The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Chemsex: Sex, drugs and alcohol… that was my weekend

Rachel Attard Thursday, 12 September 2019, 11:36 Last update: about 6 months ago

In chemsex culture, you get absorbed into the world of sex drugs and alcohol and you forget about food; nobody has an appetite when they are high on chems. James Wharton, the author of ‘Out in the Army: My life as a gay soldier’ and ‘Something for the Weekend: Life in the chemsex underworld’ and LGBT activist talks to Rachel Attard about his experience in chemsex and the consequences it has on the mind and body.

James Wharton
James Wharton

What is Chemsex? How would you describe it for those who never heard the word?

Chemsex is defined as the use of specific substances before and during the act of sex, typically by gay and bisexual men. The substances used are designed to increase libido and reduce inhibitions. Chemsex parties are usually attended by multiple men and can last for days.


How did chemsex originate? Do you find chemsex everywhere or is it mainly in metropolitan cities?

It is for the most part a metropolitan phenomenon. In the UK, the capital of chemsex culture is South London. But it exists in other cities, too, just not at the same scale. To counter that, though, there is a thing called 'chemsex tourism', which is basically when gay and bi-men travel to big cities (London) from where they live and then find a party on Grindr or something for them to attend.

What makes this interesting is when the weekend is over, they go back to those smaller towns and villages, with the come down symptoms of a heavy chemsex weekend, but find there's no culturally-competent support services available to them, like there is in London.

Why do you think chemsex is more popular with gay men?

It should be said that historically, people (gay and straight) have always used drugs to enhance sexual sensations/experiences; Victorian opium dens for example. However, this movement is different. I will not hear the argument that 'straight people do this too', because the fact is it is nowhere near the same in terms of numbers and uptake.

In Clapham, south London, on a typical Sunday afternoon, there will be literally hundreds of gay men packed inside random peoples' living rooms participating in this activity. Why? It's a complex answer. But I could summarise by saying, a lot of gay men love sex - and why shouldn't we?

We are all adults, and sexual liberation for gay men as always been fraught. Additionally to this, in the moment, the drugs are extremely pleasing; they make you feel great. It's important I don't sound like somebody who is encouraging this, because I am not, there are many come-down consequences to the drugs, but in the instant, at the point of applying the drugs to the activity, they provide a very satisfying stimulus. It's hard to overlook that - even when you are battling through the mid-week on a dreadful comedown - the drugs are that powerful (and addictive) that for many, it's worth riding the storm as it were, to the weekend when they can be used again. And the last part of that jigsaw is often trauma. All of life's worries disappear when you are as high as a kite on crystal meth on a Sunday morning surrounded by lots of hot naked men. And, who are we to judge men who have found an escape from that trauma, if only for a weekend?

How did you get involved in the chemsex world?

Like most people, a friend of a friend, right place right time. When I asked this question to the men I interviewed for my book, Something for the Weekend, I was astonished how similar everybody's answer was. In summary, the pattern was that each had some sort of minor drug-use element to their weekends. Perhaps some used cocaine, others were users of MDMA (which has always been a party drug in the clubs on the gay scene). Then, at some point somebody offers somebody a different drug, the person likes it and it goes on from there.

For me, I was caught in the trap net because I was desperately searching for connections. I was 27 and had just come out of a long-term relationship. I had been married for five years. Suddenly, I was a single gay man living in London. So, when I went out to access other gay men - my community - because chemsex culture was by then a thing, it was only a matter of time before I was introduced to it. Of course, many gay men come across it, and perhaps decide it's not for them, and some actively avoid it, but others try it, they find they like it, and they then return to it. It doesn't take long for that pattern to become problematic, and that's when we see the serious consequences attributed to the culture. I left the culture two years ago, when I left London.


Who is James Wharton?

I'm 32 years-old, an Iraq war veteran and originally from North Wales.


Where you scared to tell your family that you were gay?

I wasn't scared, but that doesn't mean I wasn't full to the brim with apprehension. I had already come out to the soldiers I served with in the army, and back then (before Facebook and iPhones) I was able to hold this double/secret life away from my family in Wales. But, when the time came to tell my parents while I was visiting home on leave from the army, all the stress of keeping my sexuality a deep secret throughout my childhood returned, and the whole thing was very traumatic.


Have you ever had a relationship with women? Were you married?

No. I was married to a man.


When did you come out?

I came out in the army at the age of 18. I wrote a book about this in 2013 called Out in the Army.


In the book you said that you use to spend from Friday to Sunday with no food - just drugs and alcohol? How did you manage to survive that and what type of drugs are we talking about here?

Well, here lies one of the consequences to chemsex culture. If you get absorbed into the world of chemsex, which many of us do, you forego food; nobody has an appetite when they are high on chems. The knock-on effect is that you don't eat for days, which is not good for you. The drugs concerned with chemsex culture are: Methedrone, GBH and crystal meth.


Did you consume any drugs or alcohol between Monday morning and Friday?

Not usually, and that's a really fascinating aspect to chemsex culture; people will hold down a regular life through the week, but then return to the culture every Friday or Saturday. But, when things get problematic, the use can overspill into the week, and it might start to impact on your job and life. This seems somewhat inevitable.


Where you able to function at work for the whole five days?

Not really. If I made it into work on Monday, I may have only had a few hours sleep and all the drugs would still be very much in my system, impacting on concentration. Colleagues used to comment that I looked tired, or that I seemed a little spaced out. I know I used to come up with some random bullshit stories as to why I looked the way I did or why I was late/needed Monday off work.


Why did you repeat it every single weekend?

No, what I said was that in the moment of taking part in chemsex I felt amazing. It scratched my itch. But then in the days following I would have to endure the come down consequences. People act differently in come down, and depending on what drugs you have used, the come down might be different. I know people who have been sectioned to protect themselves during heavy crystal meth comedowns, which is terrifying. Others, I know can take a 12 hour sleep, and double espresso and be able to get to work for 9am on a Monday.


How many men will there be in one apartment?

Chemsex can be solitary, between a couple or with multiple participants. There's no rule.


In the book you say that people used have sex with complete strangers. Where you scared that you might be infected with any STDs?

Gay men are educated people where sexual health is concerned. We grew up very much in the knowledge of how important it is to look after your sexual health. It is true that although chemsex culture in London is extremely popular, HIV rates are continuing to fall. We gay men are in control of our sexual health, and I'm very proud to be from a community that treats this matter the way that it does.


In the book you said that you used to take Viagra. Why?

Everybody in chemsex culture takes Viagra, it's just a thing. Some of the drugs that feature in the culture make it hard to withstand an erection, Viagra helps that.


You have now recovered from the drug and alcohol addiction. What is your message to gay men who still feel that they belong to the chemsex world?

There's no point me telling people to stop doing what they are doing, because that's never going to be helpful, and actually, who am I to lecture? But, to those who feel they would like a break, or to step away, my advice would be to get support, explore others areas for fulfilment in your life, and don't give yourself a hard time if you fail occasionally.


What do you think countries like Malta should do to educate LGBT+ communities that chemsex is not good for your mental and physical wellbeing?

Communities need to become more open minded and sensitive to the lives that some gay and bi men lead, and encourage dialogue to exist so that people can talk about these issues, free from judgement. Communities that are judgemental to people within them that may be engaging in chemsex need to first deal with their own education around the reasons why some people are engaging in it in the first place.   

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