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David Stuart

How many chemsexers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

By David Stuart | @davidaStuart. Photo by Chris Jepson | ©

First published in FS magazine by GMFA

Some decades back, when street-homeless heroin use started becoming more obvious around city streets, a couple of epidemiologists got together to screw in a light bulb.

They remarked that this new phenomenon was increasing; they identified that it seemed to be closely associated with poverty and crime, and a little further research showed that injecting use was also rising, bringing with it HIV and hepatitis C risks that might spread to the wider population. They wondered if it was just a ‘flash in the pan’ kind of trend, and if there was anything that might be done to stop this drug problem in its tracks.

And as the light bulb flashed on, one of them observed that this may not be just a passing trend; that heroin was tapping into a cultural problem, and it was likely here to stay. And he looked to the future, and said “We may just have to get used to our streets being full of homeless, begging, injecting drug users; this problem isn’t going anywhere.”

Activists at the time trying to raise awareness were accused of being alarmist, asked to “hush the problem up” and struggled against a tide of stigma and unkindness.

“Why don’t they just get jobs?”

“They’re giving us occasional cocaine users a bad name.”

“I’m not giving them money, they’ll only spend it on drugs.”

“It’s their choice to do the drugs; I have no sympathy for them.”

“They’re ruining our neighbourhoods and bringing down house prices.”

It’s 2015. Heroin is still here, and it may have been the reason I was asked for change eight times while dining out on Old Compton Street yesterday. Some other drugs have come and gone over the last few years; passing legal high trends like ‘Benzo-fury’, ‘Go-gaine’ and ‘Ivory Wave’, hardly measured up to the public health concern of heroin (despite the scare stories in the media).

In 2010, that light bulb needed tending to again. The topic was chemsex: crystal meth, GBL and mephedrone. Just a flash in the pan? A distant memory by 2013?

With each twist of the light bulb, the epidemiologists considered how these drugs tapped right into something at the core of gay men’s relationship to sex, identity and community. They observed how the attention spans, patience and courtesies associated with sex and dating were being affected by new technologies and smartphone apps.

They watched as gay communities struggled with generational HIV stigma and confusing new HIV prevention methods. They saw in fact, fertile ground within which addiction could grow some firm roots.

And as the light bulb flashed on, the words were uttered: “These drugs are tapping into something profoundly cultural; chemsex could be here to stay. We may just have to get used to sharing our cities with app-addicted, hyper-sexualised, psychotic, drug-injecting gay men.” Ouch.

And as the movement began to raise awareness and get support services responding effectively to the phenomenon, the same prejudices reawakened.

“Hush it up; it’ll cause a backlash from the straights.”

“We good gays are being tarred with the bad gays’ brush.”

“Those junkies are giving us recreational chem-users a bad name.”

“The straights will think we’re all like that.”

“There’s nothing wrong with drugs; it’s just those who can’t handle their drugs ruining it for everyone else.”

This is the real Groundhog Day. Intolerance. Stigma. Unkindness. Shame. Accompanying all the cultural upheavals throughout history, dividing communities, challenging the efforts of all those working for the betterment of affected populations... and always the greatest obstacles to change.

So here we are again, a divided community, beating each other up in PrEP debates, shaming our gay brothers over hetero-normative attitudes or promiscuity, hyper-defensive about how other people’s lifestyles reflect upon us.

And all this at the same time as a new Vice Media documentary cinema release about London chemsex trends. Part of the BFI London Film Festival, this film documents what it says on the tin. It’s raw and challenging to watch. It tells a story about a cultural phenomenon that is not going away. Will it make your mum think that this is what your sex life is like? Probably not. Will it embarrass you, as if it represents the sum of the gay community? No, you’re better than that. Think bigger. Will it cause a backlash from ‘the straights’? Good grief. This is a public health issue, and I think we can credit our heterosexual siblings in 2015 with a little objectivity and sensitivity here. Where that fails? We can handle it. What’s the alternative? Hush it up, keep our shameful dark secret hidden?

We gay men have a little less objectivity around this issue. It hurts us. Embarrasses us. Makes us look at ourselves, without the rose-tinted glasses. It reminds us how much we might have relied on drugs ourselves, to facilitate connection, community; of that time we were a bit cruel to that shag, that time we didn’t use a condom, that time we were a bit unkind on Grindr. It raises issues about how we might neglect our own health and wellbeing, how remiss we are in showing tolerance for our own gay brothers. It reminds us, just how much we like being high.

So ask me then, if it will cause a backlash from within our own community. Hell yeah. The rainbow flag’s really gonna hit the fan.

And fair enough. I like to believe the reason we’re so hot under the collar or sensitive about chemsex awareness, is simply because... because we care so much. Because we want our gay brothers to be well and happy, to experience awesome sex and romantic lives. Because we know. We know how difficult it is ourselves. We seek joy, community, friendship, love and the closeness that comes from sex. We seek it while managing our own inadequacies and fears; we seek it despite our fear of disease and rejection that are normal parts of our lives. We seek it, all the while knowing that communicating any vulnerability or neediness labels us as unsexy, quickly followed by a rejection. We seek it despite the easy availability of, well everything but what we truly seek.

So looking ahead, what’s the future for chemsex within our communities?

Ah. Would that we could return to the innocence of the poppers dancefloor, the ecstasy driven passion in our post-club bedrooms. The sharing of our entire life histories and snogging-till-sunrise on the luvved-up MDMA.

Would that those things were possible without drugs?

But ChemSex is defined by some distinctly more problematic drugs than those of yesteryear. Meth, meph and GHB are destroying the lives of too many of our brothers - ending the lives of too many of our brothers.

But we'll beat it. We will. We’ll do it through kindness, tolerance, and dialogue. We’ll do it by reflecting on what it means to be an awesome, great gay man, and by being productive, fearless contributors to a robust gay community. How many gay men does it take to screw in this lightbulb? Every single damned one of us, together. I have faith. Faith in Us.