Chemsex is a term that refers to the voluntary use of recreational drugs during sexual activities. It is a practice that is most commonly associated with gay and bisexual men who do this in order to enhance the pleasure and general experience of sex. However, there are a number of dangers attached to the practice.
In the United States and Canada, it’s referred to as Party ‘n’ Play (PnP). In Europe and Asia, it’s called chemsex. “Chems” are substances that are sexually disinhibiting, such as crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone, and GHB. The result is that sexual activities can last for hours or even days, in some cases with multiple partners. The “high” of these drugs also creates a reduced sense of risk aversion, bringing with it the risk of unsafe or risky sexual practices such as not using protection against sexually transmitted infections.
The History of Chemsex
Since the psychedelic and sexual revolution of the 1960s, sex and drugs have been interlinked in popular culture. Thousands of years before, the Ancient Egyptians used extracts from the blue lotus flower to increase sexual desire. In 18th century Russia, alcohol use and sex, often with multiple partners, was common practice in court.
Yet an ever-present parallel has been the stigma attached to both sex and drug use. Individually, sex and drugs are cultural taboos. Combining them compounds our general reluctance to discuss them. However, understanding the motivations and practices of those who engage in chemsex is essential to staying safe.
Although there is no doubt that heterosexual cis-gender people also combine drugs and sex, the term chemsex was coined to describe a uniquely queer phenomenon. In New York in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the word chem was coined by gay men to refer to GHB and methamphetamine. Mobile phones were new, and the level of privacy was unknown, so chem was seen as a safe code word to avert detection from law enforcement. The more these drugs infiltrated the LGBTQ+ scene in New York and London particularly, the more popular chemsex became. The creation of Gaydar – a sexual networking site for LGBTQ+ people – in 1999 further popularized the practice and created communities where gay men in particular could connect with others who wanted to experiment with chemsex.
The history of chemsex has also included sex work, with individuals using crystal meth to increase libido, energy, and stamina and to calm nerves.
Why do People Mix Drugs with Sex?
Studies show that people consume drugs with sex for a range of reasons. Increasing physical pleasure and sexual stamina are common motivators, but so too is the pursuit of heightened emotional awareness and connection and the effect of calming nerves or anxiety. The idea that chemsex is purely for lengthy sexual interactions with multiple partners is misguided and is influenced by harmful stereotypes of gay men that paint them as having a much higher sex drive than heterosexuals as well as a greater desire to be with multiple partners. More study in this area is required, but research currently shows this to be a myth. According to a recent study, sexual desire levels are not significantly different in people who identify as gay or lesbian compared to heterosexual individuals. While there are cases of chemsex parties where drugs are injected or smoked during sex sessions that last days or even weeks, this is not the only setting in which drugs and alcohol are mixed.
LGBTQ+ people in particular repost engaging in chemsex as a way of overcoming long-standing issues such as stigma, homophobia, and past trauma such as sexual abuse. Some men report getting involved in chemsex due to loneliness or boredom. Chemsex can be seen as a way to fulfill desires for connection and excitement while removing barriers to intimacy and pleasure, often enabling LGBTQ+ people to feel sexually free in a society where they are so often judged and discriminated against.
There is a vast range of factors that can limit gay men’s enjoyment of sex, which for many become motivations for experimenting with chemsex. This can include certain aspects of living in a heteronormative society – where everyone is assumed to be heterosexual growing up and LGBTQ+ perspectives are often overlooked – which can have a lasting impact. David Stuart, a researcher in chemsex and sexual wellbeing, explains that it is the uniquenesses of gay sex and culture that defines the chemsex phenomenon.
The uniqueness comes from the cultural factors that impact the enjoyment of sex for LGBTQ+ people – and gay men in particular – as a result of:
• Societal attitudes toward homosexuality – in particular those that manifest as disgust of the gay sex act, which can greatly impact peoples personal acceptance, pleasure, and enjoyment of the act.
• Cultural and religious attitudes that greatly impact and inhibit the enjoyment of sex for many gay men; feelings of fear and self-loathing can make it almost impossible to engage in sex for some.
• The trauma and remaining stigma of the AIDS epidemic that can greatly impact feelings of safety, relaxation, and pleasure related to gay sex.
• Hook-up apps and subsequent culture that can put pressure on people to feel pressure to be and perform a certain way.
• A general feeling of risk and danger that is associated with gay sex as a result of all of these factors and that can greatly impact people’s confidence and comfort in engaging in gay sex or existing in LGBTQ+ places without the consumption of drugs.
David summarizes that in many cases the drugs are not the root of the problem, but issues arise when people feel unable to feel sexually free and express themselves without these substances, which is often a direct result of the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. There are, however, specific physiological and psychological dangers associated with chemsex and drug use in general.
Dangers Associated with Chemsex
Any kind of recreational drug use is risky. There are a variety of dangers associated with chemsex including drug overdose, contracting blood-borne infections, bacterial infections, physical injuries, and substance use disorders.
Risk of Overdose
Using crystal meth or other stimulant drugs increases the risk of a stimulant overdose, also called an overamp.
Unlike an overdose caused by central nervous system depressants such as opioids, overamps aren’t necessarily related to the dose consumed and can result from a very small amount.
Overamping can appear in many different forms, including:
- cardiac arrest
- mental health crises (including psychosis and paranoia, which are often accompanied by the lack of sleep, food, and rest during multi-day chemsex sessions)
A person having an overamp requires immediate medical assistance as it can be fatal.
GHB and GBL overdoses are also risks, and it can be difficult to accurately measure dosage. They are particularly dangerous when mixed with alcohol.
The signs of a GHB or GBL overdose include:
- shallow breathing
- making a snoring-like noise
- passing out
It is also important to be aware of the danger of choking on vomit during a GHB or GBL overdose. The body can become almost paralyzed, making it difficult to avoid choking. If you suspect a person is having a GHB overdose, put them into the recovery position while waiting for emergency services.
Polydrug abuse – mixing a range of substances such as cocaine and opiates – can also increase the risk of overdose.
Oral and anal sex without a condom as well as injecting drugs with a shared needle can all cause bacterial infections.
The consumption of drugs can create a feeling of invulnerability to risk, making infection more likely.
There is the risk of contracting HIV, Hepatitis-C (HCV), and other blood-borne infections when engaging in barrier-free sex (without a condom) and sharing needles.
There is a particular concern for the interaction between drugs common in chemsex and HIV medications. This is both in terms of drug-drug interaction – which could increase the risk of seizures – and for the adherence to therapy by HIV-positive individuals who engage in chemsex.
Substance Use Disorder
Recreational drug use can develop into a substance use disorder, where a person becomes dependent on a drug and experiences cravings and withdrawal symptoms when they go a period without drug consumption.
It can be dangerous to stop taking certain drugs without medical assistance once you have become dependent, so if you think you might need support, talk to a medical professional.
Engaging in chemsex can cause stigma, shame, distress, and mental or physical health problems. If you are worried about someone you care about, it is important to offer non-judgmental support. Mental health problems and substance use are often closely linked, and if a loved one’s drug use has become harmful, it is important to consider the factors that led them down that path. Listening and showing your love and care for them, while offering harm-reduction information and support available, can help establish and maintain a healing, honest relationship.
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