‘Chemsex’ Looks at the Party-Drug Scene

The documentary, out on DVD Nov. 1, delves into the complexities of the situation

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Photos courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures

As a full moon shines over the London skyline, a man is preparing for a full night of activity that all starts with a loaded syringe.

“I’ve been slamming every day, four slams a day — that’s not so much,” he says of his intravenous drug use. “I’m not like a proper drug addict. I know that to some people, it would seem that I am.”

When pressed about what he thinks constitutes “a proper drug addict,” he shrugs. “I don’t know… probably me.”

The scene appears in Chemsex, an intimate documentary that explores the behaviors endemic to the use of certain “club” or “party” drugs, the sexual risks that accompany them, and the reasons that the practice is prevalent within LGBT communities across the globe.

The term “chemsex,” which is relatively new for many of us, first appeared on geo-sexual networking apps. It’s also known as “PnP,” which stands for “party and play.”

This unforgettable documentary takes viewers into sex parties and clubs, where they’re provided a front-row seat to all the uncensored goings-on, even full-on sex acts performed there (most are just out of the camera frame).

“There is a hidden health emergency among London’s gay community,” a title card tells us at the outset. Over one calendar year, the film goes on to say, the producers invited the city’s gay men to discuss their experiences with sex and drug use.

The film focuses on drugs such as crystal methamphetamine (known as “Tina”), “K” (ketamine), “G” or “GHB” (gamma hydroxybutyrate), “GBL” (gamma-butyrolactone, often called “coma in a bottle”) and “M” (mephedrone). Regardless of the individual letters involved, they all spell party time.

“I’m here because I’m worried what’s happening on the scene,” says one participant from behind a red curtain, preferring to keep his identity private. “I’m worried about my friends.”

chemsex-still-5The documentary navigates a world of flagrant, often intravenous, drug use that fuels weekend-long sex parties. It follows several men struggling to make it out of that scene alive and relatively sane, as well as a health worker who has made it his mission to help them do it.

One of the interviewees says that his drug of choice is ketamine (the horse tranquilizer, he reminds us). He notes: “We’re tarting it up with new names to make it sound acceptable. We’re not ‘injecting drugs’ like the heroin addict — we’re ‘slamming,’ and using ‘pins,’ not needles.”

Yes, we do see the needle go into the slammer’s flesh and the immediate rush he feels.

“Now all I want to do is have sex. It’s crazy,” one of the participants declares.

Chemsex features interviews with several individuals, who tell the audience in an unvarnished way about their experiences. Most appear in front of the camera; some speak from behind the curtain.

“Originally, sex and drugs were two separate things,” observes one speaker. “However, somewhere along the line, they became the same, so you’re no longer having sex without drugs and you’re no longer having drugs without sex.”

One handsome young man says that at such parties, one is bound to find “successful, good-looking, gorgeous businessmen running around naked, giggling like little boys, high off their ‘nut’ having a laugh. And it’s incredibly free. … It’s everything I ever wanted.”

“Matt,” a self-described HIV “dissident,” has tested positive for HIV but refuses to believe that it causes AIDS. “Andrew,” a fresh-faced, red-haired man, confides: “Chems, fetish — that kind of world is very taboo, and a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. Even if they’re involved in it, they don’t want to admit it and talk about it.”

“Enrique” is from Spain, where he was a successful banker. Now he is a self-proclaimed addict who occasionally hustles to pay the bills. “Mark” is the owner of a gay gym and sauna that is really more of a sex club. As the owner of a location where a lot of chemsex action occurs, he knows that many people feel that he should shoulder much of the blame. Yet, he says, it’s the people who use these drugs, not the place. At his establishment, they do set stringent prohibitions on narcotics of any kind. Is this a valid defense? Viewers must decide for themselves.

Most interviewees who appear are HIV-positive, suffering from Hepatitis C, or both. A few are not, but in a twisted sense of logic inherent to the circumstances under which they’re living, they are urged to advise potential sex partners that they are “positive but undetectable” in order to increase their chances of getting more action from a greater number and variety of partners.

One contributor who identifies himself as a psychotherapist of 30 years suggests the problem might be more innate and fundamental than most are willing to recognize. He voices the current, if unspoken, societal view that there are two kinds of gay men — one “good,” the other “bad” — and then debunks it.

“The ‘good gays’ get married and settle down and reproduce like heterosexuals, and assimilate into society,” he says. “… And then there are the ‘bad gays,’ who party and take drugs and have sex with anonymous strangers, as if there’s this kind of binary. I think it’s more complex than that.”

As he goes on to state, “not everybody wants to assimilate; we’ve always been ‘outside’, we’ve always been ‘on the margins.’ We write our own rules, we make our own relationships – we don’t follow a heterosexual norm. Gay men have grown up in a society where they feel they’re mad, bad or dangerous to know. Sometimes I think we police ourselves, we turn that inward … and shame is probably one of the most common underlying issues — shame in the form of a hyper-vigilance to being pathologized over being seen as mad, bad or dangerous to know.”

David Stuart, who manages chemsex support services at a London sexual health clinic called 56 Dean Street, serves as the film’s compassionate and coherent center. “The reasons why people do drugs or take risks are as varied and individual as fingerprints are,” Stuart says. “But there are some common themes that emerge. We’ve just endured 30 years of an HIV epidemic that was systematically tangled up in the gay rights movement. Sex in 2016 is complicated for gay men – it just is.”

Stuart says the struggles endured during the LGBT community’s recent history have left the community with scars, and “chemsex” may be one of the ways some have learned to cope.

“It’s about a gay community emerging from a really traumatic past — a complicated past,” Stuart says. “Vulnerable gay men with issues around sex, new drugs that tap into that problem rather well, and changing technology: It’s what they call a ‘perfect storm’— and we need a different way of thinking to address it.”

