They stand accused of destroying lives, and some say they’re destroying the gay scene. Stuart Haggas looks at the truths and consequences of ‘slamming’ and drugs like crystal meth, G and mephedrone.
There’s nothing new about taking illegal substances to get a party started – it’s a phenomenon that’s existed for centuries. Go back to the 14th century, and you’ll find that opium was used as the first recreational drug in the Ottoman Empire, and in China a century later. Historians acknowledge that even then this recreational drug use was strongly associated with sex.
Opium had spawned a lucrative international trade by the 17th century but, with addiction becoming an increasing global problem, it was prohibited in many countries during the early 20th century. Prohibiting the recreational use of opium didn’t solve the problem; it simply forced dealers and users to go underground. The pattern of illicit production, smuggling, distribution and using that followed can be considered a precursor for the underground recreational drugs scene of today.
Although the infamous opium dens of Limehouse in east London now exist solely in the novels of writers like Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle, there’s always some drug or other in vogue and some sex and drug-fuelled subculture to sample. Today, those drugs are crystal meth, G and mephedrone, and are used in scenes such as chem-sex (a sex session while on drugs like crystal) and slamming (taking crystal or mephedrone intravenously) – but is it a case of different drugs, same story?
“Epic orgies have been enjoyed by gay men since the dawn of time,” says writer, editor and DJ Stewart Who. “Read Larry Kramer’s Faggots –
it was just the same in the 70s and 80s. But meth is addictive in a way that LSD, Quaaludes, ecstasy and even coke, never could be.” Journalist and author Paul Burston agrees, adding: “The ‘old highs’ like ecstasy aren’t as reliable any more. By the late 90s, people were no longer popping a pill and dancing all night. They were combining E with other drugs like coke and ketamine. When G first arrived it was marketed as ‘liquid ecstasy’, although it bears no relation to ecstasy.”
The gay club scene normalised party drugs like ecstasy – but the wholesale replacement of these with more dangerous and more addictive drugs like crystal meth, G and mephedrone is creating something genuinely worrying. In fact, many claim they’re destroying the gay scene. “I’m from the Trade generation,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “A core group would go out every weekend and get completely trashed and ecstatic. Back then there was no effective treatment for HIV, and the government was hostile to homosexuality, so it’s easy to see the appeal of the blissed out, mindless hedonism. At the time many people said that ecstasy was destroying the gay scene, just as they now say about crystal, G and mephedrone, so the same pattern seems to get repeated with each generation, but each wave of drugs seems to be more perilous than the last. “Reports from the US and Australia talk about the devastating impact that crystal had on the gay scene there.”
Matthew continues. “It seems that in those regions crystal use has peaked, but in the UK it looks as though usage is increasing rapidly. The signs suggest that it’s going to get worse here before it gets better.” But if these drugs are more addictive and perilous, what is their appeal?
I WANNA KNOW WHY
“The gays have always been very laissez faire about recreational drugs,” says Stewart Who. “We’re always the first in line when a new drug arrives, and we always take it to the max. Why? We’re kids in a sweet shop.” “These drugs do what they say on the tin,” explains David Stuart of Antidote @ London Friend, the UK’s only LGBT-targeted drug and alcohol service. “They are powerful disinhibitors, and people feel good when under the influence of these drugs, be it dancing, sex, socialising, or escaping life’s harsh realities. They’re also very normalised on the gay scene; even if you are not particularly interested in using these drugs, they’ll very likely be offered to you when you hook up online, or go clubbing or to a sauna.” “Partly I think it’s peer pressure,” says Paul Burston. “People want to fit in. If you’ve grown up gay and isolated, and you come out on the gay scene, the pressures to fit in can be enormous.”
“Having grown up feeling ‘different’, gay men might face challenges, such as a hyper-vigilance about being rejected or ridiculed, or not feeling as fit or sexy as our scene sometimes demands,” adds David. “Some men also associate sex with disease, rejection or sin, and these drugs can mask that very well, providing a feeling of guaranteed horniness, the freedom to explore taboos and the perception of invincibility. These drugs can provide all this, though not without consequences which people experience differently.”
