The second European Chemsex Forum, recently held in Berlin, highlighted how the perspectives of activists and health professionals working on the issue have changed. When the first forum took place two years ago in London, most of the discussion was about the drugs that gay men were taking, the impact of potent drug combinations on the body and the brain, and whether a harm reduction approach is even possible when the drug is crystal meth. But there had been almost no discussion of sex, sexual addiction or sexual compulsion, Ben Collins, the organiser of the meeting, said.
In Berlin, loneliness and boredom were recurring themes. “Is the focus shifting from the shock of chemsex to looking at the environment in which chemsex is becoming commonplace?” he asked. Chemsex – the use of certain drugs to enhance or facilitate sex – is seen as a specific problem that has emerged on the gay scene, linked to the way gay men interact with each other and treat each other.
Leon Knoops of the Dutch harm reduction organisation Mainline asked what the underlying issues were for different men involved in chemsex. “Do they use because everyone seems to do it? Call it peer pressure. Is it the role of a lack of confidence, because they’re out of shape, or think they are too old? Call it body shaming. Or is it the struggle with their HIV status? What if they miss profound connections or steady partners?” he asked.
Ben Collins outlined a typical process that some gay men go through in relation to chemsex. At some point, a man is feeling lonely or bored. He is looking for connection and intimacy, and tries to meet some of those needs using dating apps and social media. He gets introduced to drugs in a sexual context and gets more involved in the chemsex scene. For some men, this becomes problematic.
Eventually he may withdraw from chemsex, at which point he becomes lonely again, as Leon Knoops explained. “Sex buddies talk amongst each other about how horny, extreme or extended the chemsex sessions are. As long as it’s fun, they’ve got a lot of friends. But once they start questioning the fun, or when they admit having lost control, these sex buddies often disappear into thin air.”