“We’re horny. We’ve got an app on our phone. We act out. That’s fine for a lot of us, but too many of us are really struggling. Epidemiologically, we see disease and we see drug use. Individually, we see a lot of people that can handle it. But we also see a lot of people who aren’t talking to their lovers about what they want from sex and their romantic lives. We see lots of gay men who want to feel sexy and horny, who want to feel affirmed as sexual beings – as they deserve, as is their right – but they don’t know how to incorporate it into a wellbeing framework. These are things that we should be talking to our lovers about. These vulnerabilities, these beautiful insecurities that we take into our sexual situations, are things that we should be able to communicate easily online without being rejected for them. We shouldn’t have to be selling ourselves as porn star confident sex objects for fear of being shamed if we say anything otherwise". David Stuart is a writer, researcher, and campaigner around sexual wellbeing, originally from Australia and currently living in London.
With a nine to five spent running the chemsex unit of Europe's busiest sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street, London, David knows what he is talking about, namely gay sex and drugs. Defined according to David, "chemsex is a multi morbidity of different things coming together: technology and how we hook up; HIV stigma; sex for many gay men as being about risk, danger, and disease; new drugs overtaking less harmful party ones like ecstasy; and changing scenes". Chemsex had begun developing into the form it has now taken back in 1998. David can easily trace the phenomenon's provenance because, put plainly, that was when he was doing it. Here, David shares his personal story of gay sex and drugs and how his relationship with them brought him to where he is today.
"I can’t talk about being a gay man without putting it in the context of having been a very vulnerable child. I was orphaned at the age of six – my father shot my mother and then he shot himself on this horrible day. So, from then, I guess, life got problematic for me and I was very vulnerable from that point on". This preface to David's story is important. In any discussion around chemsex, it is essential to explore, and appreciate the role of, any and all underlying issues which may play some part in bringing an individual along a particular path. Following a certain path may be a consequence of various underlying issues, or may be how these underlying issues find articulation.
David came out when he was twenty one and, a week later, swapped Australia for Los Angeles. As was put to him at the time, "[Australia] is the wrong country to be gay in". And so, off he went "to find fame and fortune in America [...] so green and naive". His decision to relocate parallels, at least in essence, the period of self exploration and discovery that so typically follows for many queers – this writer included – subsequent to their coming out. David arrived in California fresh faced and looking "straight out of Home & Away", and without any experience of a gay scene or gay culture. He began moving in porn publishing circles, despite not doing porn himself or having sex with anyone at the time. On his experience in Los Angeles, David says, "I thought, if you’re gay, this is what life holds for you. I was in that category of a good looking guy who gets treated nice by older gay men. It wasn’t very conducive to my emotional well being. These were the options available to me as a gay man. It was kind of exploitative, and people weren’t appreciating me for my talents or encouraging me for my skills or personality traits. I was good looking and that was it, really. That was the currency I had to move forward".
A few months later, David moved to London without any education or training, armed only with the precedent of gay life that Los Angeles had set for him. These factors combined led him to escorting where he was encouraged by his agent to capitalise on his out of town, newbie status and look. Compared to some of his "more hardened" colleagues, as he puts it, he sold really well. Despite this appeal, David was inexperienced at sex – arguably a product of having to conceal one's non normative sexuality growing up – and admits to "being terrible" at it. David elaborates on his experience of escorting. "I would go and do these escort jobs thinking I was incredibly ugly, not really sure why I was there or what I was supposed to do, waiting for the clients to do something to me – a lot of them didn’t get it. Years later, I learned what I was meant to be doing was to be sexually confident, enjoy my own sexuality, swing from the chandelier; you didn’t have to pretend they were good looking or that you liked them, you just had to be the sexy guy in the room – it took me a long while to learn that".
At around the age of twenty three, David found himself in a position to buy the escort agency. He also found himself newly diagnosed as HIV positive. "I’d slept with over two thousand clients in two years, and in those two years I only had sex with two other gay men by my own choice. Interestingly, I was always safe with my clients. But I caught HIV from one of those two". At a time in which medicine was unavailable, David spent eight years in poor health, "waiting for death". When medication did arrive, the physiological adjustment was quick but the psychological impact of those traumatic eight years was deeply engrained. "In your head, you’re ready for death. I remember deciding to go back to the gym and being asked if I wanted a yearly or monthly membership – automatically you choose monthly because [you think you're] not going to live [that long]".
