It seems I haven’t posted anything here for over a month now! I didn’t mean to take an extended break, but I did have some lovely holidays. I have a few things I want to share when I have a chance to write them up, but in the meantime, here’s the second part of the (now quite old) stuff I’d written about some (then) recent articles about sex and drug use among gay and bisexual men…
In a previous post I discussed an article by Charles Kaiser about methamphetamine use in the gay community in the US. This post looks at a piece by Matt Cain in the UK Independent, which was, at the time, the latest in a spate of mainstream reports about “chemsex” in London.
“Chemsex” is a broad term which (to quote the authors of an excellent study on the subject) refers to “sex that occurs between men under the influence of drugs, which are taken immediately preceding and/or during the sexual session.” While that in itself isn’t exactly a new thing, the increase in the popularity of particular drugs (especially meth, GHB and mephedrone) and of injection use in recent years are distinctive and reason for increased concern.
Some of the better contributions to the discussion about chemsex have made sincere efforts to feature the voices of men who actually participate in the scene and to avoid making simplistic and reductive conclusions about a phenomenon that is complex and multifaceted. Cain, though, seem perfectly confident in his ability to discern exactly what’s going on.
He admits “there’s a lack of reliable statistics,” that it’s “difficult to obtain reliable evidence for the link between chemsex and rising rates of HIV,” and, of course, that he himself has “never been attracted to chemsex.” Not to worry though: he has a couple of friends who are into chemsex!
He’s seen them “plagued by depression, anxiety and paranoia” after weekends of partying, and one shared a story of passing out and waking up to find someone having sex with him, so he asked them to bring him along to a party to see first-hand what goes on.
Not surprisingly what he saw—men “thrashing around, twitching and gurning, unable to maintain an erection without taking Viagra” some of whom “appeared to be possessed and desperate”—left him “very sad but also slightly hopeless.” While these are scenes (and feelings) that would be familiar to many people who’ve attended such parties, they come off as a rather shallow and lurid and are not terribly illuminating for someone trying to understand “chemsex culture” as Cain claims to he want to.
Really, what could drive men to be involved in the sad and hopeless world Cain describes? Well Cain—like all too many who comment on this phenomenon—thinks he knows. In his 20s he “battled a serious problem with binge-drinking and drink-fuelled sex,” so extrapolating from his own experiences he believes “the chemsex phenomenon is a direct result of the lingering shame many of us still feel about our sexuality.”
Much as he tries to spin his views as compassionate and sympathetic, he cannot stop referring to men who might enjoy mixing drugs and sex in ways that pathologise them. Echoing Kaiser, he constantly attributes an unconscious motivation to “self-destruct” to men involved in the scene.
He briefly flirts with the idea that it might be possible to use drugs in a way that isn’t utterly destructive, or that one might have positive motivations for pursuing these kinds of pleasures. He quickly waves that away with a series of dramatic quotes from a friend who had recently left the scene: a “dark underworld” full of “loneliness and paranoia”… an inescapable cycle of binging and recovery and “before you know it you’re in hell.”
Other than one brief quote from an interviewee in the new film “Chemsex” (who explains that, believe it or not, sex on drugs can be really fun!) Cain fails to convey anything appealing about the chemsex scene at all, or any sense of why anyone would ever fall into it in the first place. In his view it’s a dismal world filled with people like the characters in his latest novel who “punish themselves with either drink, drugs, dangerous sex or abusive relationships.”
The temptation to reduce a phenomenon like the use of drugs in sexual situations to simple, easily grasped explanations is easy to understand. We see a phenomenon with specific characteristics and we think there must be a common reason that people might be drawn to participate. But that risks overlooking and obscuring the range of experiences of men in the chemsex scene. Quoting from the summary of the Sigma study cited earlier:
Chemsex is a diverse and complex phenomenon – a behaviour in which a wide variety of men engage, at different times, at different points in their lives, in different spaces, with a range of drugs and with complex consequences. There is no set formula for chemsex – what behaviour men engage in, and the reasons for their use of drugs in sex, are specific to each individual.
Any serious attempt to grapple with the meaning, the impact, the causes of chemsex should start with that insight and work hard to suppress the urge to offer a simple or single explanation. Cain’s own experiences with alcohol and sex might give him some useful empathy or insight, instead they become the basis for an “explanation” of why men use drugs during sex that ignores the breadth of experiences of men in that scene. While his interpretation may make sense for some, for many others it’s more likely to annoy and alienate than to provide any help if their drug usage becomes a problem.
Next: Some writing about sex and drugs that isn’t so awful!