of the virus, figures reveal those aged 16-24 are among the most clueless when it comes to the realities of HIV, with many missing out on preventative measures due to lack of knowledge.

Sexual health clinics however are reporting increasing numbers of gay men being unable to modify their behaviour around chemsex, despite mounting consequences for their health and wellbeing.

So whether chemsex is brief escape from the monotony of quotidian life, for both gays and straights; a rebellion for gays against a heteronormative society; or merely a community simply rewriting their own rules in regards to sex, what is clearly needed is an honest and candid dialogue within the gay community who for now remain reluctant to face the reality of an emerging threat to the wellbeing of a new generation.