TRUTHS AND CONSEQUENCES
Roy got into drugs in the 1990s, when famous gay clubs and party drugs like ecstasy were at their peak. He readily admits that whenever there’s a new drug out there now, he’ll give it a try. But there is one significant difference. “I don’t enjoy going clubbing any more,” he says. “It’s too aggressive on the dance floor. If they’re not passing out from G, they’re prowling for sex.” We asked Roy how else the scene has changed. “Drugs like E and LSD didn’t destroy you like crystal, crack and heroin can,” he explains. “Now I see young guys coming onto the scene, slamming crystal every week, and they can go from sane to schizophrenia in under a year.”
Roy tells me that drugs like crystal aren’t good for clubbing anyway, and admits he takes them primarily for sex. “Drugs can offer great sex – there’s no denying that. Pornstar sex facilitated by confidence-inducing drugs, right now and just around the corner – why not?” says Antidote’s David Stuart. “Except that for many, the consequences are unmanageable and very damaging. Additionally, some gay men feel challenged by sober sex. We’re more prone to rejection, feeling unattractive or less horny when we’re sober – and the expectation of delivering fit, horny pornstar sex with a complete stranger can be quite daunting. Drugs can help with that.”
Every high is followed by an inevitable low, and these drugs have side effects and health risks like any other. “If you use at the weekend, you’re going to be fucked all week,” says Roy. “You’ll struggle to get through work, so you’ll save a bit of crystal to have before work on Monday, then again on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday. You’ll be lying in bed awake after drinking a bottle of vodka. You’ll try to take sleeping pills. And that can be when paranoia kicks in.” “With meth it is the lack of sleep that is an inevitable consequence of using, which can very often lead to a psychosis that can last a few days after having stopped using,” explains David. “It can be terrifying, and even dangerous to some. The depression that comes with the comedown can also be difficult, and if this is a weekly experience, the depression can compound and become chronic. “Injecting obviously leads to HIV and Hep C risks if equipment, water or receptacles are not sanitary.
Abscesses can also be problematic if correct injection procedures aren’t followed. The sexual behaviour that is mostly associated with meth can also lead to HIV, Hep C and other STIs, as the feeling of invincibility and horniness can make us forget our usual boundaries and self-care.” G has its own unique health risks, as David elaborates: “GBL can too easily be poorly-measured when ‘dosing’, leading to overdoses and comas that some people accept as a normal part of their ‘G experience’. Though many wake up from these overdoses feeling fine, others are frequently hospitalised, and a tragic few have died.
“Additionally, GBL has a great potential to create a physical dependency (addiction), with users needing to dose up many times a day just to avoid very difficult and dangerous withdrawal symptoms. If you use it daily, stopping can be very dangerous, and ought not to be done without medical supervision.”
PARTY ALL DAY, PARTY ALL NIGHT
The gay scene is nothing if not resourceful, and as a community we’re adept at turning a negative into a positive. But some things can be spun so much there’s a risk of them spinning out of control: for example, the compulsive feelings and inability to sleep that you get from a drug like crystal meth makes it ideal to use if you’re wanting a weekend packed with non-stop sex. “I don’t think people always plan to stay awake for two or three days shagging,” says David. “It’s often just an unavoidable consequence of the drugs which are compulsive.” “There may be some men who treat sex as a competitive sport, just as they compete with other men to see who has the best body, the biggest dick, and so on.” adds Paul Burston, “but mostly I think it’s due to the fact that drugs are very more-ish. And sex on drugs can be amazing. If it wasn’t people wouldn’t be so keen.”
“They WANT diminished responsibility,” says Stewart Who? “Once you’ve had a hit on the pipe and swigged down some G, the last remnants of logic and sense are gone. You’re just a sex animal, free of emotion, common sense or clarity. It’s very liberating, in a pretty lethal way.”
