The Harm “ChemSex” Is Causing The Gay Community

By Patrick O’Neil

You may not be familiar with chemsex,” writes Colin Crummy for Out Magazine, “but if you have been on a hookup app recently you will have come across similar terminology.” Essentially chemsex is a mash up of sex and drugs—“chem” meaning drugs, and the sex is either one-on-one or with multiple partners that can sometimes last for days. The term “chemsex” originated in the United Kingdom, but here in the United States it’s called a variety of names, primarily “Party and Play.” On hookup apps such as Grindr, and Scruff it is simply labeled as “PnP.

In the gay community, chemsex is often the elephant in the room,” writes journalist Zachary Zane. “Chemsex parties and encounters happen everywhere, but they particularly thrive in large, queer-friendly metropolitan cities like New York, Los Angeles, and London.” Yet at a recent well-attended town hall meeting in West Hollywood the subject of chem-sex was the number one subject on the agenda. “We’re going to talk about sex,” said City Councilman John Duran, “West Hollywood is more than 40 percent LGBTQ and we are a sex-positive community. The reality, though, is that chemsex comes with risks that can be deadly. We know that men who have sex with men are at disproportionate risk.” 

The chemsex drug of choice is crystal meth, while a plethora of other drugs can be used as well—GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate) being the most common. These drugs are used to increase sexual arousal, performance, and a sense of invulnerability to risk, while decreasing inhibition. The result, health experts say, is causing a spike in addiction— according to a study conducted by New York University close to 20% of the gay community has a drug problem—and worse, chemsex’s risky behaviors are re-fuelling the AIDS epidemics among gay men. 

Globally, the fight against HIV and AIDS has made dramatic progress in the past decade,” writes health and science correspondent Kate Kelland, “According to the UNAIDS agency, 1.7 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2018, a 16% drop since 2010. But progress is stalling and the epidemic is tightening its grip in key groups. UNAIDS says more then half of new HIV cases in 2018 were in minority or marginalized groups such as men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers.” 

People are not scared any more of HIV,” states chemsex specialist Ignacio Labayen, “Many people I see say they think ‘it’s only a matter of time anyway, so I might as well have some fun’.”

There is also a sub-culture called “slam-sex” for those who inject drugs. And when they add in “sharing or using dirty needles,” writes Tweakers Project founder Jimmy Palmieri, “[it] can lead to HIV, hepatitis, serious abscesses, infections and a host of other problems.” According to Dr. Lello Tesema, an associate medical director at the L.A. County Department of Public Health Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control “For far too long, I think, meth has been overlooked as a public health crisis. While it does not have the same national attention as the opioid crisis, methamphetamine in the Los Angeles area is actually incredibly prevalent and incredibly dangerous.” However, “The new monster at the party, though, is fentanyl,” states, Palmieri, “a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.” The dealers and manufactures are mixing fentanyl into their meth to boost the potency. “The user usually has no clue that it has been mixed in with their drugs and it can kill in moments.” With fentanyl laced meth taken in combination with GHB chemsex suddenly got even deadlier. 

Yet according to BuzzFeed’s Patrick Studwick, “the sinister side of chemsex is the final product of a process that begins with one thing: Loneliness. What you’ve got with this scene is people trying to not be lonely any more.” Many experts agree with Studwick and cite this prevailing sense of loneliness is due in part to the “internalized homophobia destroying people’s self-esteem, rejection from families prompting a desperate need for connection, a desire for total escape to avoid pain in general, depression, [and] body dysmorphia.”  

We live in a world that is predominantly heterosexual,” says certified drug and alcohol counselor Michael Caruso, “and while people have become more accepting of homosexuality, there is still plenty of stigma that gay men have internalized. If your family of origin doesn’t accept you and the world sees you as being something to fear, you’re eventually going to want to numb out from that. Even within the LGBT community, people are met with body shaming and pressure to look a certain way – they want to escape that too.”

Jason De Puy, a drag queen with eight years of sobriety and West Hollywood town hall panelist said that “the problem is rarely discussed openly. And that like many young gay men who come to West Hollywood, he had not been taught about gay sex and was ashamed by it. He was introduced to crystal meth at a bathhouse, and it seemed to make intimacy easier and more euphoric.” “Meth and sex kept me from having to deal with life,” said De Puy.

Ultimately, like all addictions and risky behaviors, chemsex continues to harm an already marginalized “party” demographic in the gay community that traditionally does not seek help. And while drug treatment centers such as CAST Centers offer evidence based treatment for sex and drug addiction, the stigma of internalized homophobia and the resulting loneliness are issues that need to be addressed. As West Hollywood councilman John Duran said, “Talking with one another about chemsex, reducing stigma, and raising awareness will help promote behavior change and harm reduction.” 

If you or someone you care about has a problem with meth or other drugs, is lonely, isolating, or is engaging in risky sexual behaviors and wants to stop… CAST Centers is here to help.      


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