The Truth About This Dangerous Sex Trend

Photographed By Lauren Perstein.
If you haven't heard of chemsex, you may know of PNP, or "party and play." And if you don't, then you're probably not on Grindr. Last month, the medical journal The BMJ published an editorial on the dangers of chemsex: sex on methamphetamine (meth), mephedrone ("meow meow"), GHB/GBL ("G"), or some combination of these — most common within the gay community. "Mephedrone and crystal meth can create a powerful psychological dependence, with GHB/GBL creating a dangerous physiological dependence," The BMJ warned. "These drugs are often used in combination to facilitate sexual sessions lasting several hours or days with multiple sexual partners."

This is part of the story, but understanding chemsex as a health risk to a minority of gay men (one study indicated that only 5.9% of gay men in South London had ever used non-prescription drugs in general) rather than as some sensational or depraved activity that all the gay kids are doing these days requires an understanding of just how common this practice is. It's not ubiquitous within the gay community, but it is prevalent — and potentially dangerous to those who engage in it.

Following The BMJ's editorial, a handful of outlets breathlessly reported on the phenomenon, which is also the subject of the upcoming Vice documentary Chemsex. While sex on drugs is not new (the two have been combined for as long as they've both existed), social media now makes it easier than ever to arrange. "It's unspoken knowledge that if someone messages you on Grindr after midnight on a weekday (or 2 a.m. on a weekend), there's a chance that they are methed out and just looking for whatever they can get their hands on, basically," says Gabriel Sands, 28, a Refinery29 syndication manager. "The slang term for meth is 'Tina,'" he adds, "so they often will say 'Are you looking to parTy?' but with a capital 'T' for 'Tina.'"

The use of meth and meph is more likely to lead to STIs than is the use of party drugs of yore, i.e. ecstasy and cocaine. And it's possible that chemsex is partly responsible for recent rises in rates of STIs (including HIV) and hepatitis C.

It's unspoken knowledge that if someone messages you on Grindr after midnight on a weekday (or 2 a.m. on a weekend), there's a chance that they are methed out and just looking for whatever they can get their hands on.

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Writer and editor Neil, 33, says he wasn't familiar with the term "chemsex" but that the practice is "def a known phenom in [the] gay community" of which he is a member. "I just didn't know there was a word for it!" he says. In Neil's experience, "on a hookup app, guys will say 'No PNP' or 'It's cool if you like to party, but don't contact me when you're high,' etc... You kind of assume if someone does meth that it's hard to have a casual relationship to it, and if you're not on it as well, hooking up with that person would just be a weird mess."

"Generally, guys into PNP are also okay with unprotected sex... Frequently, chemsex occurs in orgies, but it can be just two people," explains Paul Havern, 25, an LGBT advocate. "I only know two young men living with HIV, and one of them got it from PNP." In addition to the STI risk that injection drug use carries, the drugs used in chemsex lower inhibitions and trigger euphoria and arousal, leading to decreased condom use; what's more, drug users may be under the influence too long to access post-exposure prophylaxis before contracting HIV.

I only know two young men living with HIV, and one of them got it from PNP.

"Meth is a huge issue in the gay community — I think, firstly, because gay sex was always considered something bad," Havern continues. "We began to obtain some acceptance in the pre-AIDS crisis world, and then during and after the crisis, gay sex was once again controlled as much as possible." Case in point: "Gay men don't generally get to have a discussion with their parents about sex and healthy sex lives." Havern believes that the combination of insufficient sex ed tailored to men who have sex with men and the stigma attached to this group "sometimes results in guys being a bit more experimental," he says. "I'm not trying to take away the blame for anyone who chooses to do meth or to PNP, but I do think that chemsex begins under much grayer spaces than simply someone waking up and thinking, Hmm, today I'll try meth."

David Stuart, a sexual-health worker featured in Vice's upcoming documentary Chemsex, echoes Havern's take on the lack of queer-specific support available to gay men as they grow up. "Intimacy is a skill we learn as children in the ideal family unit. A lot of gay men we are seeing in [my] clinic didn’t experience that. They were performing all the time, being over-straight, over-cautious, keeping the secret secret," Stuart says in the film. "Then, suddenly, they’re all grown up, in a hypersexualized gay world, with an app on their phone that helps facilitate very fast sex in a population of people who are more prone to HIV and hepatitis C — and they’re trying to incorporate intimacy into their lives with no frame of reference."

Intimacy is a skill we learn as children in the ideal family unit. A lot of gay men we are seeing in [my] clinic didn’t experience that. They were performing all the time.

While chemsex does pose a serious health threat to certain members of the gay community, that threat is too often seen as part of "an inaccurate and phobic picture of gay men as self-destructive and sick" rather than as a risky behavior motivated by a variety of factors, as one commentator in The Guardian put it. Yes, chemsex exists; yes, only a small minority of men who have sex with men practice it; and no, those who do should not be demonized but rather connected with resources and education.

"I think everybody has a certain responsibility to themselves, as well as a responsibility to our community as a whole," Havern says, but "I think there is a difference between sex-shaming someone and reminding them about safe sex... Be safe and don't be afraid!" That's a rallying cry appropriate for anyone who has sex — of any kind.
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