A question that can stop too many gay men in their tracks these days. In fact it’s become the most commonly asked question by workers in London’s sexual health clinics. What’s more worrying is that they are not referring to alcohol so much as mephedrone, GBL and crystal meth, which have arguably become a normalised part of our sexual recreation (whether we use them or not), with chem-sex being easily available on any hooking-up site or app you might download to your phone.
This was mildly concerning some years back, when many gay men didn’t know what chem-sex was, when it was only a small section of our community partying with chems; you know, good ol’ G-shag after the Circuit Party festivities, or smoking some Tina on the odd bank holiday to shag that hot couple you’d had your eye on. When slamming was something you only ever did to a door.
Roll on 2013, when ‘slamming’ (injecting drugs for sex) is being discussed in national papers, and being offered to 16-year-olds on Grindr. Our gay brothers are dying in saunas and bedrooms from GBL overdoses, being sectioned twice a month with psychoses after sex parties that go on one day too many. Thirty men present at a single GUM clinic after one bank holiday in need of PEP because they were too high to think of using a condom; how many, I wonder, didn’t get to the clinic in time? HIV and Hep C diagnoses are rising in London, and GUM clinics are scrambling to get their staff trained in drugs awareness to cope with the harm we’re doing to ourselves. Is there something wrong with our relationship to our sexuality?
This isn’t just a London problem; it’s rife in America, Australia, South Africa and parts of Europe. We’ve achieved so much; we’ve emerged from a dark climate of dangerous sex and HIV, of cottaging and cruising dodgy places in search of sexual experiences, previously criminalised and stigmatised by a heteronormative world. We now have some rights, and some new ‘norms’; we have our undetectable viral loads, we have our apps and saunas and drugs that can be found and bought online. Yay! What we don’t have is a textbook to guide us through this minefield of confusing safer sex messages and the easy availability of, well almost everything, including our wildest sexual fantasies, as sold to us in pornography.
So what should this textbook contain? Some guys say that dating is so outdated, they’d be ridiculed for even suggesting it. Really? I’d suggest it’s quite OK to be anxious about disrobing for a complete stranger who is expecting you to deliver porn-star sex within minutes of opening your door. Sure, drugs can make that do-able, but so can getting to know someone first. It doesn’t have to be a marriage proposal, but a chat over a drink, a movie, or (heaven forbid) a second date before shagging. There’s something quite horny about shagging someone who cares at least a little about some of the things you do; or at least wants you to feel happy about this experience tomorrow. In my textbook, I’d insist on that at least. We deserve nothing less. In fact, it’s an important component in defining a healthy self-esteem. I’ve done my share of shagging around, not all of it sober, and I know that as great as a casual shag is, my sex life needs to be peppered with feeling valued from time to time; I need to know what I’m contributing to a shag besides fit body parts, and that I can recognise sexiness in others, besides just their body parts.
I don’t see a lot of this online. I see chems and bareback sex being offered as a matter of course, and I know that 15-year-olds are downloading these apps too: I hope they have the boundaries and communication skills to negotiate such dangers. If part of the answer to all this lies in taking responsibility online… let’s remember that our young, vulnerable gay brothers are using these apps. Let’s try sober sex once in a while. Let’s not suggest chems or slamming with anyone who has never done it. Let’s use condoms, and not expect our HIV-negative shags we’ve just met online to trust in our ‘undetectability’. And let’s get informed about our drug use; gay drug services don’t judge chem-sex behaviour, just help keep us safe.
And finally, to those of us not using chems; let’s remember that it’s rarely pure hedonism, or self-indulgent promiscuity driving this behaviour; there’s something underlying all of this, and as we seek to find answers and solutions, we’ll need to be kind and generous, not judgemental. We are a community after all, online or otherwise.