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How the Media's Moral Panic Over Chemsex Demonizes Gay Men

Nobody is arguing that chemsex does not exist, but the media is inflaming the issue.

The author of this piece was critical of VICE's Chemsex Week on Twitter and his blog Fagburn earlier this week. We invited him to respond in more detail here.

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Right now lots of people all over the world are engaging in activities they enjoy.

They could be watching The X Factor, playing crazy golf, reading a book, or having a wank.

Good for them, eh?

It is quite a spectacular achievement for one group of people's particular pleasure to be singled out and demonized. And for other finer, more upstanding citizens to be endlessly told that they are not having fun. Quite the reverse; this is something scary, sad, sordid, seedy, even deadly.


And so it is with chemsex, the media's latest "moral panic." The Observer recently called it "A Horror Story." The headline to this scary story also informed readers gay men were "Addicted to chemsex." But of course, this could only be a crazed compulsion: They literally can't help themselves?

On November 3 of this year the British Medical Journal published a short report: What Is Chemsex And Why Does It Matter?

This was promptly covered in just about every British paper.

No matter that we are talking about a section of a subculture within a subculture—something the BMJ noted was "practised by a small minority of men who have sex with men"—this was Bloody Big News. It's impossible to know how many gay men are regularly going to chemsex parties, though plucking a fantastic figure from the ether is a piece of piss. The BMJ presented no new research, but quoted the Sigma Research's Chemsex Study, based on interviews with just 30 men, and the EMIS (European MSM Internet Survey), which was online and self-selecting, these are not known for their reliability. That only asked about respondents use of the the drugs usually associated with chemsex: GHB, ketamine, and mephedrone.

Phrases were lifted verbatim, then hyped up. These chemsex sessions could last "for up to 72 hours." Journalists were seemingly unable to translate this into "three days." Or to see that this meant something less staggering—some people might spend a weekend doing this sometimes (the BMJ report said that some didn't eat or sleep for days).


The BMJ said that "addressing chemsex-related morbidities should be a public health priority." In the Guardian, this became "a public health timebomb," caused by a supposed chemsex "explosion."

Blimey. It certainly sounded scary; was this like mad cow disease or ebola? Links to these news stories were frequently retweeted, often with people saying this could be like the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. As if chemsex could represent an existential threat to gay men, presumably with thousands dying. Few made the obvious comparison that the media used AIDS to fuel homophobia and hysteria.

But the current chemsex panic has been fueled as much by narcophobia as homophobia. In the flurry of articles that have appeared it was almost always pathologized and problematized; it was a very, very bad thing that must be stopped. These gay men must be deeply damaged; chemsex was a symptom of our insurmountable stigma and shame. Homophobia had been internalized, and chemsex was always a sign of low self-esteem. Unable to cope with "intimacy," and so full of self-loathing they were pre-programmed to self-destruct. The chemsex party scene was reimagined as if it was akin to a gay suicide cult. A journalist for GT (Gay Times) mused that it was "a sad and lonely lifestyle." And much like gay men a generation or so ago, participants in this "sad and lonely lifestyle" were written about as tragic victims in desperate need of help, of salvation. This was a sickness to be cured. Those who had stopped were held up as heroic "survivors."


That chemsex parties might be demonstrations of gay men's intimacy, that they were a social activity as much a sexual one, was a heretical, almost impossible thought.

We have been here before, of course, and shall doubtless return again and again. From the opium dens of Victorian London and Reefer Madness, sex and drugs have long been 'sexy' subjects for the media. And gay sex and drugs are thus a lethal cocktail, both literally and metaphorically.

In an article for the Independent's Voices section, Having a moral panic about chemsex? Here's why it's not as bad as you think, Jamie Hakim pointed out that, "As for the connection between chemsex and HIV transmission, there is little academic consensus on this." He concluded his feature by stressing, "I am not a so-called 'chemsex denier.'" It's a sign of how debased this 'debate' has become when such a term—with its echoes of denial of something like climate change—can be thrown about.

Nobody is arguing that a chemsex scene does not exist. Nor that some men who take part have experienced serious problems. Those who are trying to help them deserve praise, though it's just plain daft to imagine that the gay men presenting themselves to drugs support services will be typical or representative. The problem here is how chemsex is being framed by the media as always and only a problem in itself.

Follow Richard Smith on Twitter and read his blog about gay men and the media, Fagburn.

To read the rest of the articles from our Chemsex Week—a series exploring the people, issues, and stories in and around the world of chemsex—click here.