We speak to its creator Mobeen Azhar…
Chem sex is an act that’s becoming increasingly popular on London’s gay scene, and the effects can see some users taking part in weekend-long sex parties involving multiple partners, known as ‘chill outs’.
And both chill outs and chem sex will be the subject of a special report on BBC Radio 4 tonight, put together by award-winning journalist and filmmaker Mobeen Azhar.
For Radio 4’s The Report, Mobeen speaks to men entrenched in this lifestyle and explores the impact of the so-called ‘chem sex’ scene on public health services. It’s a scene where unsafe sex can be coming, and has been cited by health workers as a contributing factor in the rising number of HIV infections in London.
More often than not, chem sex parties involve an ‘unholy trinity’ of drugs, made up of crystal meth, GHB and mephedrone. And the parties themselves are being fuelled by social and dating apps, which has triggered a social shift where gay and bisexual men are moving out of bars and clubs and into private homes, out of reach of sexual health and drug advice services.
Throughout Mobeen’s career, he’s made documentaries about sex work, the Taliban and sectarian violence. Now, we ask him why he turned his attention to London’s chem sex scene, what he found out and whether or not drugs really are ravaging our gay scene.
When did you first hear about chem sex and chill outs, and why did you decide to turn your attention to it? I’ve noticed in recent years that numerous references to ‘chems’, ‘chill outs’ and ‘g-comas’ have become part of our communities peripheral vocabulary. I wanted to know if chems were really ‘ravaging’ the gay scene as some reports have suggested and if there was anything more to chems than the age old story of sex and drugs being a palatable cocktail for some gay men. I also wanted chem users to tell their own stories in their own words.
You must’ve heard a whole manner of different stories during your investigation – what surprised you the most? I spent a lot of time building up the trust and confidence of contributors as they were sharing such intimate detail. I thought I’d heard everything but when I asked one contributor about the most extreme thing he’d been involved in, he told me a story about a man being ‘tripple fisted’. The camera man and the producer both winced and I think we all had to take a moment to digest what we had just been told.
The biggest revelation was the emergence of key themes regarding why people use chems. I’d read some accounts of chem use in a defiant, almost romantic way, as if to say having group sex on tap, fuelled by meth, G and crystal could signal the ultimate sexual liberation. I actively searched for someone to tell me how they’d made an informed and calculated choice to use chems and, that for them, the chem scene is just recreation. Among the dozens of research interviews I did, I couldn’t find this voice. Even those who told me sex on chems made them feel “like a don” would follow up such celebratory statements with tales of rejection, regret, loneliness and longing for intimacy. These became reoccurring themes among every chem user I spoke to.
Did you find that people were forthcoming to tell you about their experiences? I spent a lot of time meeting people in Soho, in Vauxhall, in coffee shops and even in their homes. Many of the contacts came via social media too. There were a few people who were angry that I was making the documentary, but overwhelmingly people were willing to share their story. The documentary features a handful of key contributors. Their stories were chosen because they represent the breadth and range of chem users. I think the testimony in the documentary is really strong and an accurate representation of the chem scene.
So is this just a problem that’s isolated to the London gay scene? London and, in fact, Lambeth has the highest concentration of gay men in Britain. The numbers mean that chems are more of an issue in London than anywhere else in Britain, simply because there are more men who are engaging in the scene. Add to the mix the fact that one in every eight gay men in London is HIV positive compared to one in every 26 in the rest of the UK and it’s obvious why the prevalence of chem use is dangerous.
So how do we combat chem sex? Is it something that can be stopped, or is it more of a case that we have to make it a safer experience for those who partake? I think it’s valuable to talk about best practise, how not to overdose on ‘G’ and to actively engage with chem users regarding how their experience can be made safer.
What’s unhelpful is the suggestion that speaking about the problems of chem use is ‘judgmental’.
I recently saw chems described on a mainstream sexual health site as ‘awesome’. The article was about best practise and I appreciate the author probably thought words like ‘awesome’ will show a level of understanding. But I don’t think that’s helpful. I spent a lot of time with a lot of chem users and these substances are not ‘awesome’. Their use is often indicative of deep rooted problems and mixed with the anonymous sex on tap culture of smart phone apps, they can create a really dangerous scenarios.
Sure, no one knows just how many men have become infected with HIV while using chems, but in a study published by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a third of men surveyed described incidents of unintended unprotected sex while under the influence of chem sex drugs. All of the chem users I spoke to shared stories about increased risk taking while using ‘G’ Meph and Crystal. There’s nothing ‘awesome’ about that.
In your report, you’re told that 100 gay men come through 56 Dean Street every month asking for help with their drug habits. What was your reaction to this statistic? The number of people asking for help with chem sex is actually a positive sign I think. I wish more people sought help. Sexual health workers confirmed again and again that much of the gay community is well informed when it comes to sexual health. But some men make a choice not to use a condom or take chems even though they know their ability to use condoms will be diminished. I think that’s a problem. One contributor told me he’d “rather have HIV than diabetes”. There was an inevitability in that statement. Despite the huge leaps in HIV treatment , it’s important to remember that HIV infection requires a lifetime of medication. It’s not easy or fun to manage.
There are gay men who’re risking falling into a coma just to try and enhance their sex life. And of course, people have died from taking too much G before. What can we do to stop this? I think it’s helpful to de-mystify chems. Chems are often perceived as exciting and exotic. The reality of chem sex isn’t glamourous. It’s actually quiet lonely and sad. Let’s have an honest conversation about the reasons people use chems. If we can create a culture in which people can express and understand these things, I think that’s a real leap forward.
So it’s a lonely and sad lifestyle? How damaging is chem sex on the mental state of gay men? The contributors that I met all described how chem sex became a tool to avoid dealing with anxiety. I also heard many anecdote’s about the lack of any real satisfaction. A contributor called Kiran explained how he was constantly looking for more extreme experiences. More partners and more chems. He described how men would often look for sex on appswhile having sex at a chem party. This notion of constantly looking for something that just can’t be found can be really damaging.
Do you think the rise in chem sex is something that could be linked to a diminishing gay scene? And how responsible are social apps like Grindr? It says a lot that many apps will reprimand users for posting a picture of a penis on their profile while they have no objection to the use of pill emojis and terms like ‘GMTV’ – That’s ‘G’, Meph, Tina, Viagra, not Good Morning Television. There’s an argument that chastising chem use on apps would just shift the problem to other forums. I think that’s true to some extent, but undoubtedly hook up apps have normalised chem use and anonymous sex. Many contributors told me how apps play a part in the supply of chems too.
Regarding the diminishing scene, a contributor like Jack, who’s 22, told me how he had always used social media to facilitate sex. He told me, “I don’t have the confidence to talk to someone in a bar or a club.” That doesn’t sound like a good place.
Dave Stuart from the Dean Street Clinic is featured in the documentary. He explained that: “The reason so many gay men use chems is a search for intimacy. Gay men often grow up keeping a secret. They grow up being hyper vigilant and not sharing who they really are. That is the direct opposite of intimacy. They come of age into a sexualised gay scene where they try to navigate hook-up apps, normalised drug use and risky sex. They try to incorporate intimacy, but with no frame of reference.”
The sooner we acknowledge that chem use is most often rooted in complex problems, the sooner we can put help in place.
The Report: Chemsex is featured on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Thursday 2 July. A televised version is featured on the Victoria Derbyshire Show from 09:15 BST on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel in the UK and on BBC World News globally on Thursday 2 July. Mobeen Azhar can be contacted via his twitter: @Mobeen_Azhar