The Inside Story of London's Chemsex Scene
Christine Schierano has been documenting the world of drug-fuelled sex parties for the past six years.
All images via the VICE documentary 'Chemsex'
The dark side of London's chemsex scene crept into public view during the trials last year of Stephen Port, who killed and raped four young men in east London, and Stefano Brizzi, who partially ate and dissolved in acid a police officer in the south of the city.
Both murderers used their knowledge of chemsex – male sex parties, often organised on dating apps, which are fuelled by mephedrone, G and crystal meth – as a pretext and a smokescreen for their gruesome killings. The more chemsex came up in these court cases, the more this niche subculture, in the eyes of the public, came to represent a macabre, depraved underworld.
But what do we really know about this hidden world that inspires such grim fascination? Beyond the extreme cases of Port and Brizzi, there is no denying it's a risky thing to do, because it can entail drug injecting, overdosing, unprotected sex and the potential for addiction. In London there has been a rise in HIV infections and mephedrone and GHB/GBL overdoses linked to chemsex. It is a landscape peopled by "crystal methodists", BBC economists, radio producers and former rugby stars, not just those on the fringes of society.
Since VICE first brought the scene to national attention in 2013, it has been the subject of some good journalistic investigation, most notably in VICE's Chemsex documentary and in articles by specialist LGBT journalists such as this. Yet, apart from a 2015 study revealing that drug services are ill-equipped to deal with chemsex casualties, in depth academic research into this modern day spin-off of the old drugs-sex nexus has been thin on the ground. Until now.
Christine Schierano, a criminologist at Liverpool John Moores University, has been observing London's evolving chemsex scene since 2011, looking at the health consequences and the way drugs are supplied. Against a backdrop of drug use and sex, some of it in the open and some behind closed doors, she has met and interviewed a stream of dealers and guests at parties over the past six years. She was submerged at points: during one year she spent roughly a third of her waking hours at parties connected to the chemsex scene.
Schierano's research – part of which was published in an academic journal in December by the European Society for Social Drugs Research – is the only long-term ethnographical look at the world of chemsex. It provides unprecedented insight into how the scene has changed, what drives it and who is attracted to it. Ultimately, it is a window into what Schierano calls "a life within a life", a buzzing, fraternal underground zone that was part created as a response to living in one of the loneliest cities in the world.
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Schierano happened upon the chemsex scene by chance in 2011. A 22-year-old Italian alone in London, she was having fun, dancing and drinking in Vauxhall's iconic gay bars and clubs. She started hanging out with a group of gay men who were into clubbing, drugs and sexual adventure. They took her into their circle, calling her a "straight girl with a gay man's brain".
As the UK's fledgling chemsex scene – a similar one had been around in Los Angeles and San Francisco for the last decade – began to expand, it was these men who invited Schierano to document their lives. By chance, her new friends were key players in the development of London's chemsex culture, as its focus moved from clubs to flamboyant private parties. With the blessing of one new acquaintance, a "young, charismatic and beautiful" dealer from South America called Leon, she took a front row seat while London became the chemsex capital of the world.
"Chemsex is mainly people chilling out, some having sex, some taking drugs, listening to music and laughing," says Schierano. "It's like any party, but with an accent on drugs and people having sex with strangers in the corner of the room." At these parties, Schierano bumped into office workers, barmen, fashion stylists, dancers, bankers, university lecturers and people from all over the world.
One of the regulars on the chemsex circuit was a secondary school teacher, who would often buy drugs all through the weekend to please his boyfriend. It was tough for him, says Schierano. "You could see his boyfriend was way more into it than him, and he was the one who had to sober up and go to teach on a Monday. Everyone was trying to persuade him to phone in sick, but he always went because he said he had a duty to the kids. Eventually he was arrested in a police raid and lost his job."
What first struck Schierano about the chemsex scene was the pivotal role played by the dealers, who had begun hosting parties in their own homes. Most of the 23 chemsex dealers she studied in depth were foreigners staying and working in London, from places such as South America, Italy and eastern Europe. There were only two British dealers.
They started selling for two reasons: profit and popularity. They wanted to make money, often to afford their own drugs. They also wanted to be popular, and the more popular they were, the easier it was to sell drugs. "The combination of profit-making, popularity – the sense of being needed, or even of being loved – and related opportunities for sexual encounters made escalating from social supplier to dealer attractive," says Schierano. Leon, for example, found being needed "exciting". He loved the idea of having people looking at him and wanting him.