David describes the above as "living on borrowed time", a way of thinking that he found difficult to dispel. So much so that he saw little point in investing in his future or education. From there, David returned to escorting as new drugs – crystal meth in particular – began to appear, facilitating that which David "needed to do". He elaborates, "I felt so sexy which I’d never felt in any previous years despite being a supposedly confident escort. I could look in the mirror on crystal meth and see my reflection in my underwear and think, ‘fuck, I’m sexy’ – I could not do that sober". He didn't care whether the reflection he saw was really him or a version of him, "the drugs worked and I liked them".
Ultimately, life as a fast lane gay only led to a downward spiral, culminating in an arrest for dealing [cocaine, not crystal]. From there, he was introduced to various support services which reintroduced him to the concept of the long term, "those support services gave me an idea of what I was worth, what I was entitled to, and what I could achieve beyond just living fast". David subsequently began volunteering for a drugs service and encountered men who's experiences mirrored his own, "I saw gay men coming in with the same kind of experience of currency, and self worth that I had been lost in". At the same time, sex was becoming more readily available online and it quickly became apparent to David that the number of upsides to this were matched by the number of downsides. It was from this point – where technology began facilitating sex alongside the entry of different drugs – that chemsex as we understand it today emerged. On the back of this, and recognised for his expertise in the area by way of his lived experience, David began to develop chemsex support services, bringing him to where he is today.
As chemsex participation rises, David suggests a need to redefine gay sexual liberation for a new generation who inherited gay scenes that many are now struggling to negotiate. His definition is as all encompassing and sex positive as one would expect: "[it is] the right to have sex with as many people as you want, as often as you like, wherever you like, without shame or stigma, provided it’s coming from a place of self worth and respect for the vulnerability of our partners; a place of reflection upon what we want from our sex and romantic lives. It's not just about having open relationships because that’s the cool thing, but to have open relationships as a considered choice, fully equipped with the communication skills and boundaries required to handle all the rejections and jealousies that might accompany an open relationship". Embracing such a definition is arguably the bare minimum of what can be done in a new age of hooking up with a new range of harms, where younger generations find themselves "without an instruction booklet" as David puts it.
Chemsex is happening in Dublin. With a scene that is small and compact relative to those of other cities, I am interested to know if size has any effect on uptake. "When a city’s gay scene is big and kind of anonymous, you can shag seventy people and never run into the same person twice. In smaller scenes, it’s harder for chemsex to become a larger problem because there is less anonymity; you're going to run out of people to shag very quickly. Because being able to act out your most extreme fantasies, on drugs, that you might be ashamed of later, and then look at the people you did it with in the bank the next day, or in a queue at the bus stop, makes it much, much harder. Where smaller gay scenes exist, there tends to be better community cohesion, which can often translate into less [problematic] chemsex". There is a degree of speculation here as concrete figures continue to be accumulated longitudinally in healthcare settings.
David and I talk about the need for greater understanding between men when it comes to talking openly and productively about gay sex and drugs. I refer to the self described 'well adjusted' gay man who shames certain behaviours. I ask David how best to approach these men and encourage more open, positive engagement. "I would identify with them. Yes, it looks like members of your community are letting you down – it must be upsetting to see that. It might be hard to identify with why they might do that if you’ve had a better experience. But my invitation would be to look at it in a different light: they may not be irresponsible people letting the side down – I promise you that there are complex, underlying issues that makes it hard for us all to self care in any given moment in life. I have been dreadfully irresponsible. For example, there was a moment when I didn’t speak up while I was in bed with someone and I became HIV positive. I was young and I really wanted people to love me and I didn’t know how to handle the conversation. I can’t promise that life won’t deal me a hand of cards where my mental health resurfaces, or I am less responsible. I can’t promise I won’t forget to take my HIV medicine, or not care about myself enough and have poor health again. I may be unkind to others due to poor health. But when and if I do, I hope my community around me will understand the complexity of why I’m not making the right choices and have empathy for me rather than judge me online".
Given David's own experience of gay sex and drugs in the context of his current line of work, it seems reasonable to suggest that each day ought to be accompanied by a trigger warning. David has navigated trauma and chaos for a large segment of his life – to assume a more or less central role in helping others on oftentimes very similar journeys must demand, not only sustained hope, but proactivity in minding his own emotional and psychological wellbeing. "The work is its own self care and I am rewarded daily by doing my job. It’s a joy to see people being very real. And also, it is a privilege to meet people who, out there, are acting with bravado, acting like porn stars, acting like people without vulnerabilities – but they come to me. And they do reveal vulnerability. You can’t just treat that as disposable. It's an enormous privilege that they’re doing that, and it’s an enormous reward in itself. I’ve had a journey. A complicated one. If I’m playing a twenty minute part in someone’s long journey, then I don’t need to see them successful and happy at the end of twenty minutes, I just know that I was a part of it and have absolute faith that we will get there in the end".
Note: For more information around gay sex and drugs, click here.