Vancouver Queer Film Festival screens film on London’s gay sex and drugs scene
Whether in bathhouses or back alleys, dance floors or dark rooms, gay sex is frequently intertwined with drug use.
From standard mood enhancers like alcohol, pot and poppers, to harder drugs like coke and ecstasy, the places we meet and fuck are swimming in stuff that releases sexual inhibition, enhances pleasure, or just makes it easier to strike up a conversation with a handsome stranger.
A recent film produced by VICE offers a glimpse inside a subsection of the Venn diagram where sex and substance use overlap.
Created by two straight filmmakers, William Fairman and Max Gogarty, Chemsex looks inside London’s PnP scene. Currently making the rounds at festivals, the 83-minute documentary centres on the work of 56 Dean Street (a clinic focused on gay men’s sexual health and drug use) and features candid interviews with patients, along with scenes of them shooting up and banging away at bareback parties.
Responses to the film have been largely positive, describing it alternately as “gritty” and “scary.” But what value do the film’s more sensational elements have? Do they draw necessary attention to a public health crisis? Or is it just another way to demonize queer sexuality?
I have my own histories with substances and sluttiness. As a teen raver in the 1990s, I swallowed and snorted my way through countless weekends in warehouses around suburban Toronto.
In my 20s, I discovered bathhouses and had plenty of chances to push my sexual limits. But with the exception of pot and alcohol, drugs never really entered my sex life. To gain a better handle on what’s valuable and what’s problematic with the film, I’ve enlisted the help of three acquaintances, smarter on the subject than I.
Sam’s in his late 20s, but began experimenting with drugs and hooking up with guys when he was still in his teens. He works nine to five, so he limits his activities to the weekends, and usually only once or twice a month at that.
As far as drugs, he’s mainly into Tina and MDMA, with a little bit of GHB on the side. He’s never slammed (party-circuit parlance for injecting drugs), admitting he’s been too scared. But he’s become more curious about trying it lately.
He’s currently HIV-negative but prefers bareback sex and went on PrEP over a year ago. He does larger group scenes occasionally, but usually goes for one on one meetings.
“I was actually kind of shocked by the film,” he says. “I didn’t realize that slamming was such a big thing. It’s a good warning for people to keep perspective and be careful about what they get into. I’ve tried a lot of different drugs and figured out after a while that there’s a line with everything you don’t want to cross, and the movie is really about guys who’ve crossed that line. There’s a lot of self-destructive behaviour in the gay community and it’s good to be aware about your own limits. I hope people see it and it helps them to be more cautious with their decisions.”
A freelancer in his late 30s, Marc parties most weekends. Poz for more than a decade he’s watched the gay community’s perception of HIV shift from intense fear to a more relaxed approach, as treatments have improved and PrEP has become available.
He’s dabbled in all sorts of drugs: Tina, GHB and ketamine, being his favourites. He’s mostly been snorting or swallowing, but has recently started occasionally slamming.
“Telling people not to do shit never stops them from doing it,” he says. “We need a harm-reduction approach for drugs and sexual health. I like to really lose myself in sex, and drugs are part of how I get there. But if I’m going to go there, I want to do it with people I trust. If you’re in a room full of strangers and you go unconscious are they going to call an ambulance or just toss you out on the street? I think that’s important to think about.”
As for the film, his response is more sceptical.
“I think it’s just kind of a sensational look at a small part of a population who feels like they’ve lost control,” he says. “I would have liked a more balanced approach that shows how people can mix drugs and sex in less risky ways through harm-reduction. But I also think it’s a specific area that’s under-funded in public health, so if the film gets people’s attention and makes them care about the problem its worth it.”
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A statement from the directors:
Chemsex is a confessional show-and-tell about a community’s search for intimacy and belonging, in what are all too often the wrong places. This search creates a parallel reality, a secret world where people hide their addiction in plain sight, living in a cycle of extreme pleasure and pain, validation and isolation.
What started as a look into a ‘healthcare emergency’, soon evolved into a complex revelation. It wasn’t the sex or the drugs that shocked. Neither was it the danger or the consequences. It was the realisation that, for the majority of people, it was intimacy and not lust nor hedonism that was the driving force behind their behavior.
The decision to turn a camera on this subject came from seeing first-hand how this community were starting to respond to this crisis. From anonymous voices on social networks to an NHS sexual health clinic creating the first ever position for a drugs worker on premises, it became clear to us that ‘chemsex’ was pushing people’s physical and mental health to breaking point, not to mention the resources of those on the frontline trying to stem this epidemic.
The film, we hope, touches upon wholly universal notions of internalised shame, cycles of self-destruction and eventual redemption through this very modern and little known health emergency.
– William Fairman & Max Gogarty