A new research paper says gay men in London are turning to chemsex to escape feelings of alienation.
The paper, The Rise of Chemsex: queering collective intimacy in neoliberal London, was published today in the journal Cultural Studies.
Its author, Dr Jamie Hakim of the University of East Anglia, believes other studies have failed to look closely at the economic factors driving the chemsex scene.
Hakim places significance on the rise of chemsex since the recession of 2008. He also believes other research overplays the role of apps.
He argues that gentrification and the closure of many LGBTI venues have robbed many gay men of the venues where they used to find ‘connectivity’ with one another.
In harder economic times, rather than pay high admission prices and inflated bar prices, he says some gay men in London have turned to private parties to regain that sense of belonging. They’ve also turned from expensive drugs like cocaine to cheaper ones.
Gay men are losing the places where they can connect
‘The hedonistic gay cultural spaces that gave Vauxhall its identity have dwindled in the last decade, both because of now-unaffordable rents and the changed attitude of the local council toward a preference for more “respectable” businesses,’ says Hakim.
‘The physical spaces where gay and bisexual men historically gathered in London are diminishing.’
A press release for the research states that it explores ‘the profit-driven, competitive, individualistic nature of post-2008 London.’
Hakim reached his conclusions after in-depth interviews with 15 people who had participated in chemsex parties. Many lived in and around Vauxhall. The drugs used at chemsex parties tend to be GBL/GHB, methamphetamine or crystal meth. Gatherings can be just two people or groups of guys.
One of his interviewees said, ‘In a way, you’re enjoying a private club…everyone thinks the same as you think. You don’t have to worry about anything because you’re going to be in an environment where you feel safe and whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you say you’ll be very much accepted.’
Several of his interviewees stressed that chemsex gatherings weren’t all about sex.
A couple of them mentioned Brexit in relation to feelings of alienation.
‘I think in the wider population there’s more a focus on the individual…’ said one.‘I’d probably draw comparisons with what’s happening with the far right at the moment and Donald Trump, populist campaigns… Brexit. I think people are looking for places where they fit in.’
Alienation and migration to the city
Hakim goes on to say that feelings of alienation are particularly common among men who move to the city. These migrants can come from other parts of the UK or abroad.
‘The flows of inequitably distributed global capital and the related increase in flows of global migration have transformed the types of intimacies practicable by the gay and bisexual community in London. But there are men who still want that collective experience, which more recently has been enabled by technology.’
Criticism of the findings
The latter point has led to the paper being questioned by one expert in the field. Steve Morris is the chemsex-related crime lead with the UK’s prison and probation service. He has worked with many gay men who have found themselves in trouble because of their involvement with chemsex.
‘My experience of working directly with men who have come into the criminal justice system as consequence of committing offences in the chemsex context, together with my wider understanding of the chemsex context makes it difficult indeed to accept the findings of this research,’ Morris told GSN when forwarded the press release.
‘If only it were as simple as a “profit driven, competitive, individualistic nature of post-2008 London.” There may be a very small part of chemsex culture that could be attributed to this but it is certainly not the reasons, motivation or causal factors that I hear from the men I work with and know.
‘I question the motivation for the research and I am concerned about its claim that an “influx of migrants from outside London and the UK” have “compounded” the issue. Really? Where is the evidence for this racist claim?
‘Dr Hakim’s language is also suspect when he refers to “the hedonistic gay culture” of Vauxhall . Such claims and such language is not helpful when we are facing a hurt and hurting community.’
‘It’s about moving to a place where you don’t know people’
Hakim told GSN that he hopes people take the time to read the whole paper before jumping to conclusions.
‘I want to be very clear when I talk about migration. I’m talking about migration into London, so that can also be British-born people from the UK,’ he told GSN. ‘I no way endorse or support a narrative that would suggest migrants – in the dominant way we understand that term – are generating chemsex.
‘But yes, moving into a big, new city, a city where the places where you used to be able to meet and socialize, fewer of them exist. There seemed to be a pattern, and that was also found in the EMIS study (European Men who have Sex with Men Internet Survey).
‘They also found a high preponderance of migrants who were involved in chemsex. It seems to be a way of connecting if you don’t have strong social bonds already.’
‘If you read the paper, it’s very clear that it’s not about people who aren’t British. It’s about moving to a place where you don’t know people.
‘It can be anybody – the ethnic or national background doesn’t make a difference. It’s about alienation in a large city, having just moved here, not knowing many people, and it being a shortcut to finding people.’