A graphic, gripping, funny and frank verbatim drama exposing the chill-out chem-sex scene. “Wanna pair of shorts? Shot of G? Line of Meth?” From surgeons to students, couples to kink; guys that love it and lost guys longing to be loved. An original look into a drug-fuelled, hedonistic, highly secret world of Grindr, and instant gratification.
I was honored to be invited to write the foreword for the published version of this culturally important and absolutely arresting play by Peter Darney, "5 Guys Chillin'".
Published by Oberon Books.
“Chill-out parties”, “chills”.
Gay orgies, drugs, HIV.
Terms guaranteed to ignite a war of passionate divided opinion amongst gay men, as well as to be fodder for media headlines, reminiscent of the anti-gay newspaper reports that were so common during the AIDS crisis circa 1985.
What’s it all about? Peter Darney has been brave enough to explore it all in his new play, “5 Guys Chillin’”; and I do mean brave. I was honoured to be a regular attendee at the first few runs of this play, hosting some vibrant, sometimes heated post-show Q&A’s with the audience. An audience left, frankly, disturbed by some of the issues they’d been confronted with during the performances. A small number walked out mid performance, overcome with emotions ranging from tears to anger. Those that remained afterward needed (seemingly urgently), to discuss and share the raw emotions they’d been left nursing. It was a responsibility and a privilege for me to be present for these Q&A’s. And indeed brave of Peter Darney to address the very contentious and upsetting topic of ChemSex. Brave; but genius and loving of him to have done so through the prism of true stories. This is verbatim theatre.
Gay communities around the world are in the throes of a cultural shift; one that will require cool heads, kind hearts and possibly a little historical perspective to fully understand. ChemSex is a term coined by gay men on online sexual networking platforms, and simply means the use of drugs (“chems” – shorthand for “chemicals”) to improve (or enable) the experience of sex.
Nothing new there. Drugs and alcohol have played a part in the sexual pursuits of many populations throughout history. ChemSex however, has a unique definition.
Let’s take, for example, heroin and crack cocaine. I don’t think anyone will assume that these are recreational drugs. People don’t use heroin to go out and have a laugh, to have a dance or a good time. Heroin and crack cocaine serve a very distinct purpose of numbing one’s pain, of nursing historical trauma. In fact almost universally, associated with poverty, homelessness, crime and mental health. You might say, these drugs are preferred for their dissociative qualities. Not social drugs. The high is quite an isolating, comforting one.
Gay men have always favoured “party drugs” over heroin and crack cocaine. Throughout the 1980’s. 90’s and early 2000’s, gay men were using ecstasy, MDMA, cocaine – in quite large numbers. Some UK research demonstrated that gay men’s drug use is seven times higher than their heterosexual counterparts. Why these drugs? People use different drugs for different purposes. Many gay men grow up as the only gay in the family. Sometimes, the only gay in the school. The only gay in the village. Quite an isolating experience. They’re unlikely then, to choose a drug that isolates them further. They’d be more likely to choose a drug that facilitates connection, community even. Drugs that improve confidence, bring people together, perhaps on a dance-floor with other like-minded people also seeking connection, community. Ecstasy, MDMA, cocaine have served gay people and communities well in this regard, particularly through some lonely coming-out experiences or through a harrowing AIDS epidemic.
And though a lot of this drug use was about dancing and clubbing, let’s not assume for a moment, that there wasn’t a lot of sex occurring on these drugs. A hell of a lot of sex was occurring on these drugs. Fortunately though, ecstasy, MDMA and powdered cocaine are remarkably less dangerous than heroin and crack cocaine. In fact, throughout the 1980’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, despite the common use of party drugs, we did not see gay men rushing to Accident and Emergency departments with overdoses from these drugs. We did not see gay men suffering dangerous withdrawal symptoms, or requiring urgent detoxes. We didn’t see large numbers of gay men accessing drug support services with injecting drug use problems, or seeking help with addictions. And we did not see remarkable rises in HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections as a result of this recreational drug use.
But then something happened. A few things in fact.
Almost overnight, the way gay men sought sex, connection and community changed, with the adoption of new technologies. Geo-sexual networking Apps and websites (such as Gaydar, Grindr et al) introduced us to faster ways of finding sex, introduced us to new ways of communication. A good thing for the most part. The sometimes dangerous culture of seeking sex and love through “cottaging” in public toilets or parks ended almost overnight, in favour of online dating and sex-seeking. In a way, these Apps de-shamed the historically illegal gay sex, bringing it proudly into the 21st century and onto our smartphones.
