Sex, drugs & sanctimony (part 1)

The next couple of posts are responses to articles that were published in October. Although they’re not as timely as they would have been if I’d posted them sooner, they reflect my attempts to think through both the phenomena the articles address and the ways those phenomena are discussed in the media.

Some of my ideas are rough, probably not as well articulated as they could be, and I reserve the right to change my mind completely about things in the future, but I’m putting them out there anyway.

After the posts about these two specific articles, I’ll share some other articles on the topic that I think are worth looking at. So, without further ado…

The use of drugs in the gay community, especially their use during sex, is a fraught and often volatile topic. Two recent articles offer perspectives about current trends in the US and the UK.

The first, from Charles Kaiser writing in the new LA-based LGBT publication The Pride, offers a vitriolic indictment of the widespread use of crystal meth in the US gay community. The second, from Matt Cain writing in the UK Independent, is a sympathetic, if somewhat presumptuous, attempt to explain the “chemsex” phenomenon among gay men in London.

Charles Kaiser is an American journalist and writer. His book “The Gay Metropolis” is a highly-regarded history of gay culture in the US in the 2nd half of the 20th Century. With a long history of being outspoken about HIV prevention, he’s a very, very strong advocate of condoms and has been harshly critical of the increasing openness about condomless sex in the gay community.

In 1992 he tempered his call “to embrace less fashionable virtues, including maturity and restraint” with an indication that he had some understanding of the challenges in maintaining safer sex practices over time, writing:

For many, it may be easier to condemn this behavior than to understand it. But therapists argue that it is extremely naive to assume that just because information about safer sex is available, intelligent men will automatically behave safely.

By 2005 he had adopted a much less sympathetic view, telling the New York Times:

Gay men do not have the right to spread a debilitating and often fatal disease. A person who is H.I.V.-positive has no more right to unprotected intercourse than he has the right to put a bullet through another person’s head.

In this latest piece he takes aim at methamphetamine use by gay men, or as he calls it “the most destructive recreational drug of our time.” In this “extraordinary era, the product of fifty years of astonishing progress”, he wonders, when LGBT people are widely accepted in society and we enjoy rights we could hardly have imagined a generation ago, how could it be that a “remarkable self destructiveness still afflicts hundreds of thousands of the best and the brightest among us”?

Well, the answer is easy. It’s sex of course. A lengthy quote from “one of the smartest people I know, who is also a former meth user, and one of my closest friends” makes one thing pretty clear: sex on drugs can be really, really fun.

That’s actually an important point. People don’t do drugs because they want to get addicted or because they want to suffer terrible consequences. They do them because they’re fun, because they feel good.

For some people that good feeling can make it hard to recognise when something fun starts to become a problem. For others that good feeling might be more important than the negative effects. But exaggerating the harms of drugs, or the inevitability of those harms, while disparaging what appeals to people about drugs, the positive experiences people have while using them, pretty much guarantees that your message will be dismissed by anyone whose own experience differs from the pat narrative of inevitable self-destruction and disaster.

Kaiser doesn’t seem interested in thinking about any of that too much though. For him it’s just obvious that meth is bad and there’s no point in thinking seriously about why it might appeal to people, or, more unthinkable, how some people might be using it without losing their teeth, their job, or their life. He follows his friend’s quote with snarky references to the inevitable terrible consequences of using meth and an odd reference to an episode of a tv show that aired 10 years ago.

Then we get a potted history of the AIDS crisis, in which the horror of that era taught us much-needed lessons about responsibility so we finally settled down and got our rights. Kaiser suggests that what’s called for now is “another transformational moment”—we should make meth use taboo, socially stigmatised. That’s right, his answer to the problem of the popularity of meth in the gay community is to, well, make meth unpopular.

Of course, one might argue that meth use is, in fact, quite stigmatised, even among gay men. One might also argue that the stigma around meth use in some important ways exacerbates its potential for harm. The fact that talking openly and honestly about it is so difficult means that it can be challenging to ask for help or advice when you need it.

Smoking pot? Nobody really thinks much about that. A little ecstasy now and then? Par for the course. Smoking meth on the weekend? Not something most gay men are really comfortable talking about at all.

This is not to make light of the serious harms that a lot of people experience while using meth. It’s a seriously powerful drug. It’s done a lot of damage to individuals and communities around the world. But the idea that a kind of amped-up “just say no” approach is going to magically excise meth from the gay community is not just naive but very likely counterproductive

In any case, Kaiser hasn’t much else to offer other than a proposal that we somehow scrub the internet of any discussions of meth that make it “look like a normal feature of our lives.” So in his final paragraphs he abruptly switches his focus to a completely unrelated topic: pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

Apropos of what it’s not clear, but he inveighs:

The combination of Prep [sic] and Meth offers a dangerous illusion of invulnerability.

Prep seems to be extremely effective at preventing HIV infection if taken religiously, every day. But how many people will remember to take that pill in the middle of a speed-fuelled, week-long binge?

I think he’s wrong on several points here. For cis men, PrEP remains highly effective even when as many as 3 doses a week are missed. Many men who use meth are HIV-positive and are, in practice, remarkably able to maintain their anti-retroviral regimens. There’s no reason to think that men using PrEP would be especially bad at remembering to take one pill every 24 hours.

It’s not clear why he wants to append this odd attack on PrEP to this essay. With his long-established absolutist views on condoms, it’s not surprising that he’d be among those who take a skeptical view of PrEP, yet even he has to concede that it is (or in his words “seems to be”) highly effective.

In an odd follow-up posted at queerty.com, Kaiser suggests he’s gotten quite a bit of reaction to this article (not sure where, he’s barely on twitter and there are only about 9 comments on the article itself) and lists 8 things he’s “learned” from those responses. The list is pretty much just snarky and self-righteous bluster and adds nothing new or interesting to the discussion.

I’m sure that Kaiser’s heart was in the right place, but this episode has pretty well destroyed any esteem I might have had for him, either as a public figure or as a writer. I hope he has the sense to stop digging himself any deeper and focuses on promoting his new book for a while.

Next: Matt Cain’s piece in the UK Independent on “chemsex” in London.

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