The life of the party
“It’s very much the ‘after party' scene. The word chemsex is a dirty word. It’s not a word that, definitely in Dublin, or Ireland, that we’re comfortable using here.” Adam Shanley, outreach worker with the Gay Men’s Health Service (GMHS) and manager of KnowNow, the rapid HIV testing service, speaks with Stephen Moloney about men having sex with men on drugs.
Shanley opens our conversation with a primer on definitions: “When we think strictly about what drugs are used in chemsex or chillouts, it’s typically mephedrone, G and crystal meth. But if there’s a drug that’s tied up in your sex, then it is what we are calling chemsex.” He continues: “MDMA or ecstasy have a lot more emphasis on empathy, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to want to fuck. G and crystal meth can be for the sheer enjoyment of the high, but that moreish, disinhibited sexualised feeling is to the fore.”
Today, according to Shanley, G remains the most popular drug on this scene. A relative caginess around its consumption is becoming increasingly dispensed with in favour of greater honesty, an openness laying bare the potential vulnerabilities faced by people who use the drug. He explains: “What’s concerning for us at the clinic are the stories where you go to the party, you take off your jocks, and if you go under it’s your own fault. If you’ve woken up and you feel that someone has had sex with you, you say, ‘that was my fault, I took too much G, what was I expecting?’”
Unsettling too is the handful of men dying annually from G. That the drug exits the body fast and is difficult to pinpoint unless specifically looked for makes tracking the number of fatalities challenging. Moreover, it is simply not being talked about: “I either hear through the backwater of friend groups, or through official lines among clinicians, that someone has died due to G. I find it bizarre that we’re not having that kind of conversation,” Shanley says. While emphatic in not wanting to conflate distinct issues, he adds: “when gay men start to die in their numbers from something associated with our sex, for that not to alarm us based on our history is concerning.”
As chemsex beds down, more men cite crystal meth as their drug of choice. Smoking is typically the initial route of consumption, but the damage this can do to the face, teeth and gums makes graduating to injecting the logical next step. This brings new concerns: “We’re talking about, generally, a group who are injecting naive; who don’t know about safe injecting practices, or accessing clean needles. This raises the question of whether someone who uses crystal meth intravenously would feel comfortable going a needle exchange,” Shanley elaborates. Arguably, this presents a case for such a service to be made available at locations like the GMHS in the name of risk minimisation.
Harm reduction should be at the centre of any responsible and realistic discussion of this sort and Shanley’s ask is simple: “I’m all for people having as much as sex and as many drugs as they are happy to have but that should come with a responsibility. It should come with the care and compassion for those who you are having those drugs and that sex with – and yourself. It’s about enjoying whatever sort of sex or drugs, with an onus on all of us to look out for each other.”
“If someone goes under, instead of seeing that as detracting from the fun, there should be a level of responsibility among everybody in the room to put that person into the recovery position and check on them regularly, instead of presuming that he always comes around so he’ll come around again. Deaths have happened this year specifically in that scenario.” To party and play fairly is to understand consent, to know how to dose, to know not to mix and to understand that paramedics, if required, are not police officers.
It’s easy to view this kind of sex on drugs as a pathological reaction to gay shame or internalised homophobia. But that’s lazy. Many men simply enjoy it. Self aware and in control, they lead lives steeped in self worth. And good for them. Conversely, many do not. Last year, a survey of over 500 men found that one in four weren’t happy with the sex and drugs they were having and using. Shanley expands on this: “If we are taking these drugs for reasons beyond enjoyment, to maybe numb or mask things we are going through that we haven’t been able to work through otherwise, then it can become an issue. These are potent drugs that are easy to become addicted to. One in four were reaching out for help in that survey.”
Fortunately, the sexual health system is responding; moving from a “shame-laden” and “finger-wagging” past, to emphasising harm reduction techniques while recognising sex and drugs as literal bedfellows. Shanley quotes addiction expert Gabor Maté, saying: “the drug is not the problem, the drug is there as the solution to the problem.”
Shanley is cognisant of the need for skilled, culturally competent staff who can have a sensitive, compassionate conversation, who can guide those who are struggling along clear referral pathways to addiction specialists. He also highlights services like G detoxification. Otherwise? “How long down the line until that one in four gets bigger, or suffers the very real, serious consequences of those problems? One in four is already too many. ”
Here, a number of men speak with Stephen Moloney about their experiences of the scene. Interviews were conducted in person and over email, with men aged from their early 20s to late 40s. All interviewees have been anonymised at their own request.
