How Chemsex Helps Queer Men Find Their Place in Harsh Cities
We speak to gay cultural theorist Jamie Hakim about how chemsex is a response to neoliberalism and the alienation of the modern city.
Image taken from the VICE documentary 'Chemsex'.
I remember getting fucked on the balcony of a seventh-storey South London towerblock at seven on a Monday morning, high on a cocktail of crystal meth and GHB. Gazing down at the milkmen and school-run mums, I felt impossibly far from their world – and absolutely at home in the chemsex chillout.
This intimate thrill is hard to explain to my straight – and queer – friends. It was largely overlooked in the 2015 moral panic around chemsex. The media framed Grindr-organised orgies as the latest horror to befall gay and bisexual men, suffering HIV, psychosis and terminal drug overdoses as a result of recklessness, self-loathing and bad life choices.
Gay cultural theorist Jamie Hakim is no “advocate” for chemsex, and he does not seek to explain away the very real problems it causes. But his paper The rise of chemsex: queering collective intimacy in neoliberal London takes a step back, interviewing 15 members of the scene to “think about why chemsex is joyful for some people and ruins others’ lives – and what that tells us about London.”
Jamie believes London – and the psychology of its residents – has been restructured by neoliberal ideology to the point where chemsex orgies are the only way many queer men find intimacy.
VICE: Some well-meaning people have argued against the panic around chemsex by stating that people getting laid under chemical influence is nothing new. What is “chemsex” in the context of 21st century London?
Jamie Hakim: Men taking mephedrone, GHB, GBL and crystal meth, and – often using apps like Grindr – organising group parties in flats and residencies around London. I’m interested in why this particular phenomenon is happening now, particularly around Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham since 2011.
In Vauxhall, for example, the local council had been encouraging luxury property development in a way which made it far too expensive not only for gay businesses but also for gay people. Looking at migration patterns in London, people are moving into areas where they would have historically relied on gay bars or clubs to meet new people, but they don’t have strong bonds or social networks. People are isolated by a lack of disposable income; by their ability to get work and experience public space.
"The gin-drinking investment banker exists in chemsex spaces as much as the young guy without access to capital."
One guy used to really enjoy going out to Barcode [a nightclub in Vauxhall that closed in 2015], taking a bit of ket and dancing; another in his 50s enjoyed going to landmark sex-on-premises club Hoist – but now those places don’t exist anymore. There’s been a 58 percent reduction in LGBTQ space in London since 2006 – not just gay clubs, but all kinds of space for all kinds of LGBTQ+ people.
Another interviewee, from Slovakia, moved to Cardiff and had a great time, then moved to London and found it much more alienating. He was very depressed. There are fewer material ways for gay men to connect now.
So queer men experience London as a hostile, straight environment?
Neoliberalism encourages us to think of ourselves as competitive individuals in all aspects of our lives, in our sense of self, in practices of intimacy. Chemsex begins to make sense in these conditions – it allows us to be together in very relaxed ways that have become increasingly difficult since the financial crisis. There’s a need to feel together, in historical conditions which do not encourage that.
The Grindr chemsex fiend is one stereotype of young gay men in neoliberal London. Can you explain his opposite, the “city gay” with a nice flat and a Tinder boyfriend?
Well, I spoke to a varied bunch in terms of age, class backgrounds, ethnicity. The gin-drinking investment banker exists in chemsex spaces as much as the young guy without access to capital.
Gay marriage is important, in terms of ensuring LGBTQ+ people are absolutely equal in law. But monogamous marriage, respectable jobs, earning lots of money… aspiring to that has its implications. It’s foreclosing all the other sorts of intimacy gay men have been arguing for since the beginning of the gay liberation moment. One of the important interventions the gay rights movement made was precisely the idea of inventing new forms of intimacy that weren’t to do with marriage.
How does the panic around chemsex compare to the panic around HIV?
[One thing] queer people endure is the idea that the sex we have is disgusting. What was interesting about the chemsex moral panic was that it was well-intentioned, in a way the clearly very homophobic AIDs panic wasn’t. It’s coming from the gay press, people that care about gay men’s health.
"London is very competitive, the amount of money you need to make to live here, the amount you’re encouraged to consume – that’s isolating us."
But when I spoke to people who work in public health, it was actually very difficult to make the connection that chemsex itself was responsible for the spread of HIV. And there’s something troubling about describing gay men as incapable of intimacy.
That intimacy must be long-term and monogamous to be significant is a very straight idea.
Chemsex can be very isolating – I talk about the figure of the guy obsessively scrolling through Grindr in the corner of a chillout – but some interviewees absolutely did experience enduring intimacy. The guy from Slovakia didn’t enjoy sex in chillouts, but went because of the conversation. The interviewee in his 50s lost his job and became HIV+, but he made really good friends on the scene – one had a cancer scare and he supported him all through that.
Gay men build various sorts of intimacy. Previously, recreational drug use was a problem, because it inhibited your productivity – now, under neoliberalism, you can pursue pleasure only if you’re consuming. Chemsex intimacy doesn’t fit either of those, and so it’s difficult to convince mainstream society what good comes of it.
Where might straight Londoners go looking for intimacy in the same way?
I apply Jeremy Gilbert’s idea that “feeling together” is the building block of human experience to chemsex. London is very competitive, the amount of money you need to make to live here, the amount you’re encouraged to consume – that’s isolating us. And historically, sex is an important medium for gay men to “feel together”.
In a very different arena, Corbynmania is a way for people to “feel together” as a response to this moment of profound uncertainty. Even Brexit, as a nationalist response. And of course, people still go out dancing together.
Can chemsex ever be more than a retreat from the “straight” neoliberal world?
It’s not about turning chemsex sessions into consciousness-raising groups, but about thinking about a need for collectivity and being-together in a highly emotive way, in a political moment where that’s generally not happening. Sometimes chemsex doesn’t achieve that, in dangerous ways, but to some people it can produce the possibility of a queer utopia. It’s precisely an experience beyond words. Language fails to capture its intensities.