Not only do the dealers provide the venue, but they deliver the triad of powerful drugs that are the lifeblood of the chemsex scene – because it's the chems that drive the sex, not the other way round, says Schierano. Mephedrone, which had broken onto the UK drug scene only a few years before chemsex took off, is the super cheap stamina aid. GHB and GBL, passed down to the gay clubbing scene from the bodybuilding scene, gets people horny. Crystal meth, a drug virtually unused in Britain apart from on London's gay clubbing scene, provides both staying power and sexual desire.
There is a blizzard of these drugs on the chemsex scene. Most are sold face-to-face at clubs and parties, but nearly all dealers now sell via dating apps, too. Over a long weekend during a big party, she found, a dealer will shift up to a kilo of mephedrone. Most order 200 grams at a time from their suppliers – Turkish and Asian outfits in north and west London who import it from India or via the dark web – in case someone finds their stash while they're blitzed out on G.
On top of the mephedrone, dealers get through around a litre of GBL, equivalent to around 600 doses. Most buy this online from websites such as GBL.com in five litre containers at a fraction of the price they sell it for. Tellingly, although GBL provides dealers with the biggest profit margins – they can make £700 selling a litre that cost them £40 – most end up giving it away. In fact, the chemsex dealers Schierano came across weren't exactly cutthroat mercenaries.
"Prices were cheaper depending on how much of a close friend the buyer was with the seller and whether they had sex with the dealer – and cheaper again for those who were seen to be particularly good at sex," she says. "For example, one dealer earned £2,300 over four days, but ended up with £1,000 because he got G euphoria and ended up paying for huge cab journeys for everyone to get home."
Chemsex dealers are certainly drug dealers, selling up to 100 quarter-gram bags of crystal meth at £60 a pop over a big party weekend. But they are dealers unlike any others, as Schierano reported, because they are "firmly embedded in the drug using culture rather than parasitical to it".
In the first years of London's chemsex scene – and increasingly less in 2017 – dealer-hosts saw themselves as having the role of agony aunts. Parties are not just venues where people gather to take drugs and have sex; they are ports of companionship, where you can find a shoulder to cry on – and it's the host-dealer job to provide that.
Leon's parties quickly gained a loyal following: reliable drugs and never-ending sex under an umbrella of protectiveness. "Many of the dealers on this London scene didn't just come and go, they were part of it. They acted as counsellors, as a social service and saw their job as making people feel good," says Schierano.
However, the life of the chemsex dealer is an intense, crowded existence. Many dealers find themselves caught up in a maelstrom of parties and drug selling, and it's hard to step out. According to Schierano, dealers purposefully take mini-ODs of G at their own chemsex parties to ensure they got some rest. "I've seen some dealers deliberately take a little more than their usual amount of G and overdosing, to get away from the stress, because they are too tired and need to sleep," she says.
"Imagine watching a nice movie at home with your boyfriend, then loads of people come round to take drugs and have sex. You take drugs, you sell drugs and people are making a mess. You try to go to the toilet and people are having sex in it. You go to your room and there are people there, too. It can be stressful. Some dealers don't mind because they know that as long as the party is going on in their flat they can be selling all the drugs."
But many can't take it. Most chemsex drug dealers have careers as short-lived as an amphetamine-pumped racing greyhound. On average, says Schierano, chemsex dealers last two years in the business before burning out. Some dealers realise the only way they can stop the flood of parties at their home is to move house. But one party in the new place and it starts again.
Britney, a 25-year-old male drug seller from south London, told Schierano it wasn't possible to sleep or have a normal meal with his boyfriend because there was always someone in the living room. He said he had moved house a few times to try to avoid unwanted attention from previous customers. When asked why he let people in to his home all the time, he told her: "If you stop organising sex parties, you don't sell much."
Other chemsex dealers have had to move out of the country because it gets so bad. Of the 23 dealers she observed over six years, only three of them are still in London. Leon, for example, seeing his relationship was near breaking point because his home had turned into a non-stop club night, ended up moving to northern Europe to get some peace and quiet. Others have gone to sell in more chilled out chemsex scenes abroad in Spain and the Canaries. But as soon as one dealer departs, another steps up.
