26 October 2018

Chemsex – the Drugs and Sex Subculture in the Gay Community

Brian Paddick, the former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, have spoken out movingly about the dangers of the chemsex drug, GHB. Paddick’s ex-boyfriend, Michael, died of a GHB overdose at a chemsex party in 2013. Speaking out publicly for the first time about Michael’s tragic death, Paddick is calling for a government-funded publicity programme to raise awareness about chemsex drugs. But what help is there to stop for people who get addicted to chemsex?

What Is Chemsex?

Chemsex is the practice of taking drugs, often GHB, mephedrone and/or methamphetamine, for the specific purpose of facilitating sexual activity between gay men. The term chemsex also refers to the parties, often hosted by dealers of chemsex drugs, where men meet up to take drugs and have sex.

Chemsex is distinct to sex that takes place after gay men have used recreational drugs coincidentally. Instead, chemsex is the intentional use of drugs to fuel, enhance or prolong sexual activity.

The drugs that are typically used for chemsex have a range of mood-altering effects, as well as significant risks to the user. They include:

GHB or GBL: GHB (gammahydroxybutrate) and GBL (gammabutyrolactone) have sedative and anaesthetic effects. They are used at chemsex parties to reduce sexual inhibitions and bring about euphoria and drowsiness. Accidental death is a risk because people can ‘go under’ when using the drug – experiencing fits, slipping into a coma or suffering respiratory arrest. Accidental overdose is a serious risk because the drug comes in liquid or powder form; sometimes potency is very unclear and it’s easy to make errors or take risks with dosage.

It’s also easy to get addicted if people use GHB or GHL frequently. If physical addiction develops, then withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, shaking, sweating and insomnia. In extreme cases, people need to dose every hour in order to prevent the onset of severe withdrawal symptoms. With GHB or GBL addiction, it’s strongly advised to seek medical support or addiction treatment, to manage detoxification safely and rehabilitate effectively.

Mephedrone (meph): mephedrone is a synthetic stimulant that brings about feelings of euphoria and causes a speedy sensation. Side effects can include hallucinations, insomnia, inflammation, heart palpitations and anxiety. It can be psychologically addictive. Many of the longer term effects of mephedrone are not known, however, as there isn’t much evidence available.
Methamphetamine (crystal meth):
this drug is highly addictive and can be very potent. It releases dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Crystal meth can make people feel extremely high, charged, alert and sexually aroused with decreased sexual inhibitions. Using and withdrawing from crystal meth is often extremely distressing, both physically and mentally – in some cases inducing heart problems, paranoia, aggression and even suicidal ideation.

Associated risks of chemsex: Apart from the risks of drug poisoning or fatal drug overdose, chemsex has also been connected in some cases to violence, rape and even murder of gay men. Chemsex also carries a risk of contracting STIs including HIV, due to the effect of reducing sexual inhibitions or safe practices. There’s also a risk of transmitting blood-borne viruses including hepatitis and HIV through injecting drugs with shared needles. People have also been victims of theft at chemsex parties, where money and/or drugs have been stolen from them while they are under the influence of drugs.

If There Are So Many Risks to Chemsex, Why Do It?

For many people, gay and straight, hedonistic sex-fuelled with drugs starts off as experimentation. It’s about fun, thrill seeking and pleasure. It’s a heady mix of risk and reward, which taps directly into human motivational processes. For some gay men, chemsex is a form of self-expression and liberation, in a world that has felt isolating or prejudiced at times. For tourists in big cities, chemsex can be a way of connecting very quickly with the gay community and enjoying sexual experiences.

As with any drug use or reward-seeking behaviour, no-one ever starts out with the intention of doing themselves or other people harm or getting addicted. Many people who attend chemsex parties won’t get addicted or ‘play’ so much that it damages other areas of their life. For some, however, experimentation becomes riskier as they chase guaranteed highs or specific sensations. As drugs are used more frequently and in greater quantities, the risks of physical and psychological addiction increase too.

When addiction sets in, the choice about engaging in chemsex – including how often, how long and what people do – is diminished or non-existent. As with any other addiction, people can find themselves doing things they did not intend to do, bringing about guilt, shame or disassociation with self.

