On Thursday night in a packed Soho basement, I stood up and talked about my life for the very first time. I was nervous, but just prior I was reminded by my best friend that I love talking about myself. The only difference was that I'd never done it in a public forum, so at 45 years of age it felt like a big step. The occasion was "Let's Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs", a monthly event organised by playwright Pat Cash for people to talk about sex and drug use in the gay male community.
I was also there to talk about Penny Arcade's award-winning new show, Longing Lasts Longer, at the Soho Theatre, and a series of events also being held there this week themed around rebellion and counter-culture.
Tomorrow, Friday and Saturday, the acclaimed New York playwright, filmmaker and activist Sarah Schulman will join us for three panel discussions. On Thursday, we'll be hosting a conversation about chemsex – the use of drugs during sex that is causing serious consequences in the gay community – with William Fairman and Max Gogarty, co-directors of the upcoming VICE film Chemsex; Matthew Todd, editor of Attitude Magazine; David Stuart of 56 Dean Street, the only clinic in the UK offering help for people dealing with the fallout of engaging in chemsex; and Pat Cash, the organiser of the "Let's Talk…" events.
Last week I caught up with William Fairman to talk a little about it all.
Jeremy Goldstein: Hi Will. First off, as a director, what did you take away from the making of Chemsex?
William Fairman: What I personally learnt as a film maker is that sometimes the topics you think people are never going to open up about, sometimes all you need to do is provide a safe space to allow them to talk about their experiences in their own voice without the context of an agenda from the filmmaker. I learnt that if you present an opportunity that feels like the right and safe moment for people to talk about it, you'll get a response and the conversation will start.
From our first round of interviews, we learned about the many different factors that led people into that situation, and that's what first informed the film, and from those interviews our relationships with our contributors grew and our access got more and more personal. In the end we were able to track the experience from discovery to the hard and sharp end of addiction.
I've had some experience of the scene myself, and ultimately I found it a lonely and isolating place, lacking in love and respect for ourselves and in others. So, in some ways, I'm not surprised people were willing to share their stories with you.
That's exactly it, and that's what Pat Cash has done with his "Let's Talk…" events, which are in exactly the same vein as our film. It's a space and an open forum. None of you might turn up, or a handful, or suddenly lots of you are there, because you know it's a safe space within which there is a sense of collective confidence. Whatever it is, it doesn't feel as dangerous any more.
Was there one particular story from the film that affected you personally more than any other?
Quite honestly, I felt that everyone's story had come from a different place, and that's what made the experience so powerful. There is not one person who seemed to be an identikit of a chemsex user, and how we structured it was to avoid any conflation of their experience. This is not a film that says, 'This is the average experience.' We wanted to bring everyone's experiences together to create one powerful voice.
Alex was someone who I found very, very effecting because his trauma was so raw and he was still coming to terms with it as we were filming. His story is one of absolute vulnerability and cut deep in terms of my response to him.
On the extreme side we see Miguel, the Frenchman in the midst of a drug-induced psychosis. I've never witnessed that first hand so it was very hard to watch the devastation of someone so capable, bright and so tuned in, while everything around them become so destructive.
I asked Penny Arcade what she thought the link was between our talk this week and her show, and she said that "drugs short cut our quest for authenticity and individuality". What do you think of that?
That brings me to a general point, which was always present in my mind when I was making the film. The human relationship with psychoactive drugs is nothing new, but when paired with sex and intimacy, people use drugs as a shortcut to feelings they've either been lacking, had once, or have never had, and that seems to be a universal theme.
Crystal meth, G and mephedrone didn't just fall into the chemsex world by accident; they compliment each other in that they are extreme disinhibitors, and some of the most effective around. The fact that crystal has a physiological side effect of making you really horny is the shortcut. Whether people seek it out for that reason at the beginning I couldn't say, but from that first experience your boundaries change in an instant.
People who have had experience of drugs will know that it creates a temporary enforced reality, and that's it. That's the crash. We all crash, and when it starts to become intrinsically linked to feelings around intimacy and sex, it becomes hard to control, as they are basic human desires we all want, and on these drugs that desire is intense.
In "Longing Lasts Longer" Penny also talks about gentrification, the loss of community and the impact it's had on cities including London and New York. Do you feel the gentrification of London and the closure of many LGBT bars has had an impact on the chemsex scene?
I can only go from what we heard during the time of making the film, so I think yes, to some extent, but I would also say that most people levelled social networking and technology as impacting on the scene, too. If we say drugs are a fast and synthetic track to self discovery, apps are the instant fast track which enable you to get down to the nitty gritty of meeting people for sex without the social building skills we rely on to interact in society. Apps like Grindr are a platform, but Grindr didn't invent chemsex. People will use it how they please.
I'm an independent producer, and my production company's mission is to speak truth to power for audiences hungry for live and authentic moments of joy, beauty and meaning. To me, in a nutshell, speaking truth to power challenges authority. As a filmmaker, what does truth to power mean to you and your work?
What we do as documentary filmmakers relies on the trust of people we spend time with. These are always someone else's stories, so for me it means entering every story with no agenda. We are always asking someone else to be brave and to contribute to the most authentic story [they] can tell, so that means allowing your contributors to speak their truth and trying not to deviate from that for any company, editorial or your own agenda. Be brave and stick to the truth.
"The Rise of CHEMSEX", with Matthew Todd, David Stuart, Pat Cash, William Fairman and Max Gogarty, is on at the Soho Theatre on Thursday the 12th of November from 5:45 to 6:45pm, followed by Penny Arcade's "Longing Lasts Longer" from 7:30 to 8:30PM.
Tickets are £3 (normally £5) for the talk and £10 (normally £15) for the show. To claim your discount, quote PENNYDS for the show and PENNYTDS for the talk. Bookings can be made on 0207 478 0100 or online.