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David Stuart

Chill-outs versus chemsex – same thing, different stigma?

by David Stuart | Photo © Chris Jepson

First published in FS Magazine by GMFA

It’s just chems, chems and more chems, right?

Pete and friends snort meph, with G top-ups, round their mate’s house after a Vauxhall night out; good chats (some nonsense chats too, and someone’s always gotta get a wig out), but good times. Damian stopped clubbing a while back, in favour of online hook-ups and chemsex parties. He has some rotten Mondays, but a little paranoia never hurt anybody; it’s well worth it for the awesome sex.

So who, if anyone, has the bigger drug problem?

Watching stigmas shift and change on our scene, as drug use continues to rise within our gay communities, is a fascinating thing. And a worrying thing. We gay men are notoriously capable of being mean to each other. If we’re not racially profiling each other unkindly on Grindr, we’re superficially rejecting our gay brothers on Scruff; and when we’re not bitching about each other in Old Compton Street, we’re slagging each other off in blogs, or slut-shaming PrEP advocates online; of course that’s when we’re not punishing the gays who can’t be more consistent with condoms, entirely and selfishly responsible for rising HIV rates.

And then there’s the chems.

Who’s the bad guy this time: the devout chemsexer, slamming Tina at sex parties? How does he compare with the weekend sauna cruiser, looking for meph-fuelled love or abandon on the mattresses of romantically-lit cubicles? Is that any better or worse than the long-term couple who spice up their sex life once a month with a G-induced Grindr-guest addition to their bedroom?

How about when we remove sex, and perhaps more importantly, sexual stigma, from the equation? Do we judge any differently, those clubbers who spend their weekends chilling with the popular kids and tag-alongs at the post-club chill-out party, staving off with a bump and a shot that dreaded hour when they have to call in sick to work?

What about the harmless grope in the bathroom mid-way through the post-club chill-out party: is that ‘proper’ chemsex?

Stigma and judgement are bastardly unhelpful things. Unhelpful when it’s about HIV, unhelpful when it’s about being gay. Unhelpful when it’s about shaming sexual liberties, and certainly unhelpful when it divides a single collection of gay communities who, more than ever, need cohesion, brotherhood and kindness in the face of unprecedented online hook-up technologies, chemsex trends and rising HIV infections.

Chems, in some ways, are an equal opportunity drug. They don’t target only those from poverty-stricken areas, the homeless or less fortunate; gay men from all backgrounds are adopting chems as a recreational aid, from the high-income professionals and well-educated, to the less so; sex workers, runaways, the boy next door, the HIV-positive and negative... none of us is immune. Yet it’s not all of us that succumb to the more extreme harms of the chems so readily available on our scenes; some of us seem to take them without too much harm at all, while others develop unhealthy habits that lead to overly-frequent use, be that in the bedroom, on the dance floor or at the sauna or the chill-out party. One phrase I was sickened to overhear once in a club (as some guys were organising a chill-out): “Don’t invite her, she can’t handle her drugs”.

We are using drugs more than any other population. And we’re starting to fray around the edges.

It ought to be a time for celebration for gay men in the UK. We have rights, equal marriage, gay villages and venues, sexual liberties, and we’re enjoying more support from governments – as well as our heterosexual brothers and sisters – than ever before in history. But we are also a community emerging from a traumatic HIV epidemic, and finding our way as a culture, not unlike a traumatised teenager.

Activists are divided over the introduction of PrEP as an HIV prevention tool. We have a normalised drug use culture that’s impacting the way we define our sex and recreational lives, and responsible for increasing HIV infections. We’re clumsy and gorgeous and troubled and divinely imperfect; as individuals as well as a community. It’s hard, I’m sure, for a straight married couple in Hertfordshire to empathise with a gay open relationship (bless them), and it’s hard too, for a self-caring gay man who is vigilant about safer sex, to empathise with another who slips up from time to time. It can be hard to understand a drug user, regardless of whether they are a slammer or a chill-out party regular.

But not that hard if we try.

We’ve survived so much through kindness and empathy. We can survive this drug epidemic. Let’s not give up on each other, or ourselves. We are a band of brothers making up diverse scenes and communities; yet we are one single community in crisis.