Michael’s Tragic Death through Chemsex

Brian Paddick has now spoken out very movingly about the loss of his former partner and friend, Michael. Paddick was one of Britain’s most senior police officers, who himself never used drugs. In 2013, he received a phone call from Michael’s brother, to inform him that Michael was on a life support machine at University College Hospital in London. Michael was brain dead with no hope of recovery. Paddick rushed to the hospital to say goodbye. Within 12 hours, Michael’s life support machine was switched off.

At St Pancras Coroner’s Court, the tragedy of Michael’s death was investigated. Michael was at a chemsex party, where he took GHB. He took a second dose of GHB by mistake and then made himself sick, which he believed would prevent an overdose. He returned to the party and lay down on the sofa, where he started snoring. Other people at the party thought he was asleep, so they moved to another room. At the inquest, the coroner said:  “For future reference, if someone has taken GHB and they start snoring, that’s when to call the ambulance, because that’s a sign their respiratory system is shutting down.”

By the time the ambulance crew arrived, it was too late. “The ambulance worked on him for half an hour at the scene and managed to get him restarted and got him to hospital, but they reckon he hadn’t been breathing for about an hour,” Brian Paddick said. “There’s no way back from that.”

“Chemsex Is Not a Happy Ending for Most People”

Christine Schierano, a criminologist at Liverpool John Moores University, has been observing London’s evolving chemsex scene since 2011. Her research is the only long-term ethnographical study into the chemsex scene. Schierano happened upon the chemsex world in 2011 through a group of her gay male friends. They invited her to chemsex parties, where she started documenting this element of gay subculture.

She identified the key role played by chemsex dealers, who began to hold chemsex parties in their homes. Dealers mainly supply chemsex drugs face-to-face, as well as via dating apps. Due to the intensity of the scene, most dealers don’t last very long on the chemsex scene. Of the 23 dealers, Schierano profiled from 2011, only 3 of them were still in London in 2017.

In Schierano’s view, “chemsex is mainly people chilling out, some having sex, some taking drugs, listening to music and laughing”; however, in her opinion, “chemsex is not a happy ending for most people. It does more damage than good.”

She also identified loneliness as a key factor in chemsex. “Even though it’s very multicultural and full of people, London is the loneliest city in world. The chemsex scene is the product of this,” she said.

Chemsex Addiction – What Help Is Available for People Who Can’t Stop or Moderate?

When substance abuse and/ or sex addiction take over, it can be a very scary, disempowering and isolating experience. The feeling of not being able to stop, even if you desperately want to, can be confusing and incredibly frightening. Increasing consequences of chemsex – such as damage to relationships, health, finances, employment and self-respect – can mount up over time. Not everyone who participates in chemsex will have a bad experience or get addicted, but for those who do, the consequences can be devastating. As addiction progresses, people can take greater risks to achieve to same highs they achieved early on, increasing the amounts of drugs they take or the kind of sexual activity they’ll participate in.

And there’s a further issue for people from the LGBT community. Often, gay people already feel a certain amount of stigma due to their sexuality and experiencing homophobia in society. Coming forward for help with chemsex addiction can be extremely difficult because it requires an enormous amount of trust that they will not be even further stigmatised. There are specialist support workers in London, including 56 Dean Street, who are available advise gay men about safer chemsex practices, which is a vital source of information and support.

But what about people who want to stop chemsex altogether? Professional addiction help, including residential treatment, is available for chemsex addicts. UKAT treats all forms of drug addiction, often in combination with behavioural or process addictions including sex. We specialise in abstinence-based rehabilitation programmes with medically supervised detoxification if required, in order for clients to confront the harms of their addiction, as well as uncover the root causes of addictive behaviours. Chemsex recovery starts with a willingness to abstain from chemsex, in order to gain understanding into the physical, mental and emotional drivers for addictive behaviours. If you want to stop chemsex but cannot do it alone, UKAT have a range of residential treatment facilities, to suit all budgets and personal requirements.

Don’t be alone with chemsex addiction. Get confidential advice today on addiction treatment options from UKAT.

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