I don’t know about anybody else, but I can’t help thinking that the issue of chemsex is one we are still not really getting our act together on. I claim no specific expertise here, but what I do know is this issue is impacting on the health of our population, and an already vulnerable one at that, so we need to act. And I have several friends and colleagues from across the country -the youngest 24 and a student, the oldest 50 and a professional in the City, whose processes of getting out of the harm they’ve come to I have helped with.
We seem to have depressingly little in the way of national leadership or action on this from the Public Health community, with the work of some dedicated individual clinicians and community activist -step forward David Stuart and 56 Dean Street, Greg Owen, Matthew Hodson, GMFA , James Wharton, MenRUs, Burrell Street Clinic for their Safer Chemsex Kit and a few others being most visible. I have provided links to several pieces of this work in the footnotes, but let me also direct you to London Friend’s work on LGBT drug use and recommendations for treatment services . I hope anyone I have missed off will forgive me.
It is simply unacceptable for the skills and resources of the Public Health profession to be absent from this issue.
I was discussing this today at another meeting. I said to a colleague from another agency “people say we don’t have a problem locally” and before I could continue to say “and they’re wrong” he interjected, “they should just open grindr, it’s everywhere.”
The use of some kind of substance to enhance sex is known and common throughout history (drinks while dating?) And if people are fine about that and use without harm, then I don’t feel it’s my business. But recently the phenomenon of chemsex has become a bit better known than it was. A search of MEDLINE and PSYCARTICLES when I was doing a quick review to inform this blog, after removing duplicates, found in 2014 3 papers, a search for 2017 found 48 papers so far in the health and psychological literature.
Chemsex is a term for a complex of behaviours – use of dating apps to have parties where sustained group use of drugs happens, particularly drugs like cocaine, crack, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) and crystal methamphetamine. Sex is often but not always a given at some of these parties. Slamming – injection of drugs for quicker highs, sometimes happens, and with it sometimes sharing needles.
While it may be more of a scene for gay men, bisexual men and heterosexuals do it too. What will that pattern will be in two years time? We know that trends started by gay men sooner or later get picked up by the wider heterosexual world, or am I just remembering disco through rose tinted (glitter encrusted) spectacles? (Showing my age there.)
Increasingly, use of chems or drugs is reported by men using dating apps for 1-1 encounters too. Recent work has shed more light on the multiple motivations and issues at play. From the many paper available, I have a few which I think resonate. Weatherburn et al identify a range of motivations linked to “enhancing the qualities valued in sex” including enhancing attraction, heightening sensation, intensifying intimacy and connection and, for some men, overcoming lack of libido. Media attention and the interest of the scientific press seems to have been somewhat limited to date.
The increasing intelligence from reporting by clinicians and community groups of problems presenting from chemsex is concerning. From understandable motives – socialising, feeling good, enjoying sex and coping with life pressures are reported as factors, certainly in GHB use for some time , the drug use is primarily intended as a facilitator of these. But clinicians are reporting a range of harms including addiction and other sequelae.
Dedicated professionals like David Stuart and others working on this issue, have brought greater light on chemsex. The publication by James Wharton of his chemsex experiences in Something for the Weekend and the associated meda reporting,have gone some way to cast some light on this as an issue which needs addressing.
Parties are not the only places, however, where chemsex is becoming an issue. Increasing use of chems with sexual hook ups means some men may rarely have sex sober. It’s not just physical risk, but psychological. Intimacy may become associated with being high, and for some, dependent on it.
A 2014 BMJ editorial suggested a minority of men engage in chemsex but community reports suggest this is growing and becoming more prevalent. There are as yet no robust epidemiological estimates. Weatherburn et al report up to 18% of men from three London Boroughs uses cocaine and 10.5% GHB compared to 4.8% and 1.6% respectively of men elsewhere in England.
Wharton quotes estimates that a gay man dies in London from GHB overdose every 12 days but very few have been high profile. Estimates of prevalence vary in recent reports but what is clear is that this is becoming an increasingly prevalent presenting problem in sexual health clinics, and few services as yet seem prepared to address it effectively.
There are also some people who seem to be able to use drugs regularly without seeming to come to harm. If people genuinely can do that safely, and we can help them successfully avoid harm, then my interest ends there. But many do come to harm, and it’s those who experience harm in any form I’m interested in here. And the harms from chemsex can be wide.
Whether or not this is a minority phenomenon in terms of the population, the harms to some users are significant and the barriers to accessing services also important disablers of helping men deal with harms arising from chemsex.
What we don’t know reliably is how many men engage in chemsex without coming to some form of harm. Most data from clinics and the small amount of research to date identifies some kind of harm. A spectrum of harms across physical, psychological and social health is possible. Some of the documented and reported harms are shown in Table 1 below. But this isn’t exhaustive.
