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The truth behind chemsex drugs

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As reported by the BBC last week, chemsex drugs have been targeted in a new government crackdown. The drugs are used by at least 3,000 gay men in the UK to heighten orgasms and intensify sexual pleasure. This is all happening despite drug misuse figures going down. So who are gay men using these chemsex drugs? And should they be criminalised?

We need to be careful: chemsex is more specific than mere drug use within sex. It does not, for example, include ‘high-sex’ experienced as a result of THC within marijuana. As Chemsex Support defines it, it “actually refers to the use of drugs that include crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and/or GHB/GBL, by men who have sex with men, before or during sex”.

The use of such drugs, to sustain a special ‘chemsex-high’, became prevalent through the gay community through Grindr, and similar apps.

The main use of them is the unique high they bring. They have specifically become popular in casual, or group, gay sex. They enhance confidence allowing for more intense and focused sexual activity. The issue, however, is that this can also translate into a lack of care for safe-sex, something which already raises concerns within the gay community.

Evidence suggests such drugs also raise HIV levels, especially within certain subsets of sexually active gay men. 20 to 30 gay men have been diagnosed per month with HIV over the last year as a result of chemsex. That’s roughly 300 people in one year. And the drugs are only getting more popular without government intervention. All this has led drug expert David Stuart to state that “chemsex drugs equal a public health concern that deserves a non-alarmist, but proportionate response.

But the fact chemsex drugs can be misused surely is no good reason to reject them? Their role is to make sex more enjoyable; not to prohibit safe sex. Gay men need to be more responsible. Paracetamol overdose can kill you, but that is not a reason to ban paracetamol. This is because we educate people on the ‘correct’ use of paracetamol, and believe the benefits outweigh the negatives.

The first problem is the lack of education on chemsex drugs; clearly, people want to use them, so why not educate them on correct use rather than ignoring them? The bigger issue then is if the advantages of chemsex drugs can outweigh the potential harms. It is important, then, that we don’t misunderestimate the benefits here. Heterosexual couples are not judged for using vibrators or strap-on-dildos to heighten sexual pleasure.

Homosexual men, especially given the discreet nature of some sexual encounters meaning less confidence, have turned to chemsex drugs to allow for incredible sex. They allow gay men to be in the moment and feel more pleasure from intercourse. They also allow sex to last longer, often for several hours. It allows certain gay men to truly enjoy sex.

As senior nurse Hannah McCall noted, gay men often use them to "manage negative feelings, such as a lack of confidence and self-esteem and internalised homophobia”. Given how central confident, carefree and pleasurable sex is to our well-being, we should not underestimate how beneficial these drugs are to certain men. They are not just taken for the sake of it, but rather to allow a sensual sexual experience.

But this, as Stuart highlighted, does not make up for the HIV issues - but this could easily be combated. New PrEP medication means that as long as gay men were on PrEP, they could take chemsex drugs and engage in risky, fun sex without fear of contracting HIV. It’s like a condom for HIV.

Other raised concerns include possible psychological dependence and insomnia. The issue, however, is that the medical research on such drugs is extremely limited, as admitted in an important 2015 article in BMJ.

Of course, constantly using these drugs is problematic and could lead to long-term health problems; but so too would drinking 10 cups of coffee a day, or smoking 50 cigarettes. Yet, again, neither are banned. Equally, we should discourage and help those who may become dependent. But neither of these equates, again, to banning just as we discourage excessive alcohol consumption. Non-frequent use is not proven to be specifically problematic but is advantageous.

Could part of the problem also be implicit homophobia? These drugs are used by gay men but could become more popular within heterosexual couples. These drugs have become associated with dirty, or dark, sex. But there is no reason to see it like this. Equally the problem of spreading STI’s is also present with alcohol. This does not mean outlawing alcohol.

It may be true that gay men are naturally freer with sexual activity; you can see such by reviewing earlier articles on the hookup nature of Grindr; but to inhibit this is simply to tackle a certain attitude to casual sex, and it is not clear why the government should be able to control our sex lives in this way.  

But, even if chemsex drugs are more harmful, is banning them really a good strategy? As Martin Powell, Head of Campaigns at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation commented: "the same failed old recipe of decriminalisation… won’t protect young people and communities". It will instead lead to "record numbers of vulnerable people dying". Marijuana being illegal, after all, has not stopped its use with 16-49 year olds; with at least 8% of the age group being regular users, and an incredible 70% of students having tried the drug at universities.

A better solution, then, would be to provide ways for gay men to become more confident and less fearful within sex. Make gay sex less taboo and fewer people will feel the need for this drug. Perhaps it is a sign of current governmental attitudes that they would rather hide the true cause of the problem, rather than tackling it.  

So what is the verdict? Clearly, chemsex drugs present some risks. HIV issues, however, can be combatted with PrEP, and other issues do not have significant medical research behind them. Perhaps we should ban all drug use, though attitudes towards marijuana are becoming more liberal not conservative.

Meanwhile, chemsex drugs offer pertinent positives allowing certain gay men to engage in sensual and enjoyable sex that overcomes any homophobic worries. Should we stop such men from enjoying sex? I’m inclined to say that, at current, more research and argument is needed to support the government’s case for banning chemsex. Otherwise, where data and evidence lacks, prejudice emerges.

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