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David Stuart

Is alcohol a gateway drug to chemsex?

By David Stuart | @DavidAStuart Originally published in FS Magazine by GMFA

Warren came out at age 18. It was a good time for him – exploring the Soho gay bars with mates, having a few drinks, some clumsy drunken sexual encounters, mostly good times. Not so lucky with relationships, but lots of awesome one-night-stands. Plenty of hangovers sure, but that’s being young and single.

Pete also came out at age 18 and enjoyed the Soho life. Luckier than Warren with relationships, he met two of his boyfriends this way. Relationships that helped him learn a different kind of sex – morning sex, christen-the-new-home-sex, intimate sex, sober sex. Break-up sex, make-up sex.

It’s a rite of passage for young gay men, coming to terms with being gay, learning how sex and intimacy fit into their lives, despite a void of gay sex and relationship education in school, and with the older role models arguably traumatised by the AIDS epidemic.

Intoxication plays a role in many of our early sexual experiences. How do those early experiences inform our understanding of sexual intimacy as we move into our late twenties and beyond? And with chemsex becoming an increasingly normalised option for us, it poses the question; is alcohol a gateway drug to chemsex?

Survey 500 heroin users, and you’ll probably find over 90% of them had tried marijuana before being introduced to heroin. To some researchers, this defines marijuana as a gateway drug that leads to heroin dependence.

Similarly, I guess, survey 500 chemsex party boys, and you’ll probably find well over 90% had used alcohol in a sexual context. Yet this is not a convincing argument for alcohol being a gateway drug to chemsex. I’m pretty sure my mum and dad had a frolic after a few drinks at the neighbours’ barbeque. Just for the record, my parents did not become Tinder-trawling drug users.

A better way to draw links between alcohol and hardcore chem use, might be to look at the nature of psychological dependence. A person who struggles with intimacy or poor self-worth, and learns at a young age to rely on the disinhibition provided by alcohol to facilitate sexual intimacy, may very well develop a psychological dependence – not so much on the alcohol, but on the chemical disinhibition it facilitates. Plant that person in a candy shop of easily available chems and online sexual availability, and you’ve got a chemsex mess waiting to happen. Crystal meth, mephedrone and GBL offer a much better disinhibition than alcohol in terms of duration, neurochemical cascades, dopamine rushes alertness. Please, take my word for it, don’t go out and try this for yourself.

There are also far too many personality types with varying issues – to justify a simple warning of alcohol being a gateway to chemsex.

There’s your average clubber, up for sex like the rest of us, but no identifiable predisposition to become a serial chem user. He has a few drinks out in the highly sexualised environment of the hottest-club-right-now, feeling horny, as he’s entitled and likely to; gets offered a bump of mephedrone in a toilet cubicle, and finds himself distraught two days later after a bender. But he’s fine four days later, and the same thing happens the following weekend. Hopefully he puts the brakes on before six months pass; before he finds himself HIV-positive and too lost in a cycle to extricate himself from harm. For this person, putting some boundaries in place around his alcohol use could be the difference between happy clubbing and becoming a serial chemsexer.

Then there’s the guy who never felt very popular or sexy, gets nervous in social situations, and knows he’ll never be one of the sexy popular guys who have awesome sex with other hot guys every weekend. Works hard on those abs so he can take his shirt off on the dance-floor and fit in. Alcohol was always a part of his social life, it loosened him up, made him feel more like his ‘true self’.

He discovers chems when hooking up online, experiences a sexiness he’s never known, and is able to shag the men he’s always fancied, but hadn’t felt worthy of. He feels like he’s finally graduated to the sexy men’s club. Until the comedown hits. But it was so good, it was worth it. He has to do it again. Soon, paranoia and mini-psychotic experiences have become a normal part of his weekends, but he‘s lost in the cycle and has learned to manage them. Oh, by the way, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since the day he first tried chems. He hasn’t needed to – these drugs fix everything he’d been using the alcohol for.

It’s too simple to say alcohol is a gateway drug to chemsex. But there’s no doubt that our early sexual experiences can inform not only our fantasies in later life, but how we understand sex and intimate relationships. Some of us are lucky, and we’ll figure it out. Too many of us won’t. We really must promote more alternatives for young gay men to the bars, clubs and saunas, and improve gay sex and relationship awareness for young people.

Because being gay is far too intoxicating.