Chemsex: Surviving on red bull and a huge cocktail of drugs
PUBLISHED: 08:00 20 October 2016 | UPDATED: 09:57 21 October 2016
With one in 10 gay men now living with HIV, Zoe Paskett explores how chemsex has become an NHS public health crisis. Peter Darney, writer of play 5 Guys Chillin', and sexual health nurse Hannah McCall offer insight.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll – a phrase that used to be something for rockers to aspire to now has more serious connotations. As one in 10 gay men are now HIV positive, with rates rising, the finger points to an unconventional practice as a major factor.
“Chemsex” describes having sex under the influence of psychoactive drugs, particularly mephedrone, GHB, GBL and crystal meth, mainly between men who have sex with men.
Peter Darney wrote award winning 5 Guys Chillin’, a verbatim play based on the experiences of five men he “met” on gay social network app Grindr, after learning that his friend was attending chemsex parties.
“He stopped going out; his house became a 24/7 sex party. The furthest he might have gone was the Tesco on the corner of his road.
“He was surviving on red bull and an enormous cocktail of drugs. He got himself massively into debt and ended up having this disastrous relationship with a drug dealer just so he could keep going.
“I didn’t know about it until he told me. For me, going out and taking drugs was always something like taking a pill at a nightclub, MDMA or something, and dancing and making new friends.
“The idea that drugs could be so closely linked to sex was something I hadn’t heard about.”
Once Darney knew what he was looking for, he started to come across these parties regularly on Grindr.
“I bet if you had the app, you’d find one within 500m of you right now without question, especially in Islington where there’s a big gay community.”
While chemsex activity is by no means new and has existed for longer than Grindr, Darney says that apps have been integral in the increasing practice.
“They offer possibilities. I think there is something facilitating and empowering but also something reductive.
“It’s not unusual in London for someone to send pictures of their most intimate parts before you’ve even met them.”
Darney wrote and produced 5 Guys for the first time last year and, just as a limited scientific study had been conducted into the phenomenon, there was very little knowledge of it in the mainstream.
“It hadn’t hit the media, Vice’s Chemsex film hadn’t come out yet and it seemed that there was this secret world that people were falling into.”
The month following the first run of 5 Guys Chillin’, an editorial was published in the British Medical Journal about the importance of increasing data to improve the service clinicians can offer.
Hannah McCall, a senior sexual health nurse with Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust, was part of a group to write this article.
“We are seeing more and more clients engaging in chemsex,” McCall said, “and as a service we want to offer our clients a space to talk about their drug use and identify potential dangers that people may be exposing themselves to.”
The article highlights the lack of information that exists on the risks of chemsex, such as increased exposure to HIV, drug overdoses and rapidly decreasing physical health due to “not sleeping or eating for up to 72 hours”.
“I’m not saying that you should or shouldn’t go,” says Darney, “but I think there should be discussion and people need to be able to make decisions from informed places.”
Darney describes comments from 5 Guys audience members who are unhappy with it being portrayed in this way – or at all.
“Some people have thought that this is something that should stay secret, that it shouldn’t be going into the mainstream community.”
The guarded nature of the scene has further restricted the access to information and the services than could be provided, with McCall’s report stating that “many barriers exist to chemsex drug users accessing services including the shame and stigma often associated with drug use and ignorance of available drug services”.
“A lot of the people we talk to explain that it gives them confidence when meeting men and helps them to stop worrying about having or getting HIV.
“When you try to understand why people engage with chemsex it becomes much more relatable,” she adds.
“How many of us have had a glass of wine on a date to steady our nerves, or go out for a social drink with friends to forget our worries? The psychology is very similar.”
McCall’s patients have recounted a lack of confidence and self esteem as well as instances of internalised homophobia.
“It can be seen that there are the good gays and the bad gays,” says Darney.
“The good gays are the hetero-normative gays who have a partner and maybe adopt some children and get a puppy and have dinner parties. And there are the bad gays who have multiple partners and go out and do this sort of thing.
“I don’t see that – there’s a community and everyone needs to look after each other. Everyone needs to support each other.”
Of his play he says: “I’ve tried to make something that’s really un-preachy and hold the mirror up to a world and say this is it, warts and all. I think most people would get that and would respond with: ‘that’s just how it is.’
5 Guys Chillin’ runs at the King’s Head Theatre until November 5. kingsheadtheatre.com