The dark side of chemsex: A high cost to pay for temporary relief

As a psychosexual psychotherapist working with the gay community I often sit with men struggling with chemsex.

You may think of chemsex parties as a place of total chill out, but what I see in my consulting room is the dark side. Sadly, men come to me mostly when death has brushed past them. I frequently hear: ‘A friend of mine has just died because of chemsex. He was only 30. I don’t want this to happen to me.’

The statistics are worrying: Chemsex behaviours are so prevalent amongst gay men that clinicians call it an epidemic. It is a problem that is observed in all major cities in the UK, and worldwide. So, what makes chemsex so popular?

Of course, the answer is complex. Here in the UK we can be grateful for the rights that we have. However, homophobia persists, mostly covertly. Being born gay, we can easily feel that we are different from other boys at a very young age. We tend to make sense of it with words like: ‘There is something wrong with me’ or ‘I am wrong,’ which then become core beliefs as we grow up.

As an adult, we may not be conscious of these core beliefs. We may think: ‘I’m out, I’m proud, all is good’. But, deep down in the caverns of the unconscious, the ‘I am wrong’ belief festers and pulls the strings.

I often hear: ‘Gay men only want sex’, ‘it’s hard to find a partner because nobody wants a relationship’. When I hear these comments, what I really hear is the unconscious core belief: it gets in a way of meaningful relationships. Avoiding intimacy protects us from the fear of looking within and facing those core beliefs, which are scary and painful.

This is where chemsex comes in handy. The typical drugs taken are crystal meth, bringing euphoria and sexual arousal. And GHB or GBL which are powerful dishinibitors. The combination is remarkable: all the shame and anxiety about ourselves melt away into a euphoric sexual world.

Related: What is good sex? Here are six sexual health principles to follow

I hear men say: ‘It is the only time where I feel a sense of real connection with others’, ‘I don’t have to worry about my body, I am guaranteed to be accepted’. Chemsex is an epidemic because for a period of time, it gives the illusion to heal the pain of being gay in a heterosexual world, and it feels so good.

However, there is a high cost to pay for this temporary relief.

1. A financial cost: drugs are not cheap. Some neglect to pay their bills so they can do chemsex: it is a fast track into homelessness and despair.
2. A physiological cost: your body goes into distress and it takes a long time to recover. People report struggling with their focus from Monday to Wednesday after a weekend of chemsex binge.
3. A sexual health cost: the illusion of connectedness encourages unprotected sex: it can be a true abandon of all the rules that the heterosexual world imposed on us, including ‘you must use a condom’. There is a high risk of contracting HIV and Hep C, as well as a myriad of other sexually transmitted infections.
4. A sexual trauma cost: clear sexual consent can be blurred, which is a serious concern because men can be sexually traumatized.
5. A psychological cost: once the illusion has worn off, the ‘I am wrong’ core belief comes back with a vengeance, adding on an extra layer of shame: ‘You are wrong, you had sex with many strangers in a random guy’s flat. You didn’t even fancy most of them. Meanwhile, your fridge is empty, you didn’t get to do your laundry. What a stupid man you are. Straight people don’t do that.’ This is a terrible narrative that is very common on a comedown.

Some people go into such despair with these negative self-talks that they want more drugs to get away from this psychological pain. And the cycle of chemsex starts again. Over time, the only contact with gay people will be those engaging in chemsex which re-inforces the core belief: ‘all gays are the same’. This is, of course, inaccurate.

If you want to feel connected with others, you can do it sober. If you want to be free from the unconscious core beliefs, it is possible with therapy: go for it, it is a wonderful investment which cost is much less than the ones of chemsex.

The answer to feeling better in your own skin and having great connected sex with other men lies within you. And I believe our gay community can do more to help. We should be kinder to each other, less rejecting, more accepting.

In my consulting room, I help my clients to be courageous and embrace vulnerability with their sober sexual encounters: it is hard to start with, but also a wonderful experience.

My hope for our gay community is that we can create a new way of being gay in the world that we live in: a place where we foster self-love, self-care and total acceptance for each other. Then, perhaps, the rest of the world can learn from us.

Silva Neves is a psychotherapist, psychosexual relationship psychotherapist and clinical traumatologist. You can visit his official website here, and follow him on Twitter here.

Related: All about love: How does it happen? How can it die? And how to maintain it…

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