Table 1: Harms from chemsex
|Physical Health||· STIs, HIV and other Blood borne viruses
· Physical effects of comedowns
· Risks to circulatory system from injection
· Respiratory risk from frequent use
· Risk of death from overdose
· Disrupted sleep patterns, anorexia, weight loss
· Impaired immune function
|Psychological/Mental Health||· Use of chemsex to facilitate social contact and overcome loneliness, isolation
· Coping mechanism for stigma and homophobia
· Impact on coping skills, sleep, employment, cognitive functioning
· Impact on relationships of becoming habituated on having sex while using drugs
· Psychological impact of financial problems from financing habit
· Impact on identity integration and acceptance
· Bereavement from people in social networks dying as a result of G
|Social health||· Group identification
· Coping with stigma
· Holding down a job and responsibilities
· Risk of debt and homelessness
· Criminalisation for possession of drugs and sometimes dealing
Public Health Issues
Chemsex is not just a drugs or an HIV or a sexual health issue. For most men it seems to be linked to a complex manifold of issues. From the physical risks to health, to the psychological risks and impact on lifecourse development, there are significant issues which impact on the populations and individuals who use it.
I have spoken, written and presented elsewhere on how the need to ensure LGBT populations are able to live happily and successfully across the lifecourse must be a public health issue,. So I won’t repeat that here. One of my worries is that chemsex for some can hamper or impair that process.
The mental health impact of being unable to have sex or be intimate unless high presents a number of challenges. But there is another set of issues. If some gay men use chemsex to cope with stigma or feelings about being gay, that must be seen as potentially problematic. It is a commonplace in psychology of LGBT populations that a key task is identity integration and acceptance. Theory and evidence assumes that identity integration and assimilation is crucial to health and wellbeing outcomes for gay men across the lifecourse,,. It is assumed to be especially important to ensure inclusion for LGBT people in education and employment. If chemsex disrupts such processes, or means a population or sub-population of gay men can only feel good enough about themselves where mediated through drug use (either individual or in groups), there may be significant avoidable psychological morbidity as a result. If what Wharton says about younger gay men finding it easy to get into this scene is true, then that has worrying implications about the ability of those men to form attachments and integrate their identity as they grow, with potential maladaptation and poor coping and mental health across the lifecourse.
Policy frameworks and action
While chemsex is mentioned in the new UK Drugs Strategy, there has been much criticism of the lack of commitment on what to do about it. There remains no coherent public health response. Community harm reduction approaches including safer injecting kits are most visible interventions with the best available frameworks for clinical response being those developed by David Stuart There is as yet no clear national policy framework or consensus guideline on what can or should be done. Community intelligence is still crucial to developing action on this, and we need to find ways of making sure we capture and factor that into response planning, on a more agile basis than we sometimes do.
What can be done?
A range of action is needed, and this needs to be revised as we know more. I group suggested actions under domains here.
Domain 1: Establishing prevalence and incidence
- We need as clear a picture of prevalence, service use, harm, morbidity and mortality as can be compiled, nationally and locally
- Including and using community intelligence in this development will be crucial
- Asking about chemsex use should become a routine question in sexual health services on the electronic patient record
Domain 2 : Harm Reduction strategies
- We need to work with providers of dating and sex hook-up apps to target information on harm reduction to users engaging in chemsex
- The current good practice (chemsex care plan and harm reduction information and kits) should be rolled out to those areas who identify they have a developing issue
- Support harm reduction including continued information and kits to reduce harm
- Agencies could consider safer chemsex courses as a way of helping reduce harm including teaching people skills of what to do about GHB overdoses
- Agencies should combine efforts to make available a single reliable source of information on reducing harm from chemsex and where to get help
- Sex venues should consider placing information on chemsex and where users can get help.
Domain 3: Service response and readiness
- Most chemsex users don’t find drugs services resonate with them on the whole. We need to identify what drugs services and sexual health services can to do address this and roll it out
- Sexual health and drugs services should identify what they can to do ask gay men about, identify and respond to chemsex issues, and develop collaborative approaches to sharing skills
- Those services should become skilled in particular identity and lifecourse issues facing gay men
- Services should consider whether they can recruit people recovering from chemsex harm to work with those seeking support
- Drug services should consider as part of this work both the LGBT supplementary guidance of the NEPTUNE programme work on NPS ,the London Friend work on drugs services and LGBT populations and the work of David Stuart
Domain 4: Developing consensus on interventions
- Agencies working on this should convene with experts on drug use, sexual health and LGBT development to develop some consensus guidelines on harms and issues, and intervention strategies, and keep this under review.
- Learn from the work being developed by the London Chemsex Network as part of this
Domain 5: Community resilience
- LGBT community groups who provide social groups or counselling facilities should consider what they can do to continue to support gay men with lifecourse identity development
- Employers with large numbers of gay men in population centres likely to be affected should consider what resilience and support packages they can put in place for employees with performance issues arising from chemsex
 Wharton, James (2017) Something for the Weekend: London : Biteback Publishing
 Hammack, P.L (2009) The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course New York: Oxford University Press