Since 2014, Schierano has noticed a change in the scene. As parties proliferated and more people were attracted to the chemsex flame, the original communal trust vibe diminished. Theft of drugs and cash from jackets and wallets became more common, although chemsexers did adapt. People started keeping their socks on while having sex – the classic German porn star look – or buying weird ankle bracelets because they needed to stuff their money and drugs somewhere while naked.
"It got cynical," says Schierano. "People came to parties when they knew everyone was wasted to steal what they could. So some people put money in their socks. But people got wind of it and took it out of their socks when they were asleep or during sex. So then people started to buy wrist and ankle bracelets with storage pouches for money and drugs."
As she has moved across the expanding party scene, Schierano's spotted that parties often consist of "high school cliques": the popular people, the wannabes, the bullies and the outsiders. "You have people laughing behind people's back at their Grindr profile, about how no one wants to have sex with them," she says. "Quite often at parties there are people rejected from the central core."
One of these men on the south London circuit suffered terrible abuse. A young eastern European office worker in his twenties, he spent his evenings and weekends moving from one party to another, chasing the crystal meth because he had become addicted to the drug. "He had no friends, no one wanted him around unless it was using him for sex or as someone to buy all the drugs. When they had used him, they would kick him out," says Schierano. At one party, she was told, he was unconscious after taking too many drugs and was raped, then woken up and forced to watch a video of his own rape.
A darker side of chemsex certainly exists, she says. It appears to involve victims and perpetrators of violence and rape who have been doubly rejected: first by the mainstream and then by the gay scene. "They have struggled to come out, but then the gay community doesn't want them either. They are rejected on Grindr and become outsiders. Sometimes they will turn to anyone, even the real creeps, to feel wanted."
Of those Schierano has followed on London's chemsex scene, 80 percent have contracted HIV because of sharing needles and unprotected sex. She says the intensity of the scene means that people end up forgetting to take their anti-HIV medication. Even though people have become more careful of OD'ing on G – for example, putting dye in it so they don't confuse it with a glass of water – three friends have died of drug overdoses. She has also witnessed the chemsex community suffering from mild psychosis and paranoia, circulation and breathing problems.
David Stuart, the world's leading expert on chemsex, from the Soho-based sexual health charity 56 Dean St, tells me around 3,000 gay men accessing 56 Dean Street each month are using chemsex drugs, 70 percent of whom are unable or unwilling to have sober sex. It is not a phenomenon that is going away anytime soon.
In fact, the London scene is branching out. It's become fashionable for UK-based chemsex dealers to expand their sales abroad. According to Schierano, they are selling drugs at exclusive chemsex parties at Gay Pride events in Gran Canaria, other parts of Spain and on the gay party scene in French ski resorts. Because it is a clear liquid, G is easy to smuggle and is sometimes disguised as nail polish. Schierano says some of the planes flying out to these events are packed with men high on chemsex drugs.
She says that, to a small extent, the London scene has been copied in Brighton, Glasgow and most notably Manchester, where a younger crowd is now going to chemsex-lite parties, swapping crystal meth for ecstasy.
I ask her what the common thread is among those who take part in chemsex.
"It's people looking for something, looking for love maybe. Foreigners come to London with this ideal. They will sleep with lots of men, live to the max, take lots of drugs and enjoy the freedom of being gay in London. Parties are important because often the only person they speak to in the week is someone on a Sainsbury's checkout. Even though it's very multicultural and full of people, London is the loneliest city in world. The chemsex scene is the product of this." As one dealer, Jay, told her: "People are looking for affection and trying to fill up the empty space they have inside."
But while the chemsex scene can provide an oasis of sex, highs and companionship for lonely men in the capital, like a dizzying fairground ride, at some point people have to get off and end up back where they started.
"Chemsex is not a happy ending for most people," says Schierano. "It does more damage than good. They do not end up loved, there are no hopes achieved. Yes, it's a life experience, but in the end you leave the same as you arrived. Chemsex is just another life in your own life. Time stands still. Then it is back to reality."
If you want to contact Christine about her ongoing research into chemsex email her on C.Schierano@2016.ljmu.ac.uk.
Chemsex support is available in most sexual health clinics. 56 Dean Street offers one-to-one chemsex support; visit chemsexsupport.com. Antidote (London Friend) offers drug and alcohol support for the LGBT community. Call 0207 833 1674.
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