Chemsex in the counselling chair
Recently you may have seen various articles and programs about the growing issue of chemsex. So what exactly is ‘chemsex’? It is pretty much what the name suggests, the sexualised use of drugs such as crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB/GBL by men who have sex with men. This comes largely from apps such as Grindr. The use of drugs and sex are nothing particularly new, but it is the way that these drugs are being used to facilitate sex that has caught people’s attention. There are all sorts of social factors that come into play and could be seen to create the perfect environment for chemsex to rise, however as counsellors, how can we work with the underlying issues?
Intimacy can be quite a tricky subject for many of us, in fact far too frequently it is mixed up with sex. In a world in which people are meeting online and sending pictures of all sorts of body parts before they have even met, this becomes even more mixed up. For many of the men I meet, it can be a scary or foreign concept to walk into a place and form a connection through conversation and face-to-face contact. We can hook up almost instantly on apps and can be naked with somebody within hours, but they are still a stranger to us. For somebody who has learned about sex and relationships through a culture of finding strangers, doing drugs and having anonymous sex; then this could equal a quick fix for intimacy and the only way that they know how. In counselling it is about forming an open, honest and emotional relationship. It is about making eye-contact, trusting somebody and sometimes feeling vulnerable. As a therapist it is about modelling this openness, realness and showing people that it is possible to form a relationship that has nothing to do with being sexually attractive or getting physical. It is about connecting as two people.
Along with this openness, hopefully we can then work towards giving people a new emotional vocabulary. This means learning how to understand and express feelings that may have been held deep down for many years. If you aren’t brought up to talk about what is going on for you, then it may be that you just don’t know how, you might not even know what that feeling is. It is this lack of understanding that can lead people to run away or cover things up through drugs and sex. For that time when you are high and surrounded by people or having sex, you can forget everything else. In learning ways to explore, name and own and these feelings we can find safer ways to deal with them.
Some of these feelings can come from past events and experiences. Understanding a person’s background can often help us make connections with their current patterns of behaviour that are proving harmful. Many men have experienced traumas that have affected the way that they view themselves, others and the way that they relate. It may be that there is over-sexualisation in the way someone relates due to early sexual experiences or trauma, or there may be internalised homophobia. While society is definitely moving forward, internalised homophobia can come from an in-built sense that heterosexuality is somehow ‘the norm’ and it can create feelings of being inherently ‘bad’, ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’. It may sometimes be on a subconscious level but can lead to substance misuse, acting out, fear of connection, depression and a lack of self-worth. It has also been linked to short-term relationships and an attraction to unavailable men, all of which can lead to the way we view our value or self-worth.
A huge part of counselling is about improving self-worth and helping people appreciate their value. At the centre of therapy we have empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, all of which work towards showing the client a different way of being with people and showing them acceptance. At first this can feel a bit much for some as it can be pretty alien, however it is very important. Techniques can be used such as encouraging self-care and kindness, it may be as small as paying yourself compliments. Once people have a better sense of their value, they will hopefully be less willing to put themselves into a risky situation, they may also be able to accept that they are worthy of a healthier relationship. See, if you don’t see something as being worth anything, then why look after it or expect it to be cared for?
Many men might believe that value comes from the outside, from looking hot, being sexually attractive, being young, being good in bed; it’s all a part of culture and how socialising takes place. This may be all that somebody knows and the only way they feel good, however it is pinning a lot on other people and unfortunately it can be taken away. If you feel that you are somehow inherently bad on the inside, then it would make sense to try and hide it by shifting focus to a created image. The aim of counselling is to take this focus away from the outside and move it to the inside. We work through negative views and feelings and help them to see that they are able to own their personal happiness and emotional well-being.
Take away all of the drugs, sex and the consequences that come along with it and essentially what we are working with is being there for somebody and showing that they are worth being cared for. Helping take negative feelings, bring them out into the open and giving men a safe place to speak openly which may not have been available before. It’s not about telling people what sort of sex they should have or how they should be in a relationship, it’s all about accepting somebody for everything that they are and in turn helping them to accept themselves in the same way.