Chemsex, the phenomenon of gay and bisexual men indulging in weekend-long, drug-fuelled parties that often involve unsafe sex and needle sharing, is on the rise. But is it happening in Ireland? John Clarke reports.
Week-long, unprotected orgies fuelled by intravenous doses of crystal methamphetamine are an increasing feature of London’s gay sex-party scene.” So began an article by Vice magazine’s Max Daly in 2013, charting the rise of chemsex as a feature of gay men’s sex lives. Daly interviewed men who attended or staged ‘slamming’ parties that lasted for days, at which attendants injected (or ‘slammed’) crystal meth, giving them a bigger and longer high than smoking the drug. Classified as a ‘disinhibitor’, crystal meth, or ‘Tina’ as it has come to be known in gay parlance, leads to heightened sexual experiences. As one of the men Daly interviewed said, “Injecting crystal meth makes you incredibly horny and willing to do anything,” and this often includes needle sharing and barebacking with multiple partners.
Filmmaker William Fairman was taken by the story, which led to his documentary Chemsex, which has retained a life after its initial release last year and is being screened across the world by agencies dealing gay and bisexual men’s sexual health. Co-directed by Max Gogarty, the film follows a number of men in Britian who have become involved in the world of chemsex parties, which involve three main disihibiting drugs, ‘Tina’, gamma hydroxibutyrate and gamma butyrolactone (GHB/GBL), and it makes for some very disturbing viewing indeed.
“What we wanted to do was to try and follow the stages of the relationship with these particular drugs, from the moment of discovering these very effective disinhibitors, and the joy and the community that comes with that, to the sharp end of the process, when it’s gone way beyond anything to do with relationships or sex, and it’s become chronic addiction,” says Fairman. “We didn’t want to shy away from that.”
“The film shows one of the participants in a crystal meltdown, lost in throes of an addiction he knows is going to kill him.”
The film begins with a number of men talking to camera about their experiences of chemsex, and then it follows a number of them as they go about their daily lives. When Fairman says he didn’t want to shy away from the realities, he’s not understating. The film travels to S&M sex parties in seaside towns, reveals men ‘slamming’ alone in their apartments while trawling Grindr for sex, and ultimately shows one of the participants in a crystal meltdown, lost in throes of an addiction he knows is going to kill him. Along the way, the lone voice of reason comes from sexual health worker, David Stuart, who talks of the dire consequences for many who get heavily involved in the chemsex scene.
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One of the men the film follows, Simon, is HIV positive, and although he is willing to take cocktails of drugs at sex parties, he’s refusing to take HIV meds, based on the notion that they are concocted by drug companies to make money rather than manage the condition.
“Simon was particularly unique because of how he processed his HIV diagnosis and his relationship with the virus,” says Fairman. “His story was fascinating because he was someone who in many ways was able to assimilate into a sort of heteronormative narrative in some respects. He presented himself in a very neutral way that was to do with things like his relationship with his profession, and yet his relationship with and abuse of drugs, and his relationship with his illness were extreme.
“I think that was what we were able to see with everybody – they all hit their peak of trauma.”
“What applies to Simon in a lot of ways was an extreme trauma, and how that plays out and manifests in terms of your relationship with yourself. While he was certainly not a common example, I think that trauma is very common. We saw people deal with that in various different ways. Miguel, the man we see at the end on his own, with clutches of needles – that was his way. I think that was what we were able to see with everybody – they all hit their peak of trauma.”
One telling scene in the film follows two young gay men in London’s Soho, who are responding to Grindr messages in their hunt for sex. The role smartphone hook-up apps are playing, particularly in the case of younger gay men who are new to the sex and the city, is clear and present.
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“What we wanted to try and highlight was that because of the changing nature of the ways in which we’re able to connect, people are more vulnerable nowadays,” says Fairman. “It can be a click on Grindr that hooks you up with someone you might not have expected. You might not have understood that that capital T in the middle of the word ‘party’ indicated somebody who’s into using Tina.
“The way in which the scene is working, how people are interacting – the nightlife club scene is suffering, and a lot of people are saying it’s because of the changing nature in how people are getting together. There’s more private interaction that’s more conducive to introducing drug use.”
“27 year-old Michael, a regular sex party-goer in Dublin, claims never to have seen anyone ‘slam’, but the use of crystal meth and GHB is normal.”
There is a sense in the gay community that chemsex affects a subset, but indications are that it is more widespread. In Dublin group parties are advertised on Grindr, and anecdotally chemsex is a feature of these gatherings. 27 year-old Michael, a regular sex party-goer, claims never to have seen anyone ‘slam’, but the use of crystal meth and GHB is normal. “I don’t often participate in sex,” he says. “I prefer to watch what’s going on. People come and go over the course of a weekend, and there is always unprotected sex. A lot of the guys are using Grindr while they’re there, trying to get other guys to come along.”
After one major screening in a West End cinema of Fairman and Gogarty’s film, the audience were asked if any of them knew about chemsex or had been touched by it through some kind of experience. “Two thirds of the audience put their hands up,” says Fairman. “What that said to us was that it is one of those subjects that isn’t about socio-economic depravation; it’s one of those situations that permeates all demographics, all ages. More people have experience of this than anyone might imagine.”
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The majority of men interviewed in Chemsex seem to be fully sexually realised at the beginning of the film, but as it progresses, major cracks in their sexual confidence start to show. One interviewee says that having sex on G is “like a firework display going off in your soul”. After it, he adds, sober sex is just dull: “If I have to spend the rest of my life sober,” he says, “you might as well take me to the euthanasia clinic.”
Fairman is reluctant to pinpoint this disassociation with the joys of sober intimacy on gay men’s issues with their sexuality, or internalised homophobia.
“Everyone’s experience of it different, because everyone’s experience is subjective,” he says, “but what did generally come up as a theme was, why these drugs? It pointed to a relationship with sex that was problematic, whatever that is, whether it’s internalised shame, or whether it’s simply about feeling
as sexy as you can.”
Chemsex is harrowing at points, but Fairman has a philosophical take on the experience of filming it. “In some cases it was almost traumatising to see really good people keeping hold of an addiction,” he says. “We obviously didn’t go through it with them, but the degree to which we were allowed access certainly felt like we were right there. It might sound strange, but following these men was a privilege in some respects, to be able to see that process in such an intimate way.
“The invitation we extended to these men was to participate in a film that allowed them to tell their own stories, and what that means to me is that it was a collaboration. That extends to the release of the film and the debate that’s happened around it. We want that debate to extend beyond the film and its viewing; it’s not an issue that goes away when the credits roll.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 314 (February 2016) of GCN. Chemsex will be screened on November 10 at 7.30pm in the Harbour Hotel Galway. Tickets must be booked in advance, booking here.
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