Gay men using drugs is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for decades and will be doing it for years to come.
Indeed, many thousands of gay – and straight – people across the world will do so without any problems.
However, the use of certain drugs has caused renewed concern among health experts.
Here in the UK, the rise in ‘chemsex’ on the gay scene has been linked to a rise in risky sexual behavior, drug-related overdose, and deaths. The drugs most commonly associated with this are GBL/GBH, crystal meth, and mephedrone.
The UK’s government of national statistics releases data each year on the number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales. The figures paint a stark picture.
In the last five years, opiate-related deaths rose each year from 1,290 in 2012 to 2,038 in 2016.
- Cocaine-related deaths rose each year from 139 in 2012 to 371 in 2016.
- Amphetamine-related deaths rose each year, from 97 in 2012 to 160 in 2016.
- Deaths from ‘any new psychoactive substance’ (which includes GHB/GBL) rose each year, from 55 in 2012 to 123 in 2016.
These are significant rises. And the problem is worse on the gay scene. A 2012 study found that gay people are seven times more likely to take drugs than their straight counterparts.
Research from Imperial College London revealed that deaths related top GHB/GBL had more than doubled between 2014 and 2015, while deaths related to ecstasy fell by 10%.
Of all G-related deaths between 2011 and 2015 in London, all but one were men, and over three-quarters were at private residences. A third of them were HIV positive.
In short, many of these G-related deaths were gay men, either taking it to chill out at home or at private parties, with or without sex involved.
One agency only too aware of the problem is London’s leading sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street.
Dean Street sees a great number of London’s gay and bisexual men come through its doors. One in nine of the UK’s HIV diagnoses are made at the clinic. From snap surveys of clients, it estimates that just over 40% of the 7,000-8,000 men who comes through its doors each month have used drugs, with the most popular being GHB, crystal methamphetamine and mephedrone.
And yet, any talk of chemsex provokes a mixed reaction – both within and outside of the gay scene.
Taking the moral high ground
Not all gay men take drugs. Some of those who don’t can be quick to take the moral high ground or judge those they regard to be ‘letting the side down’.
Some people believe that if they have no desire or attraction to drugs, others also shouldn’t.
They think people who take drugs are ‘weak’.
At the other end of spectrum, others can adopt a devotee attitude towards drug taking. Moralizing can only harden their stance.
‘I’m fine and I know what I’m doing.’
For them, it’s a matter of personal choice.
In such an atmosphere, reasoned discussion about the pros and cons of drug taking, and how best to reduce risk, becomes difficult.
Why are gay men turning to chemsex?
Gay men take drugs for many reasons. It can be peer pressure, a desire to maximize the joys of sex or a weekend of partying, an escape from life, or a solution to dealing with everyday homophobia – both external and internal.
It can simply be to pick us up when we feel down, or to alleviate boredom. Maybe the hot guy you’ve got a crush on offers you some and you don’t want to say no in case he thinks you’re boring. No two people will have exactly the same reasons.
However, talking to gay men, some common threads emerge. Some talk of wanting to find friends, companionship or intimacy. Some talk of the enjoyment of that feeling of finally finding their tribe.
Other turn to drugs when they hit crisis points in their life: a split from a life partner or a HIV diagnosis – an event that’s left them feeling they’re at rock bottom and need some help.
Again, some pass through a drug phase without incident, but for others, it can become problematic. And increasingly, at least here in the UK, it’s turning deadly. David Stuart, Substance Abuse Lead at 56 Dean Street. estimates that two gay men in London each month are dying from chemsex-related drug overdoses.
The elephant in the room
What makes this situation harder to talk about is the secrecy that often surrounds it. Whether it’s from sensitivity to the man’s family, or because coroners can often take weeks to rule on a cause of death, gay men dying as a result of drug use often doesn’t make the news.
You simply hear of men dying. Messages of condolence are exchanged on social media without any mention of the elephant in the room.
And it cuts across age, race, social class and background.
Death by accidental overdose is not the only concern. Someone incapacitated by drugs puts themselves in a vulnerable position. Rapes and sexual assaults can occur, and often the victims are scared to report this to the police.
Drugs can make people do things they would never consider doing when they’re not high; things they might feel deep regret or shame about when they sober up.
From a survey undertaken by Gay Star News and social app Blued, approximately 60% of LGBT people questioned said their drug use had provoked feelings of anxiety or depression. One in ten said their drug use had ended up with a trip to hospital.
Let’s talk about it
That’s why Gay Star News has decided to take a closer look at the issue. Not to prompt alarm, but to add to the conversation. We hope to educate, ask some questions, and make you think a bit more about your own attitudes and beliefs.
We’ve spoke to people who work in the field, people who take chemsex drugs, and people who have beaten a problem with drugs.
If you want to add your own experiences or feedback, comment beneath the articles of email us in confidence at [email protected]