Take a scroll through any gay escort site and you’ll be amazed by the amount of services on offer. Scattered across the UK are thousands of men with detailed profiles explaining exactly what they will and won’t do, from fisting and caning to striptease and cuddling. Think of it as ordering your perfect six-inch Subway, only sexier – and judging by the pictures on some profiles, probably closer to a footlong.
This click-and-go approach might suggest a lack of intimacy, but scan the small print and you’ll find a handful of men offering a more specialised service: "sober sex" – basically a combination of sex work, therapy and guerrilla rehab intended to steer clients away from "H&H" (high and horny) fun and towards the unbridled joy of a clear-headed orgasm.
This idea of sex workers as makeshift therapists is nothing new. Popular services like the "girlfriend experience" are more geared towards conversation and connection than they are straight-up fucking; last year, Annie Lord interviewed a series of cam girls for VICE about the emotional labour involved in their work, which could sometimes involve dealing with overbearing and potentially dangerous clients. "Sex work" is a broad category that’s often under-explored – although landmark books like Revolting Prostitutes are changing this – allowing the emotional heavy lifting often performed by sex workers to be swept under the rug.
"Sober sex" is one of the most literal manifestations of sex work as therapy, and one that's particularly needed by LGBTQ communities. Addiction rates are higher among queer people for numerous probable reasons, including increased likelihood of mental health issues and abandonment, but one that’s often singled out is chemsex – the practice of using certain drugs (usually GHB, mephedrone or crystal meth) to enhance sexual pleasure.
It’s worth noting that straight people have plenty of sex on drugs, too – as anyone who's been to literally any festival will have seen in graphic detail – and that plenty of us regularly use alcohol or other drugs as a kind of social lubricant. In some ways, it’s understandable: the road to an earth-shattering orgasm can be paved with toothy blow jobs, accidental farts and "whisky dick".
Over the years, however, chemsex has been linked to increased likelihood of STI and HIV transmission. Accounts of rape and murder have been reported, generating headlines which then prompt reporters to conduct sinister and occasionally voyeuristic investigations of the gay sex "epidemic" and its "dark side". Squeaky-clean journalists diving into the murky underworld of queerness sometimes don’t do anyone any favours – they can fuel the sort of fear and judgment which led to landmark HIV treatment PrEP being branded a "lifestyle drug" in a bid for defunding – but they do highlight that chemsex is a problem that needs to be tackled.
This is why gay escorts like Matthew* are so important. Speaking to me over email, Matthew explains that his clients tend to fit one of two general descriptions: "They’re either disabled and therefore treated as asexual or undesirable, or they’re people that now feel reliant on chemsex."
So, what is the key to helping clients rediscover the joys of sober sex? "Well, my first task is to identify what’s causing them to worry about sober sex, and then to address the heart of it," Matthew explains. "People often use alcohol or drugs to make the journey from meeting a stranger to having sex with them easier, so I show clients that sexual tension, awkwardness and anxiety are all normal factors. In fact, they’re factors that heighten the experience of intimacy with another person. It’s almost ironic that the cure to fear of sober sex is chemistry, really – it’s about stepping together into that awkwardness of being genuine with one another, and showing them that it’s a challenge they can win."
This pleasure-focused approach is rarely adopted. Sex education in schools seemingly hasn’t evolved past the Mean Girls “you will get pregnant and die” speech, and slideshows of gory-looking STIs are still more commonplace than infographics on how to find your G-spot. This is also unsurprising, because sex education still isn’t LGBT-inclusive in England – and therefore teachers don’t tell men that their G-spot is actually inside their arsehole, which indicates that God probably wanted us to all have loads of anal.
Matthew believes this unwillingness to educate kids about queer sex and queerness more generally is harmful. "That narrative of 'straight is normal' still remains," he says. "Inclusive sex education could not only show how anal sex can be done safely and hygienically, it could also reduce aspects of homophobia."
He explains that this lack of information has practical side effects, too. "I’ve had clients with sexual trauma because they’ve tried to put in soap in their body, mistakenly thinking it’s a way to prepare for anal sex; I’ve had clients traumatised by past experiences where partners have been too rough or haven’t maintained ongoing communication. A lot of this could be avoided by equipping developing adults with a better understanding long before they encounter these situations."
Chemsex obviously can’t be blamed solely on education or homophobia, but it’s no secret that society is still judgmental when it comes to sex, and especially sex work. UK MPs are considering introducing the Nordic Model, which could prove hugely dangerous for sex workers – criminalising clients only makes them far less likely to call for help if something goes wrong. Discussions of an equivalent to the USA’s irresponsible FOSTA-SESTA law – which has already been shown to harm sex workers, despite claiming to protect them – are also floating around. Bills like these not only push workers onto the streets, they eradicate crucial online resources which workers use to vet their clients and share safety tips and advice.
There’s a stigma around sex work which refuses to disappear, but their work can be hugely valuable to numerous clients. "I’d forgotten the joy of sex by itself," says one client I speak to, who asks to remain anonymous. "My last partner and I loved each other, but we kept ignoring sexual chemistry issues. I knew something was wrong, but I was afraid to make time to discuss it and fix it, so I used chillouts [chemsex hangouts] instead." He goes on to credit "sober sex" escorts with helping him.
Another I speak to would turn to Tina – a slang term for crystal meth – automatically before sex, but now he describes rediscovering sober sex with the help of an escort. "Connecting with someone person to person without taking anything is intense," he tells me, "and I’m proud of that connection." Finally, one client underscores that chemsex is a problem with potentially lethal consequences. "So many of us have lost friends to this," he laments over email, reiterating his determination to stop having chemsex. "I know it’s going to be a long journey, but I know what I’m looking for again."
These conversations are tricky to have, not least because they can be subtly weaponised against marginalised communities and scapegoated by conservatives looking to react in disgust to the "underworld" of gay sex. Politicians are knee-deep in the shitshow that is Brexit, and pearl-clutching commentators wheel out the same "think of the children!" commentary whenever sex is mentioned, so it’s ultimately being left to sex workers to clean up the mess that prejudice and austerity policies have made. "Sober sex" might not be single-handedly eradicating drug addiction, but escorts are at least providing support where they can as politicians continue to turn a blind eye.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.