The second European Chemsex Forum, recently held in Berlin, highlighted a number of difficulties and harms experienced by chemsex users, including non-consensual sex. “We have heard many stories of men who, during sexual marathons that last for days, pass out on GHB or GBL, while the sex continues to take place,” said Leon Knoops of the Dutch harm reduction organisation Mainline. “When they come around, they often have no recollection of what happened.
“Men have spoken from two sides of the coin, and many wonder if this could be considered rape or if it’s just a part of the game. This often triggers immense shame and guilt.”
Dr Chris Ward of the Manchester Royal Infirmary and the city’s chemsex support clinic (Reach at the Hathersage Centre) said that it is already known that male victims of sexual assault or rape often do not report the incident to police or to healthcare professionals. Under-reporting may be linked to concerns about masculinity, the stigma of being a victim of sexual assault, a fear of being not believed, or not being aware that what has happened was a crime.
In the context of chemsex, many men feel that their drug use or being in a highly sexualised environment blurs the line around consent. Overdosing means that men might drift in and out of consciousness or may cycle between pleasure and distress while having sex.
Nonetheless, under UK law, a person who is incapacitated through drink or drugs, or is unconscious, cannot give their consent to a sexual act.
Chris Ward said that the way chemsex users are asked about the issue is important. When his clinic asked about being raped or being forced into sex (the same language used with women), it was under-reported. Men involved in chemsex tend to describe their experiences in different terms.
“The presentation is much more subtle,” he said. “When we learnt how to ask the question properly, over a third of people in our chemsex clinic reported being a victim of a sexual offence.”
He and his colleagues now have a conversation about unwanted sexual attention, negotiation and coercion, with questions such as:
“Have you ever received any unwanted sexual attention at parties?”
“Have you ever been made to feel like you have to have sex?”
“Have you ever had sex you weren’t aware of at the time?”
“Do you feel like you can say ‘no’ to sex at parties?”
Previously, when men were asked about rape or being forced into sex, 5 of 30 men disclosed non-consensual sex. Since the new questions have been used, 23 of 60 men attending the chemsex clinic have disclosed non-consensual sex. Most of these cases involved men being penetrated while they were unconscious; only eight of the men were previously aware that it was a crime.
In addition, nine men said that they had had sex that they didn’t want to have but didn’t feel able to refuse because they were at a chemsex party. Three men had been assaulted more than once, two men believed that they had been the victim of a planned assault (for example, being deliberately overdosed) and one man reported being filmed and injected while he was unconscious.
Only two of these men decided to take the incident to the police.
Two men attending the clinic came to realise that they had been the perpetrator of non-consensual sex. Ward said that these were particularly challenging situations for clinical staff to work with.
Rebecca Evans, a nurse at the clinic, said that one reason why asking about non-consensual sex could be difficult for staff was because it might not be clear what they would do with the information. As sexual health clinicians, they would not be providing ongoing therapy or support. However, they could help men identify a way to move forward – having a robust referral network to organisations such as SurvivorsUK and the LGBT Foundation was important.
Fred Bladou of AIDES in Paris commented that it was important to draw attention to power relations within this environment. He was particularly concerned about young people, migrants and sex workers who are often particularly vulnerable, for example attending a party on the understanding that their drugs would be provided and paid for. “The chemsex community is not always very friendly and we have to think about the most vulnerable people in the community,” he said.