Stuart offers a plan for responsible, healthy management of what otherwise can be destructive, often compulsive, activities.

He says that the way things used to work in the United Kingdom is that if a person had a sexual health issue, he or she was advised to go to a sexual health clinic. Those who had a problem with drugs were sent to a substance abuse clinic. Until only recently, the two issues were never linked and their influence upon each other was not explored or even really considered.

“That wasn’t working for gay men,” he contends, so Stuart helped develop 56 Dean Street to address the deeper issues beyond sexual compulsiveness and the drug addiction that is can be intertwined with it. 56 Dean Street is widely acknowledged to be at the forefront of its treatment of chemsex-related problems.

The need for treatment is evident. As Stuart recalls, “In one week, 33 gay men visited the clinic requesting PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis, the medication taken immediately after exposure to the HIV virus to prevent infection]. Thirty-one were as a result of exposure during chemsex.”

In 2013, he said, a spate of chemsex-related deaths occurred in two London saunas in just two weeks.

“I had been approached by a number of media organizations for news stories or documentaries,” he said. “But the tone of reporting being suggested was sitting very uncomfortably with me. It amounted to ‘drug-taking, promiscuous gay men taking risks in the pursuit of hedonistic sexual self-indulgence.’”

He felt that any such story must also address the complex underlying social issues.

“Without that,” he insists, “the chemsex aspects would just further complicate societal homophobia, gay stigma, and frankly, wouldn’t be entirely accurate or comprehensive.”

But he got a different impression when he met with Max Gogarty and William Fairman, the co-directors of Chemsex, he said. It was obvious that they weren’t out to prepare some sensationalistic fluff piece, nor were they planning to tell some sanitized, “Disney-ized” version of the chemsex situation.

“They are both authentic documentarians,” he says, “both with a fascination and love for people and cultures they don’t fully understand. They knew they were embarking on a journey that would monopolize a few years of their life, and we all knew, during our first meeting, that this was a good fit. They asked for my help, and it was a pleasure to share this journey with them.”

Stuart acknowledges that chemsex behaviors vary internationally and from city to city. He says he has visited many services in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In all the cities he’s visited, he said, he’s been impressed with the efforts and initiatives addressing chemsex/PnP, as well as by the motivation and passion in health-care services and LGBT communities to improve the sexual well-being of their local people.

He particularly points to the efforts and contributions being made by groups like Impulse that seek to keep the community aware and informed about the ongoing need for safer sex habits to reduce the still-alarming number of HIV and AIDS transmission cases. The group has been raising awareness of chemsex among gay communities, “often screening the Chemsex documentary as a catalyst for this communication.”

Chemsex is not always an easy film to watch, but the subject is too important to dismiss or overlook. The filmmakers address the strong, complex links between HIV and chemsex. Both the chemical aspects and the sexual aspects addressed here are raw. For instance, the film shows the ugly effects of not slamming correctly (as is likely to happen when one is doing it in a less than sober state).

Those who are in recovery from addiction or who don’t feel comfortable viewing the open injection of intravenous drugs or the consumption of controlled substances should be forewarned about viewing this film.

In fact, at one point in the documentary, Stuart cautions Enrique, who has indicated a desire to become a drug counselor himself: “In talking about drugs and slamming, do you think that would trigger you or help you?”

Such a concern can be very real for those struggling with recovery; then again, addicts already know the suffering such conduct brings with it.

This film may most benefit those who don’t fully comprehend the complexities of such practices and who wish to become better educated about a topic that has remained in the shadows for too long. It manages to get the situation out on the table for discussion.

chemsex-still-9The documentary also explores how many find their way into chemsex via social networks and websites. Many specialize in introducing potential partners precisely for bareback sex, and there’s always someone willing to help get HIV-negative visitors “pozzed up” (infected with HIV).

The people in the film may speak with a different accent, but rest assured that they are just like people on this side of the Atlantic. We all know people like these, and they may be closer than we care to think. (As Mark, the owner of the gay gym and sauna, says in the film: “For gay men in general, life is getting better. This problem is getting worse. … What are we doing wrong?”)

On the plus side, we do see many of the participants seeking out help and then gradually improving their situations and outlooks. In the end, we’re even updated on the progress of some of the men we’ve become acquainted with.

“It can sometimes take a week or so to fully process our emotions after watching this documentary,” Stuart says. “It challenges our concepts of sexual recreation, gay sexual liberation, the normalization of drugs within our communities, and the pros and cons of geo-sexual networking apps.”

Even so, Stuart quickly reminds us, “We are the same community that emerged strong and proud from the harrowing early HIV/AIDS years. I know what we are capable of. This strong, proud community is the source of my optimism!”

Made in association with Vice Productions, Chemsex is available Nov. 1 on DVD, as well as video on demand platforms.

Do You Have a Chemsex Problem?

David Stuart of 56 Dean Street, a London sexual health clinic, suggests that anyone who thinks they might have a chemsex problem ask themselves these questions:

  • When did you last have sober sex?
  • Are you enjoying the sex you’re having?
  • Is your chem use interfering with any friendships or family relationships?
  • Are you missing any days at work, or (non-sexual) social events?
  • Are you experiencing any (or recurring) sexually transmitted infections or sexually transmitted diseases?
  • Are you having any bad experiences on chems, like paranoia, hallucinations, blackouts or sexual assaults?

“If anyone did want to discuss this with someone, I’d suggest a sexual-health clinician or a visit to a gay men’s health charity,” he said. That conversation might help give people a better idea of what, if any, changes they may wish to make and how they can take those crucial first steps to make them, he said.

“Then other options can be explored,” he said, “like a referral to a gay therapist, or a ‘harm reduction’ worker at a drug service, or something more intensive, if it should be desired.”