LOST WEEKENDS LOST FRIENDS
Non-stop sex and partying with loads of hot guys may sound like a recipe for the best weekend ever – but there are some sour ingredients in the mix. “Despite how normalised chem-sex is in certain circles, it is developing a stigma that prevents it from being glamorised,” says David. “There are plenty of men tired of their hook-ups ending in sorry states as a result of drugs, and there is also plenty of press around at present about the harms. Although I understand the reasons and motivations for chem-sex, it is difficult to be unaware of the harm and chaos that is becoming widespread on our scene as a result.”
“I think it has become normalised,” agrees Paul, “to the point where you see people passed out in clubs with people dancing around them as if it was perfectly normal. Personally I find that alarming.” “You can be awake on it for six or seven days, so ask yourself how attractive will I be? Would you want to sleep with yourself after you’ve been up 36 or 48 hours or more?” asks Roy. “I’ve been to sex parties where everyone is sitting around in the depressing glow of iPhone screens, looking for their next sex, instead of enjoying what is there. I’ve been rushed to casualty in an ambulance having a panic attack. I have lost six friends to Tina, all suicides.
As Antidote’s David Stuart explains, prolonged sex and drugs sessions can seriously affect your health and wellbeing. “The risks include being less concerned with safer choices around condoms and sharing needles, which can lead to Hep C, HIV and other STIs, and the psychosis that can often follow an extended session; there is also a lot of non-consensual sex that happens while people are worse for wear, most often having ‘gone under’ on GBL. The affirmation that comes from a sexual encounter, and developing a dependence on this affirmation, can sometimes take precedence over family, friends, hobbies, work and other affirming activities. It is also very easy to develop a daily dependence on GBL, in quite a short amount of time, which leads to many dangers.”
“I think that Viagra has had a huge impact on risk taking and drug use,” adds GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Lots of drugs can interfere with your ability to maintain an erection so, even if your inhibitions are down, the fact that you can’t keep it up may prevent you from taking risks. But mixing Viagra with other drugs, as well as increasing the strain on your heart, makes risky sex more likely.”
“Statistics suggest that a lot of men are having unsafe sex, whether they’re on chems or not,” says Paul Burston. “But obviously the risks are higher if you’re having chem-sex with someone you don’t know and you’re not using protection. Maybe part of the reason chem-sex is so appealing is because it blots out any lingering doubts that what you’re doing may be putting your health at risk.”
“Today we are well aware of the consequences,” adds Stewart Who? “but try to fry that knowledge from our minds by downing industrial solvent and jacking up crack that’s cooked up in amateur labs. Makes ya proud, doesn’t it?”
“The health risks of drug use go far beyond sexual health. Your heart, liver, bladder and kidneys can all be seriously damaged by drug use and there also can be dangerous interactions with HIV medication,” Matthew continues. “Beyond that though, the sexual health risk is considerable. There is a high risk of transmitting HIV, through unprotected sex or through sharing needles. If you’re into epic PnP (Party ‘n’ Play) sessions with lots of partners the risk is further increased, because positive men may not be taking their meds and so their viral load will be higher, and because the sex you’re having may go on for longer, leading to cuts and tears that will increase the chances of transmission, plus the risks of Hep C, which is transmitted through blood, often in group sex scenarios.”
“I think many are aware of the risks,” acknowledges David, “but drug use and sex are both activities that are rarely associated with conscious deliberation about the consequences and reasons for doing it. They are both very compulsive and primal pursuits. It’s quite easy for horniness to override our common sense, and the same can be said for drugs – mix the two together and you have your perfect storm.”
TRIED AND TESTED
Even when we’re aware of the risks, people like to experiment and try things for themselves. If you want to try this at home, what advice is there? “Plenty,” says David. “Put some thought first into what you are looking for or hoping to gain from the experience. Have some boundaries that will help reduce the harm, perhaps being sure about what sexual risks you are prepared to take, and how to communicate those confidently to a shag as well as online. Perhaps a time limit on how long the ‘episode’ will last.”
