Interview: Drugs, orgies and addiction—Why the men of 'Chemsex' spokeout
The new British documentary Chemsex is an unflinching look at the not-so-underground world of party drugs and sex among gay men. Known more commonly as “PNP” (Party and Play), it is a subculture that many men will have come across if they use hook-up apps.
But while many will simply block or ignore and move on, its popularity has been skyrocketing among those who have easy access to drugs and for whom the threat of HIV is minimal.
Chemsex is a disturbing movie and many will struggle to not get emotional, whether you’re in this scene or not.
Before the movie’s Australian premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, we spoke with directors William Fairman and Max Gogarty as well as Dr David Stuart – the UK’s leading expert on the issue and a subject in the film – about how Chemsex and its impact on an increasing number of gay men’s sexual lives and major cities across the globe.
How hard did you find it getting people to talk about the sexual side of their lives?
William Fairman: We took this on with a great sense of responsibility. All our contributors came to us through a process of responding to an invitation. We left flyers in (London LGBTI health clinic) 56 Dean Street and posted on online forums not knowing if anyone would respond. When they came for the red curtain interviews what we witnessed was a group of men who clearly wanted to talk about their experiences. I never really considered how I felt, as the focus was on making sure we represented the testimonies and real life experiences fairly, accurately and effectively.
Did you find those who weren’t being directly chronicled had an issue with your being there in the midst of their drug-and-sex orgies?
WF: The only private group chill out that appears in the film was attended with the approval of all involved. We never filmed anywhere where we hadn’t been directly invited.
Max Gogarty: Also, much of the footage you see in the film is self-shot or their own personal archive. Enrique (one of the film’s subjects, a recovering drug addict) for instance, handed us over a hard drive with lots of videos and pictures of him when he was deep in the Chemsex scene about a year into us filming with him. He trusted us enough to want to hand that part of his life over so others could see the reality of the experience and hopefully help others.
How did you find keeping a journalistic distance from your subjects? Were you ever tempted to try to shake them and educate them or help in their recovery?
WF: Many of the men we filmed with were already in some stage of recovery, be it the first meeting with [Dr. David Stuart, England’s leading expert on this subject] or their tenth, therefor there was no need for us to directly interfere. Of course we cared about their wellbeing and wanted to see them all fulfill their potential to live a clean and healthy life in regard to their relationship with sex and drugs, but it’s not our place to be moral police for them.
MG: There were definitely times it was hard, as you naturally want to step in and try and help. Often though, those that needed help had plenty of people doing that already – whether it was their key workers, counselor, or friends and family trying to get them out of harmful cycles of addiction. Ultimately you hope that them being part of the documentary process might be of use in some way. Many of the men we filmed said that talking, and having time for self-reflection, had a positive impact on them and their ability to break the cycle.
There’s a very disturbing term used in the film that calls these men the “walking dead”, which is how many would have described those with AIDS once upon a time. Do you consider that an appropriate term and is language like that necessary to get the message across?
WF: Matt Spike (a photographer who has documented the Chemsex scene in his work) made that comment and although it doesn’t paint a nice picture, he was calling it as he saw it. Matt was making a comment on the quality of life that comes with being an addict. It wasn’t anything to do with their sexuality or even their sexual health status. He was talking about what happens to your life when every move is led by drugs.
One thing the film doesn’t include much of is statistics. Do you think there has been a failure in accurately recording data about this phenomenon that has allowed it to escalate to the state it has?
Dr David Stewart: Most of the reports that suggest Chemsex is becoming a wider problem have come from early reports emerging from sexual health clinics, community organisations, businesses, and patient groups. There have been some challenges in gathering appropriate statistics that accurately reflect how widespread, or otherwise, Chemsex has become. Very few gay men have been accessing support from drug services, perceiving them to be heroin or alcohol focused, perhaps less capable of providing support around the gay sex that is associated with Chemsex. Instead, changes are underway to provide support and to collect data from sexual health clinics, where gay men tend to be more comfortable discussing issues around gay sex and the use of sexual networking apps. The faster, and more effectively we’re able to do this, the better we will be at providing better, tailored care to a community in need of support.
Has the rise in popularity of PrEP and other medications like it led to more experimentation with drugs like it has unprotected sex? Do you worry that it is potentially just a natural progression for some gay men?
DS: There’s some suggestion that changing HIV prevention methods and medications – including PrEP, which is not yet available for free in the UK – have made negotiating sex easier and safer for some, and more complicated for others; and that this maybe among the reasons for condomless sex, or chem use.
Experimenting with drugs is not necessarily a natural progression for gay men, but we need to be mindful of how normalised and available they have become amongst some networks or scenes, and that not all gay men have the mental or emotional capacity to manage the joys and harms they can represent. So as we navigate our way through complicated sex and romantic lives, and as we endeavour to be a cohesive and supportive gay community, we should be continually exploring all the underlying reasons and motivations behind sex that leads to infection, harm, drug use, or unhappiness.
After making the movie and then releasing and publicising it, do you think there is enough of a debate about the issue of Chemsex? What do you think is the answer to the many questions it raises?
MG: Towards the end of last year, it seemed much more people were talking about Chemsex than during the two years we were making the film. There was a report in the [British Medical Journal] calling Chemsex a public health concern, and with the film coming out, it seemed to gain a lot more press and get people talking. I think this is a good thing. The more people talk, and the more awareness is raised, the more people will have the support and knowledge needed to make informed choices. That’s the hope.
Do you hope seeing your film will allow some who partake in these activities to seek help? Are you aware of services similar to 56 Dean Street in countries like Australia or the United States?
DS: We do have a network of international people and organisations that wish to address problematic Chemsex within their communities, and this does include Australia and the United States, as well as many parts of Europe and Asia. It’s an ongoing sharing of intelligence and expertise that we’re very grateful for, and inspires us that international gay communities can come together for shared good will and good health. And the film itself, though certainly upsetting for many to watch, has inspired many to come forward to seek help, make changes, or find ways they can support their gay brothers through what they consider to be a time of crisis.
Chemsex will screen at the Mardi Gras Film Festival on Wednesday 2 March, followed by a panel discussion. Get tickets here.