Ray: “Many gay after parties are synonymous with sex parties and chillouts. I have used apps to find parties because certain people always know the details. I would often move from party to party because I am not from Dublin and would need somewhere to stay during the weekend. I’d usually just have a backpack and be able to text different people to keep a rollover going.
“I try and limit myself in what I take, time myself with my phone when ingesting G and let my friends know I’ve taken it to ensure my safety. I feel in control, nearly over confident from the drugs. I have gone under. I haven’t been taken advantage of, I’ve never seen anyone being taken advantage of. Everyone looked after each other. As hostile as the community and scene can be, we need to look after each other.
“When I was single, there was a point where I would get with a few guys at the same party. Going to these parties coincided with when I came out, I saw them as places to express my sexuality judgement free. When high or at a party, the chances of using any form of protection are quite low. I eventually started on PrEP which put my mind at ease. Risks were still possible, but I had that form of protection.
“There’s definitely a misunderstanding about these parties; an assumption that you’re an addict, that you’re hiding something or using narcotics to cover up issues. This may be true for some people and needs to be addressed, but most people are just out for a good time. Partying is fun but my health, both mental and physical, must take priority. I often took prolonged breaks. However, I know of people who would religiously attend parties for 36+ hours every weekend. I don’t want to become that”.
Joe: “Sex parties, Grindr and saunas are just different ways of shooting fish in a barrel. They can be an enjoyable way to scratch an itch but they are rarely fulfilling. I feel freer sexually when I connect with a guy on a night out and we hit it off. There is something about the sexual acts at a sex party that feel free of inhibition and free of reservations, but I know guys who have gone to sex parties and felt an obligation to participate. I don’t find that sexually free at all.
“Unsafe sex is common but not inevitable. I would not be scolded for wanting to use condoms. I’m more likely to have unsafe sex when drunk than high so I avoid alcohol at sex parties. I am comfortable discussing what I enjoy and don’t enjoy sexually. I’m not afraid to turn down a guy I’m not attracted to, or tell someone when to stop. I couldn’t perform if I didn’t feel in control! Men are generally very open about their HIV status. The stigma around being HIV positive has reduced a lot thanks to medication like PEP and PrEP.
“I see Tina [crystal meth] becoming a big issue. Before I moved away, I knew a small number of men using it at sex parties – mostly smoking, with a smaller number using it intravenously. Now that I’m back in Dublin, I see that smoking Tina is almost openly used. It is still a bit of a taboo drug but no one seems shocked by people smoking it anymore.
“Most afterparties and sex parties I’ve been to involve G. It is cheap, available and effective. It can get you very high and very horny. I went under about two years ago and I’ve avoided it since, but it is very common to see someone go under. It’s not even a big deal anymore. Someone will be twitching or convulsing on the floor and their friend will move them over apologetically. It’s no longer a cause for concern since so many people have their own stories about going under.
“I feel we all know someone who has died from taking too much G but I doubt many of us would recognise what that looks like. I’ve tried a lot of drugs and I think this is the most dangerous of all. That being said, the majority of people taking it are aware of this and will dose it carefully but some will always make a mistake and go under."
Dean: “The first time, I was out with friends and ran into a guy [who] invited me back to an after party. I wasn't really expecting it to be a chemsex party, but when I got to the apartment everyone started changing into shorts that were in a box at the door. There were guys sprawled all over the couches in the living room and people were going in and out of the bedrooms to ride.
“The guys who owned the apartment were super friendly and welcoming. One of them offered me G straight away. I told him I'd never done it before. He asked me if I'd been drinking. When I told him I had my last drink about an hour ago, he told me to wait an hour and come back to him. When I did he was really nice and explained how I'd feel. He gave me a half measure because it was my first time. He seemed really organised, cautious and had an alarm set on his phone for when people could take their second dose.
“The next time, I took a second dose. I remember going for a cigarette, feeling really unwell and getting sick. One of the guys noticed I wasn't feeling great and brought me into a bedroom to lie down. When I woke up a few hours later the guy who owned the apartment got me a taxi home. There seems to be a real culture of people taking care of each other. It's not the seedy scene I'd imagined before I'd experienced any of it.