“It needs to be treated with respect,” says Roy. “Do it with someone you trust, such as your boyfriend or a fuckbuddy. Plan for the following day’s food and water, even if it’s just something like Dunn’s River Nurishment. Consider if this is really what you want to do, because you will lose any inhibitions you have, and you will not be able to negotiate safer sex, if you can even be bothered – and you really don’t want HIV and Hepatitis C. Once you start slamming crystal to have sex, you won’t want sex any other way. I can’t have sex sober.”
“There are many dangers with this choice, and it is okay to discuss it with an Antidote worker, to learn some practices about being as safe as possible during PnP,” adds David. “No one will be judged for seeking advice around this choice. Better to make it an informed deliberate decision than a poorly-planned impulse-choice.” “In no way is slamming ever a sensible idea,” Roy continues, “but get someone to show you how to do it yourself. If I don’t have my own pins, I’m going to want to watch to check how much crystal, how much water, make sure everything is clean and sterile, and you must never ever share.
“Guys now are also slamming with mephedrone,” Roy adds. “Unlike crystal, it only lasts 1½ hours, then you have to re-dose. With mephedrone your eyes go double and you can’t see straight, so when you want to slam again and need to hit a vein, you won’t be able to see clearly when you’re trying to do it. And the comedown is a nightmare.”
CHEMSEX AND HIV
Those on HIV medication should also take steps so not to forget to take their pills, as David explains: “A drug bender or PnP session can go on for days, and it is very possible to have a skewed concept of time while high. It is very common to forget to take HIV medication, and this definitely can make a person more infectious, particularly if it happens a couple of times a month. It can help to have a daily alarm set on your phone, or to have your pills conveniently ready to be taken and in a pill box where you can’t miss it.”
BREAK THE CYCLE
Although drugs are addictive, it is possible to break the cycle and either ease off temporarily or give them up for good. “Commit to a break, be it a week, or a month… whatever feels appropriate,” suggests David. “Fill up your diary with some non-sexual social life. Contact friends, ask for support in occupying your time differently. Get involved in things that stimulate you and make you feel more affirmed and valued, otherwise you’ll be more prone to ‘triggers’. Stay away from the sex sites online, or at least word your profile differently to convey that you’re unavailable for chem-sex. Try dating perhaps, or forming a bond with someone over a meal or drink before deciding to shag them. And if sober sex is a bit frightening or unappealing… share that with your date – you may find that they can identify.”
“When you’ve had enough, speak to someone like Antidote, or Narcotics Anonymous,” adds Roy. “There’s even a Crystal Meth Anonymous group now.” “It can be very difficult, admittedly, without support,” agrees David. “A chat with an Antidote worker can be judgement-free and can provide some tips and support that just might make all the difference. Remember, there are a lot of men struggling with the same thing, you’re not alone.”
If you feel that drugs are affecting your sex life, visit the Code Clinic: www.code-clinic.co.uk
To find your nearest GUM clinic to get tested for HIV, hep C and other STIs, visit: www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics
Gaylife SAYS: Take control and be responsible
We all know drugs are a big part of the gay scene. It would be foolish of us to think that we can cut this down over a short period of time. To many people, drugs are manageable and helps their sex lives. To others, they lead to a downward spiral that can ruin their lives. If you are using drugs for sex or just for fun, please make sure you know your limits, know how to party safe and be careful when having sex while under the influence.
Responsibility is the key here. How many times have you said “I was drunk” or “I was too high”? We blame alcohol and drugs because it frees us from responsibility. Alcohol and drugs do not cause you to have unprotected sex. They just allow you to do what you really want to do. Be responsible, folks.
Stuart Haggas and this feature appear courtesy of FS magazine.
This article first appeared in FS magazine. To read the latest issue for free, visit www.fsmag.org.uk. FS is an unfunded charity magazine published by GMFA – the gay men’s health charity. FS relies upon funds from the community to survive. To support FS, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/donate or text FSFS15 £5 to 70070 to donate £5 (or £10, if you can).