Is the UK government cracking down on Chemsex?
The highs and lows of Chemsex seems to have become an established part of the sex lives of gay men. It used to be seen as something a bit illicit, but these days it feels as if we’re being a bit naive or prudish if chems aren’t being used to add a bit of spice to our everyday hookups.
However, in the UK, the government’s drug policy advisers have recommended that harsher penalties should be imposed for anyone found in possession of the drugs used in chemsex sessions.
The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has recommended reclassifying the drugs used for chemsex from class C to class B, meaning possession could be punished with up to five years in prison, rather than two years. Supply can lead to 14 years in prison for both class B and C drugs.
The advisers’ report laid out a series of significant dangers associated with the drugs, including murder, rape, sexual assault, and robbery.
The report said that the drugs used for chemsex could cause “profound unconsciousness” and their toxic strength, compared with other chemicals, puts users at risk of overdose and death.
The drugs have a particularly severe, life-threatening withdrawal syndrome, the report said. Physical dependence on the drugs develops over a few weeks to months depending on frequency of use, and withdrawal symptoms can develop within a few hours of coming off the substances, the advisers warned.
The report noted that although the overall number of deaths linked to chemsex drugs is relatively low, there was a steep rise in deaths between 2008 and 2015.
What is Chemsex?
Chemsex is often referred to as Party-and-Play, or simply PNP. You might also see references to High-and-Horny, or HNH.
Over the years, Stuart has become a prominent figure when it comes to educating both the public and healthcare professionals about Chemsex.
“Chemsex is most commonly understood to be the use of specific drugs, used specifically for sex, by gay men and other men who have sex with men…” explains Stuart. “The drugs most commonly associated with Chemsex are crystal methamphetamine, cathenones and GHB/GBL.”
This specific collection of drugs are generally referred to as ‘chems’. These are drugs that make you horny, they help you lose your inhibitions, and they let you feel like you can have sex like a porn-star.
Stuart says that other drugs, including Viagra, alcohol, ketamine, cocaine, and poppers might also be used in the context of Chemsex, but don’t technically fall under the ‘chems’ umbrella.
“It’s the specific highs associated with crystal methamphetamine, cathenones and GHB/GBL that provide the desired pleasure and disinhibition…” says Stuart. “These are the drugs that drive and define the Chemsex phenomenon.”
The downsides of Chemsex can include an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, as well as wide-ranging health and social impacts. The drugs involved in Chemsex are highly addictive, and their use can sometimes lead to an endless chase of the next high and an unquenchable thirst for even more intense sexual satisfaction.
Who is taking part in chemsex?
Chemsex is a sex-plus-drugs experience that’s specific to men who have sex with men.
While the connection between drugs and alcohol and sex is nothing new, what makes Chemsex something that is unique to queer men is the cultural factors that impact the enjoyment of guy-on-guy sex.
These factors include systemic homophobia, cultural and religious attitudes, internalised homophobia, and the way that hook-up apps and location-based smartphones have shaped our experience of sexual encounters.
The combination of these factors can see queer men taking risks they may not otherwise take – risk-taking in pursuit of pleasure.
Chemsex isn’t just about the drugs, Chemsex is a sexual phenomenon fuelled by the highs and lows of the queer experience.
“Chemsex is not exclusive to big cities, and I’ve seen guys from small rural villages struggling with chems use…” confirms Dr Sean Cassidy, a sexual health doctor in London. “I guess it’s generally more of a problem in places like London and Manchester, because there’s a higher concentration of other gay men easily connected by dating apps.”
Dr Cassidy also says that there is an argument for Chemsex being on the rise due to the closure of LGBTQ bars and clubs, resulting in gay and bisexual men having fewer places to socialise.
“Whether that’s true or not, men who may feel isolated and lonely within the scene often turn to chems to feel more connected to something…” suggests Dr Cassidy.
One of the interesting things about Chemsex is that this is generally something that happens in private spaces, behind closed doors. You’re most likely to be exposed to a Chemsex situation at a private party in someone else’s home.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to an increase in the widespread use and frequency of use of Chemsex. With the closure of bars and clubs, there’s been an increase in guys getting together at home. In general, we’re seeing a couple of guys getting together in someone’s flat for some fun – the chems are an expected and accepted part of that scenario.
The consent question
One of the problematic aspects of having drug-fuelled sexual encounters – or being at a private party where the drugs are out and everyone is getting a bit loose – is that boundaries and judgement all tend to get a bit blurred.
In studies about Chemsex, it’s clear that there’s a considerable number of guys who don’t really remember what went down when the drugs came out. One of the consequences of this is that guys who take part in Chemsex also report high numbers of incidences of non-consensual sex.
If you’re high on drugs that enable you to lose your inhibitions, how does that impact your ability to consent to who you have sex with and how you have sex with them? What responsibilities do we have to the men that we are sharing our Chemsex encounters with? If you’re at a private Chemsex party, what are the rules when it comes to consent?
For sexual health professionals, the aim is to help people who are taking part in Chemsex to practice it safely, and to be able to recognise when things might be going a bit off the rails.
Harm minimisation strategies that are relevant to Chemsex include testing regularly for STIs, avoiding the sharing of needles, and reducing the length of Chemsex sessions.
Beyond the potential physical risks involved with Chemsex, there are also potential mental and psychological health consequences – anxiety, depression, and paranoia are all red-flags that you might have a Chemsex problem.
There can also be a psychosexual impact from using chems and other drugs when having sex, such as becoming dependent on drugs in order to be able to have sex. This might manifest in difficulty in maintaining an erection, or as a psychological inhibition or barrier to arousal.
What about sexual health and wellbeing?
Critics of men who use chems for sex will often cite Chemsex as a primary cause of an increase in the number of people testing positive for STIs – sexually transmitted infections.
“Chemsex is likely to be an important factor in this, but it’s difficult to ascertain exactly how much it has contributed and probably goes hand-in-hand with other factors like the rise of dating apps…” explains Dr Cassidy. “We know that rates of Chemsex have been steadily increasing over the past decade, and that men who use chems tend to have more sexual partners and also tend to use condoms less often.”
Other factors, such as antibiotic resistance or a reduction in the number of people using condoms when having sex with new partners, might also be driving up the rates STIs.
Is there still a stigma?
“I’ve had patients who are lawyers, teachers, doctors using chems and still manage to hold down their jobs and function normally…” confirms Dr Cassidy. “But there is a lot of misinformation and maybe a perception that guys taking part in Chemsex are ‘chaotic’ and make bad or unsafe choices.”
“There’s a lot of really good quality balanced information about Chemsex out there…” continues Dr Cassidy. “I’m worried that sometimes the messages aren’t getting through or people don’t know how to access this information. If you feel chems are causing problems in your life and that you might need professional support, you can go to a sexual health clinic and ask to someone about it. There’s a range of support services available.”