When chemsex parties stop being fun
Chemsex can be identified as the habit of engaging in extended parties (often weekend long) that are fuelled by sexually disinhibiting drugs, such as methamphetamine, a class A drug also known as crystal meth, class C drugs GBL/GHB (also known as G), and class B drug mephedrone (also known as m-cat or meow meow). These three substances, especially when used together, can make users feel relaxed and aroused. As with poppers, GHB is a relaxant which can make anal sex easier and less painful.
Grindr (a dating and hookup app predominantly used by LGBT men) has made it easier to find partners or groups of partners for chemsex. Users of the app will include "party and play", "chemsex", "chemfun", or "P&P" in their profile. Chemsex is distinct from drug use which might later lead to sexual activity. Chemsex is specifically where men take a certain drug or drugs because they are about to have sex.
Much of chemsex can be fun, exciting and sexually liberating for lots of men. Indeed chemsex parties could be defined as a lifestyle choice in similar ways that all sexualities, and all genders, have been using alcohol in sexual contact seemingly forever. Alcohol misuse has impacted the choices people make and has been the cause of unwanted pregnancies, as well as the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STI). However, chemsex parties are different in a number of ways. They help to keep a user awake for up to three days, and make them do things sexually that they might not have done otherwise. Users can end up losing touch about their responsibilities in the world more quickly or taking care about their sexual health - such is the disinhibiting effect of the drugs. Users will have sex with populations who are at very high risk of HIV and hepatitis C infections.
Problem behaviour occurs, like any chemical or behavioural addiction, with more and more risky behaviour and when negative consequences start to happen in other aspects of a user’s life. Addiction takes hold when there is an inability to stop the behaviour in spite of negative consequences. This is when the fun stops with chemsex parties.
Addiction could be defined as an attempt to achieve emotional satisfaction, security and balance. Chemsex parties can represent the ultimate ‘now’ appeal for those drawn to the promise of instant satisfaction, whether that is primarily in the form of sexual excitement and or drug filled ecstasy. Seen in terms of neuroscience, sex and drugs can be the low hanging fruit that our brains crave when dopamine is rapidly channelled into the reward pathways in neural circuity.
The danger for anyone susceptible to addictive processes (that’s about one in ten of us depending on who you speak to) is that there is a greater vulnerability to more and more risky behaviour given such stimuli. Tolerance occurs when the same buzz no longer meets the need it previously did. A greater rush of excitement is sought next time. It takes a higher dose of the drug to achieve the same level of response. Progression of the addiction involves men literally losing themselves in lost weekends during drug filled parties that never seem to stop.
Chemsex party lifestyle presents many dangers:
- Risk of an STI.
- “Blood-swapping” - a practice involving the injection of a drug, letting some blood out and injecting that into another – can further increase risk of infection.
- Risk of sexual violence. A chemically altered state can distort perception and awareness of what is happening. A group dynamic at chemsex parties can discard standard social codes. Sexual boundaries can be disregarded. Domination role-play can descend uncontrollably in such parties under a drug fuelled craze.
- Users risk being filmed during a chemsex encounter without their permission or even knowledge, leading to risks of blackmail or revenge porn.
- Chemsex substances can be very dangerous when mixed with depressants, including alcohol. They can increase feelings of paranoia and can induce episodes of psychosis, quite apart from fuelling anxiety and depression.
- Substances can be addictive, and since they are illegal it is impossible to be sure what they contain.
- Risks of overdose. With G there is a minuscule window it provides between intoxication and overdose. Overdoses are frequently accidental, or self-administered in chemsex parties.
- Risks of being charged with supplying drugs.
- Because GHB comes either in liquid form or a powder, it is easily slipped into someone’s glass which increases the risk of sexual violence or even death.
- Not all chemsex parties involve unprotected sex but the disinhibiting effect of the drugs can cause people to engage more quickly and without thought in anal sex.
It should be stressed that most gay and bisexual men are not involved in chemsex. The 2014 England Gay Men’s Sex Survey, based on a sample of 15,360 participants, showed that 8.4% had taken crystal meth at some point, 12.5% had taken GHB, and 16.5% had taken mephedrone. When the participants were asked about drug usage in the last four weeks, these figures dropped to 2%, 3.2%, and 5.3% respectively.
A drug-heavy lifestyle could exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems. Men may be prevented from seeking help due to the silence, secrecy and stigma associated with the world of gay sex and chemical addiction. It also may explain why men are sucked into the riskier aspects of chemsex in the first place.
Therapy can be a place where problem behaviour is addressed in a non-judgemental and accepting environment. It can be useful to explore why such risky behaviour proves to be so attractive. Therapy could uncover which psychological need is being served by the activity. The opposite of addiction is social connection. Learning to trust a therapist could help the emergence from isolation.
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