“As someone who would normally feel quite self conscious of my body I was so comfortable just walking around a packed apartment naked. I think I was even revelling in it. I'd say I’ll take G again but I'm quite cautious of it becoming a habit. It's fun to partake every now and again but I can see how people get into the habit of doing it every weekend.”
Barry: “For many, [the scene] gives them a sense of being free and experimenting, of having sex they might not otherwise engage in. [My sexual health] would always be on my mind. This year, I drank orange juice without realising, or being told, there was a high dose of G in it, and didn’t use a condom while having penetrative sex with three guys. As a precaution, I went on PEP within the recommended 72 hour window. I’ve been on PEP twice as a result of chemsex sessions.
“On most occasions I have been in control while high when it’s planned, exceptions being when I had a dose or drug I wasn’t expecting. After parties can be a safe space for sex but only when at least one person knows how to deal with emergency situations.
“Most people are secret in Ireland about discussing the issue due to judgement, stigma and legal reasons, ranging from illegal drug use to matters of consent. Consent in chemsex scenarios needs to be constantly asked and given otherwise it may not be consent.”
Keith: “There’s always the promise of excitement and adventure [but] your perceptions of what’s going to happen versus what actually happens are two different things. My perception is entering this harem of beautiful guys. The reality is that you go over and everyone has been there for a while; people are sweating and gurning and there’s only one or two who you want to play with. But there’s connection, chat – it’s not a cold thing. The chems bring us together. We’re in the same zone, on the same level.
“The scene scared the fuck out of me at first. It seemed dangerous and wrong. But barebacking seemed dangerous and wrong until I found a away to manage the risk. I’ve never done G, I’m scared of it. I want to do it with somebody I trust, who I know would look after me. The first chem session I went to, I took crystal meth. I fucked a lot more, I felt really connected and out of my body. It was hot and horny. It felt good at the time.
“There’s nothing wrong with guys getting together, having sex and using chems – at all. I feel there are people out there who don’t know why it is they go out and do chems. I wonder how much doing this is to the detriment of my mental health, my expectations around relationships, and sex in general. I haven’t gotten to the stage where I must take alcohol or chems to have sex. If that happens I’m fucked.”
Alec: “I enjoy the idea of having sex while high with multiple partners and for it to come with little or no judgment. To be surrounded by men who have the same or similar views about sex or having sex while high is comforting in a sense. Shallow as it may sound, it can be a place where I get a sense of validation in how I look. The gay scene can be a place of severely high expectations around physical appearance. Being surrounded by men who want to have sex with you can be a satisfying experience in the moment.
“The sex has felt quite natural, primal; almost releasing this other side of your sexuality. The connection can feel extremely real and normal but I always come to find after that this is really the drugs creating a false reality. There have been times where I have found myself doing and enjoying things that I never thought I would do, or potentially have been ashamed or scared of doing.
“I have been concerned and afraid about my sexual health after chemsex. Especially if it’s with people I don’t know, or who haven’t disclosed their status. However, in most chillouts I have been to the status question is asked. Control is something that is difficult to have. You are high on drugs so I don’t know if real control is possible. I have felt safe and at ease in the situation.
“I think there is a sense of shame associated with chemsex and also fear of judgement from friends or people who have no experience. [It is] something that should be enjoyed if you are feeling secure and good about yourself. Using it to escape from issues in your life is unhealthy and, from experience, can make matters worse.”
Andy: “When I was younger, I thought I’d grow out of clubbing and getting high – I haven’t, so I’m reluctant to make assumptions like that about chemsex. I see a lot of guys who are a good bit older than me having a great time at after parties! There doesn’t seem to be some magical upper age limit where you get too old for the scene and either can’t, or don’t want to be involved with it any more.
“The whole thing can be quite formulaic and feel tired after a while. The novelty wears off and it’s not as exciting or fun any more. It takes up a lot of your time; trying to find out where there’s a party happening, getting there, spending hours on Grindr trying to ‘recruit’ more guys, and trying to source chems. Then there’s the recovery time you need after.
“There’s a lot of judgement coming from people who go out on a weekend and get so drunk they can’t stand up, spend the whole next day on the couch with a splitting headache feeling like they’re going to puke and don’t remember a thing from the night before. I’ve had a few of lectures from guys on Grindr when I mention that I’m high.
“I’ve noticed a gradual shift over the past few years, as the scene becomes more commonplace and pervasive, but I think prurient judgement is still the majority view. A lot of that comes ignorance and lack of education about drugs and alternative sexual behaviour.”