A downside? These Apps didn’t come with any instruction booklet. Bonds of pre-hooking-up intimacy that had been formed in bars, perhaps over a drink or a first date, were now being replaced with clumsy, abbreviated attempts to communicate our sexual and emotional needs via an online platform, with a limited number of characters in a “profile”, and accompanied by a an avatar that advertised our sexiness in competition with countless others. That’s quite a skill-set for a population of people who are (arguably) sexually and emotionally vulnerable, having endured decades of cultural homophobia, illegality and a traumatic and stigmatising HIV epidemic. Amid this clumsiness, grew new stigmas; sexual rejections, poorly-informed, based on race, effeminate qualities or body fitness fascism became a new way of shaming or isolating sections of our community. HIV stigma found a new public platform to be aired. Again; no instruction booklet to guide us through this minefield of intimacy-seeking.
But that’s not all; at the same time that we were adjusting to this sexual/technological revolution, three new drugs landed, almost overnight, in the laps of gay communities. These drugs were crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and GHB/GBL. These drugs became more easily available to larger numbers of gay men with the advent of smartphone Apps; one did not require a dealer or a real-life social network to procure drugs; one only had to log in and find someone within GPS range willing to share chems. Furthermore, these three drugs were significantly more dangerous than the party drugs we’d been accustomed to. Capable of delivering an incredibly more potent, sexually-disinhibiting “high”, these drugs have more addictive potential, and are associated with greater risk and harms than the comparatively innocent ecstasy, MDMA and powdered cocaine favoured by our forebears.
Since 2005, we have seen increasing numbers of gay men rushed to Accident and Emergency departments with overdoses, or withdrawal symptoms requiring urgent medical detoxes. We are seeing higher numbers of drug facilitated sexual assaults. More gay Londoners are injecting drugs than ever before in recorded history (according to Public Health England), and greater numbers of gay men are seeking support from drug services. The greatest public health concern however, is reflected in the rises in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections that accompanied the uptake of these drugs by gay communities. The UK’s first targeted NHS ChemSex support service was opened in 2010 at 56 Dean Street in London’s Soho. Over 3,000 gay men using chems access 56 Dean Street each month, and similar presentations are being observed in the Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe. In 2012, 90% of the HIV positive men accessing London’s Antidote drug and alcohol support services attributed their HIV diagnoses to the use of chems.
ChemSex invites further debate, about the role sex plays in the lives of gay men in 2016. Some argue we are too highly sexualised as culture, angering those who, for decades, have fought the case for gay sexual liberation, without being forced into “hetero-normative” boxes. Debates are waged over whether saunas are appropriate parts of gay culture while an HIV epidemic is hampered by promiscuity and chem-use. Others believe historical and cultural homophobia have contributed to an unconscious shame around gay sex that may encourage gay men to seek the disinhibition of chems for sex. This angers other sections of our communities, who defiantly claim to be shame-free. More still, debate that thirty years of AIDS and HIV have inextricably linked gay sex with risk and danger, encouraging gay men to seek escapism from this risk in a drug high. Or to have a dismissive attitude to risk and danger, ignoring the harms associated with chems. These debates also fuel community debate about PrEP, a new HIV prevention drug that can prevent HIV transmission without the use of condoms.
More than simply a “drug problem”, ChemSex is a culturally unique phenomenon. And it is divisive, so divisive. Gay sex, promiscuity, disease, drug use, differing addiction definitions... it is a melting pot for moral judgment, fear and stigma. From a public health perspective, it is no more than a syndemic of behaviours affecting a small and particularly vulnerable population, and one which requires an effective public health response. But from a community perspective... we have a problem.
This is where the role of theatre is invaluable. Theatre has a proud tradition of providing the forum in which challenging social issues can be explored. Bringing ChemSex to the stage as Peter Darney has with “Five Guys Chillin’”, not only raises awareness of this difficult cultural phenomenon, but provides a safe space for the issues to be presented, explored, humanised; extricated from the scandal-mongering headlines that alarm and stigmatise the issue.
That’s not to say it’s an easy ride; this script does not shy away from the harsh realities of ChemSex. Nor does it shy away from the controversy. One act into this play, and you know that this is not the Disney interpretation of ChemSex. Two acts in, and you know that Peter is not trying to win friends or praise from this story. Nor is he prepared to hide behind fiction; every word in this play is verbatim from the mouths of babes with real experiences of ChemSex, interviewed for the purpose of an accurate script.
I’d argue that Peter Darney’s purpose was, simply, truth; it’s among the most heartfelt of any scripts I’ve seen brought to life. In the 1980’s, an AIDS awareness campaign stated simply, that “Silence = Death”; ChemSex is imbued with so many unpleasant truths, it can be tempting to be silent about it. It can be so tempting to just blame others, some irresponsible “others” who are letting the side down, embarrassing the gay community, undoing the freedoms we have achieved over the last 40 years. But it is a problem for all of us, whether we use chems or not. Just as HIV is a problem for all of us whether we have it or not. This is a community issue, one that will require compassion, unity, and the setting aside of our judgments and unkindness. Silence is not an option as we all, as a community, strive to address this embarrassing and morally challenging problem. Theatre and the arts may well be the safest and most perfect forum to raise and explore the controversy of ChemSex; and I thank Peter Darney for this brave and extraordinary production.