We need to talk about ‘Chemsex’… - RSA

We need to talk about ‘Chemsex’…


  • Drug & alcohol recovery
  • Fellowship

The figures show that 110,000 people are infected with the virus. Worryingly, there has also been an increase in the number of gay men diagnosed in recent years, with 3,250 newly diagnosed in 2013. In London, the proportion of gay and bisexual men living with HIV is 13% of the HIV population.

In London, the proportion of gay and bisexual men living with HIV is 13% of the HIV population.

These figures also reflect the results of a recent study carried out in three London boroughs. Sigma Research have carried out research and in-depth interviews with a number of men over a four month period Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. The report, commissioned by the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, has found that gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM) are contributing to a rise in the spread (and new diagnosis) of HIV infection, STIs and hepatitis C.

A major cause of this is that a proportion of the men in this group are regularly using drugs preceding and during sex with other men, a practice that it is argued fuels ‘promiscuity and recklessness’.

The use of drugs during sex isn’t new, but this increasingly popular activity, known as ‘Chemsex’, refers more specifically to the growing use of a new wave of chemical stimulants, including; Crystal Methamphetamine, NPS, GHB/GBL and methadone (although Cocaine and Ketamine are sometimes used too).

There are a number of contributing factors that when collectively thrown into the melting pot create this emerging trend amongst the demographic. According to Lambeth’s HIV prevention and sexual health commissioning manager Paul Steinberg; ‘chemsex is being facilitated by a “perfect storm” of cheap, easily available drugs, a burgeoning number of social and sexual networking apps and websites that enable men to arrange to meet for sex at private parties’.

Add to this further personal choices, such as; injecting drugs and sharing needles, unprotected sex and promiscuity (whilst under the influence of drugs), one can recognise the challenges faced by this group.

Whilst all STIs are problematic and their ability to spread through practices described above are clear, it is HIV that is proving most concerning. The statistics highlighted earlier are without doubt worrying but since its arrival in western countries during the 1980s, thankfully HIV has been transformed from a fatal to a chronic life-long illness. However, a significant consequence of this is complacency among those in the prescribed group – as HIV is no longer perceived as a disease that carries the ‘fear of death’ (something which previously led to safer sexual practices).

Issues of well-being arise not only from drug and alcohol recovery but also medical conditions. Living with HIV, whilst it might be markedly different nowadays than it was thirty years ago, affects not only the physical self but also ones mental health, along with immediate relationships with family and friends. Notwithstanding the wider social and professional stigmatization that we know surrounds such illnesses.

We should approach these subcultural practices with care and compassion. Education and health advice are obviously key to reversing the current trend. We are faced with a new generation of men, who are perhaps oblivious to the shocking and frightening AIDS/health campaigns of the 1980s launched under Norman Fowler. It is an altogether new problem facing a thriving and experimental generation, similar in urgency to that other social phenomenon troubling young people today, the rise of NPS (or so called ‘legal highs’); neither of which we currently seem to have the answers for. These concerns only highlight the increasing difficulties that face a UK drug strategy for 2015 as we begin to recognise a clear and progressive shift from a single point of emphasis (say, heroin) to a more ambiguous world of drug taking through emerging ‘specialised’ trends.

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