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Chemsex – What is it and what are the dangers?

Chemsex, a practice where groups of people get high on drugs and have sex, is starting to capture both the attention and concern of a rising number of health professionals worldwide.

Predominently viewed as something practised amongst gay men, there’s no reason to think it isn’t also attractive to hetrosexual and bisexual people.

On the surface chemsex is about hedonism, partying, fun and wild times. In reality, however, it’s often a sign of mental health issues, vulnerability, insecurity and personal tragedy.

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What is chemsex?

Chemsex is a term coined more than a decade ago to indicate a specific type of recreational drug use, predominently among gay men.

Chemsex parties are often organised on social media and revolve around the shared use of specific drugs to lower inhabitions, facilitate and enhance sex, usually with multiple partners,  at events that tend to last entire weekends. It is designed to elevate arousal, pleasure and performance.

There is a culture of unprotected sex, leading to increased risk of the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and other sexual diseases.

Chemsex events may include ‘slamsex’ where attendees inject drugs rather than using pills or pipes, with all the associated increased health risks. 

Which drugs are used in chemsex?

Chemsex centres around the shared use of the drugs methamphetamine (also known as crystal meth, Tina or meth), mephedrone (meph or drone) and GHB/GBL (also referred to as G or Gina).

It is not unusual for participants to have little or no recollection of much of the weekend having participated in a chemsex party.

There may be extreme euphoria, a sense of belonging and freedom during the event, which can collapse into episodes of deep regret, shame, denial and, due to the drugs used, psychosis.

What are the risks associated with chemsex?

Chemsex promotes extreme behaviour, extreme disinhibition and extreme risk.

The associations with unprotected sex and, in some cases, injecting drugs mean bloodborn and sexually transmitted infection risk is very high.

The president of the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC) Jose Zuniga recently described chemsex as a ‘challenge of proportions we cannot fully comprehend at this time’.

London was once viewed as a world hub for chemsex but now it is a practice that has spread through cities throughout the world and across the country. The Manchester Evening News has recently reported on localised events and deaths linked to chemsex and chemsex drugs.

There is danger of overdose due to the nature of use, blackouts and resulting sexual exploitation, assault or rape.

Meth and Meph, widely used in chemsex, are both known to trigger psychotic episodes, including hallucinations, delusions and confused and disturbed thought.

Chemsex addiction

Initially entranced by the highs, euphoria and gratification of chemsex people can become addicted to it as a pursuit.

Repeated involvement in chemsex may also be related to drug addiction and/or sex addiction.

Addicts don’t continue to do something because they want to and because it is fun. Addicts are those who are compelled to continue even when the fun has largely stopped and when the consequences are becoming overwhelming. Addicts are often consumed by self loathing, shame, regret, remorse and misery. They may not always display these feelings but it doesn’t mean they are not there.

Why might someone get involved in chemsex?

Chemsex may initially or, for some people, ultimately, be about curiosity, indulgence, gratification, a sense of freedom and it may feel like fun. The associated harms and risk of harms should not go unnoticed, even by those who do not wish to stop.

Protection measures may include considering the use of AIDs pre exposure drugs, though these will not guard against other infections or against the risk of overdose or physical and sexual abuse.

People who engage in chemsex may get a sense of being at the heart of something, a part of an exclusive club, they may feel they are achieving intimacy or even infamy. Getting a sense of those things may be extremely intoxicating, especially for those who may have struggled to find people who they relate to or to feel like they belong.

Letting go of inhibitions may be compelling to people who have deep seated insecurity and feelings of being ill at ease with who they are or their sexuality. 

People who have problems with intimacy – either because they have little understanding of its true meaning or have suffered past trauma or abuse that makes intimacy challenging – may be drawn towards environments where they can ignore and repress those issues. Those who have become used to putting on an act of over confidence and over exuberance in order to mask their own issues can become entwined in the chemsex culture.

When chemsex is accepted as a damaging element in someone’s life, unpicking that means more than detoxing and going cold turkey. As with all addiction treatment, it needs individual consideration and personal analysis. 

People get well with love, support, compassion, empathy and tools to find more positive routes to fun, fulfilment and intimacy. 

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About the author: Alex Molyneux

Alex is our admissions team leader. Over the last 5 years he has spoken with more than 10,000 people via our helpline and has organised over 1,000 detox and rehabilitation placements.

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