ChemSex is the name given to the sexualised use of drugs by gay men, a rising phenomenon explored in the eponymous brave and confronting new documentary. At the film’s centre is David Stuart, the Substance Use Lead at London’s pioneering clinic, 56 Dean Street, which directly addresses ChemSex. He has been involved in the development of London’s pioneering services, Antidote, Club Drug Clinic, and CODE clinic, and has been instrumental in placing ChemSex issues firmly on international Public Health agendas. He has been consulted by the governments and public health bodies of many countries across Europe, Australia and USA, including the World Health Organisation/UNAIDS.
As David Stuart, puts it, any discussion around narcotics and gay sex has the potential to be a “scandalous, stigma-generating story about disease and drug-fuelled orgies, or a dry, misunderstood piece on breakfast TV.” Stuart works in London where a worldwide phenomenon is reaching crisis point as alarming numbers of gay men are presenting with STIs, injecting drug use, and overdoses. Understandably cautious about how the story would be treated by the media, it was filmmakers, Will Fairman and Max Gogarty, who convinced Stuart that they “were the right fit” to talk about ChemSex with integrity, respect, and heart. With ChemSex screening at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, FilmInk spoke to Stuart about the documentary.
Drugs and sex have held hands for a long time. What makes ChemSex so different today? “I imagine they’ve held hands since the first grape was fermented. But we have an HIV epidemic now, and in the UK as well as in Australia, it’s particularly affecting gay men. In the nineties, when preferred drugs were ecstasy and powdered cocaine, we didn’t see large numbers of gay men presenting to A&E departments. In the last ten or so years we’ve seen some quite significant cultural changes; geo-sexual networking apps, a shift in our attitudes to HIV as it’s become more manageable and some newer, much more harmful drugs like ice (methamphetamine) and GHB/GBL which provide a particularly sexual-disinhibiting high. This syndemic of behaviours and our adoption of apps to facilitate faster, more frequent sexual encounters, have come to define ChemSex as more pervasive than drug use trends of the past.”
It sounds like a perfect storm. In the documentary, you speak with a number of men caught up in the turbulence. They’re incredibly candid about their sex lives, and allow cameras to film some very explicit moments in their lives. Why do you think they were so willing to be so open? “All expressed a desire for their experiences to help others, to raise awareness around a subject that is shrouded in secrecy, shame, stigma and moral judgments. [Change] also requires activism and this is what inspired the film’s participants to share their stories; to really connect with the people affected by ChemSex, we need to engage them emotionally through a cultural medium like film. They all watched the film’s final edit and gave their blessing [except for Miguel, who chose not to view the film as he felt it may be triggering]. These men are very brave, and truly care for their gay brothers who are exposed to ChemSex risks. We owe them some very heartfelt gratitude.”
In your findings, does ice use inevitably lead to frequent participation in ChemSex ‘parties’? “Not at all. There’s an important distinction here – ice can be used for ChemSex, it does not inevitably lead to ChemSex. For some people, ice serves as a sexual disinhibitor; some people enjoy this, some others need it. For others, ice serves no sexual function at all. Does ice accelerate to more frequent use of the drug, regardless of the context? Highly likely, because of the uniquely high levels of dopamine it releases – more than three times that of any other drug.”
Assuming the ice “epidemic” isn’t going away anytime soon, what is the expectation around behavioural changes? And the future in general? “Drug trends come and go, and vary from region to region. They can also be very hard to predict. ‘Legal highs’ caused some concern though they’ve not generated the scale of crisis some thought they might six years ago. Many decades back, heroin and crack cocaine were a new trend, affecting just a small demographic of mostly disenfranchised people; today of course things are different. But some trends, some drugs, are especially dangerous as they tap so ideally into the needs of a certain population. I do have concerns about ChemSex – ice and GHB/GBL appear to be tapping into a need that gay men have, something deeply associated with our sexual needs and sexual identity, and as such it might not be going away any time soon.”
That’s clearly a distressing thought for anyone in the gay community. Do you think that community is facing another disaster unless an uncomfortable truth is faced? “There are indeed some uncomfortable truths that ChemSex raises for gay communities. Our relationship to sex, sexual identity and community may need to be looked at. The ‘scenes’ created by my own generation of gay men who fought through an AIDS epidemic and fought so defiantly and proudly for equal rights, may not be the most conducive to the wellbeing of a younger generation of gay men, dealing with different risks, stigmas and realities. A generation who seek a different definition of sexual liberation, identity or community – and this might be an upsetting truth. The risk of significant harm is worrying and for too many individuals whose lives have been destroyed by ice or GHB, well it is a disaster for them. HIV rates continue to rise amongst gay men, despite the availability of excellent sexual health services, campaigns and initiatives.”
In the face of all that, do you remain hopeful? “I do, and I have good reason. Gay communities have shown historical resilience and genius at banding together in a crisis – the last thirty years are evidence of this. Few communities could have survived the deaths of hundreds of thousands and remained intact. Yet here we are, still thriving, bursting with colour, community and activism. We’re still looking out for each other and tackling challenging issues through culture and the arts. We may appear to be facing a new challenge, as chemsex becomes more prevalent, and this film embodies the uncomfortable truth you mention. But if any community has demonstrated time and again the guts and determination to tackle issues head on and come out winning, it’s we glorious gays. I have faith.”
ChemSex will screen at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, which runs from July 7-17. For all ticketing, session, and venue information, head to the official website. For more on David Stuart, click here.