Health & Fitness

Chemsex and the city

The profit-driven, competitive, individualistic nature of post-2008 society – in this case, exemplified by London – has led to the phenomenon known as ‘chemsex’, according to new research.

The profit-driven, competitive, individualistic nature of post-2008 society – in this case, exemplified by London – has led to the phenomenon known as ‘chemsex’, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The practice of gay and bisexual men gathering at private residences for drug-fueled sessions of sex, dancing and intense conversations emerged from feelings of alienation and participants being priced out of areas where previously they would have gathered. This is according to UEA’s Dr. Jamie Hakim in a paper called ‘The Rise of Chemsex: queering collective intimacy in neoliberal London,’ published in the journal Cultural Studies.

Hakim, a lecturer in the School of Art, Media and American Studies, said chemsex has been a distinct cultural practice in the UK – mostly in London – since around 2011. Suggestions in the media and the medical community that so-called ‘hook-up apps’ and drugs, including GHB/GBL and mephedrone, led to the rise of chemsex are too simplistic an explanation, Hakim said. Instead, a combination of social, economic and political changes that converged after the recession of 2008 eventually led to the emergence of chemsex in London.

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Particularly around London’s Vauxhall – historically an economically depressed area on the River Thames – large amounts of global capital have flowed in, creating luxury property development and pricing gay clubs and bars out of the area. Construction also began nearby on the new United States Embassy compound, with the local council actively trying to entice other high-end investments.

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Compounded by the influx of migrants from outside London and the UK, gay and bisexual men no longer had access to the spaces where they traditionally met and socialized.

Hakim said: “The hedonistic gay cultural spaces that gave Vauxhall its identity have dwindled in the last decade, both because of now-unaffordable rents and the changed attitude of the local council toward a preference for more ‘respectable’ businesses. The physical spaces where gay and bisexual men historically gathered in London are diminishing.”

Using apps such as Grindr to arrange ‘hook-ups’ in private residences – where entry fees, expensive drinks and closing times didn’t exist but club drugs did – chemsex was born.

One of the 15 chemsex participants interviewed said: “In a way, you’re enjoying a private club… everyone thinks the same as you think. You don’t have to worry about anything because you’re going to be in an environment where you feel safe and whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you say you’ll be very much accepted.”

Previous research found that between 2006 and 2017, 58 per cent of London’s LGBTQI nightlife spaces closed. With gay collective space diminishing, men – many of whom had recently moved to London and had yet to establish strong social bonds – sought to meet each other through networked mobile technologies. The drugs, interviewees said, helped to lower inhibitions and create a feeling of collectivity for participants who might be experiencing loneliness, isolation and difficulty finding a ‘community’.

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Explaining why he turned to chemsex, another interviewee said: “I was feeling really lonely. I was looking for company. I was really depressed living in London…you don’t have friends, you don’t have family, you’re living in a big city…you have the weekend to yourself and you don’t know what to do.”

Hakim said the interviews demonstrated “it’s not necessarily the sexual activity that is significant about chemsex. “Other participants I interviewed said there’s less of a gay culture in London now, but people are still looking for places to fit in, to belong. Sex is only one of the many group activities that occur during chemsex sessions, many of which were non-sexual in nature. One of the key activities that took place was a lot of deep emotional talk.”

Hakim’s research was based on analysis of data sets, such as government reports on migration and property prices, and interviews with a diverse cohort of chemsex participants in London.

The prevailing media narrative – that chemsex is a strictly a negative and destructive behavior practiced by damaged men who can’t commit to relationships – also fails to fairly and accurately represent the culture of chemsex, Hakim said.

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Hakim’s research also sought to look at the nuanced ways men took part in chemsex sessions, including communal but only partial sexual gatherings of likeminded individuals.

“Since the 1970s, neoliberalism has sought to replace the socially democratic principles of collectivity, co-operation and mutuality with competitive, individualistic, entrepreneurial, free-market capitalism in all areas of our social lives,” Hakim said. “The flows of inequitably distributed global capital and the related increase in flows of global migration have transformed the types of intimacies practicable by the gay and bisexual community in London. But there are men who still want that collective experience, which more recently has been enabled by technology.”

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