As for whether people are continuing to engage in face-to-face chemsex (the practice of men taking drugs, usually crystal meth and GHB, and having sex), what little research has been done so far points to a significant decrease. If you're inclined to believe the popular stereotype of chemsex participants as dangerously reckless, this may come as a surprise.
When gay men's health charity GMFA conducted a recent survey of men who partake in chemsex, they found that 48 percent have actually stopped using chems and having chemsex post-lockdown. Seventeen percent are still having chemsex with their live-in partner, 15 percent are still using chems but not having sex, and 12 percent are still hooking up with people to have chemsex. If these figures are to be believed, the pandemic is having a major and potentially long-lasting effect on how chemsex is practised.
Digital chemsex – i.e. webcam-based virtual meet-ups – pre-dates the pandemic. It was commonly considered an inferior, needs-must alternative (if you were sick of the people in your local scene, say), or else something to put on in the background to supplement a real-life session. But if camming was a niche practice before, this could be set to change under lockdown conditions, when even hugging new friends is forbidden. The infrastructure is already there: you can find a thriving culture dedicated to "party and play" on Reddit and Twitter, and there's a specific porn tube that collates videos in which the consumption of crystal meth is imbued with an eroticism of its own.
It's important to note that, particularly in the States, chemsex is far from being an exclusively gay phenomenon. When I spoke with Kristian Møller – an academic based at the IT University of Copenhagen, who has carried out extensive field research in this arena – I was surprised at how banal the average digital chemsex sessions sounded. I'd imagined they would involve extravagant displays of exhibitionism – fetish gear, gargantuan dildos, sexual acrobatics – and while these elements do occasionally feature, the reality is often more low-intensity.
"At one moment," Kristian says, "people started talking about their phone contracts and really got into detail about what contract was better value and who had better bandwidth."
The most performative aspect of the parties – or "chillouts" – seems to be the drug-taking, rather than sexual activity. "There was a practice put in place," says Kristian, "that whenever someone did something interesting, for example 'cam and slam' [injecting], they would have to notify the participants in the chat." For many participants, the experiences of taking drugs and having some kind of sexual contact go hand-in-hand, even if a real-life interaction is impossible.
"I'm mostly a meth user, and I will say from my experience that it grabbed onto the part of my brain where my sex drive and turn-ons are stored, and super-charged it," says Tom, a California resident who's into camming. "When I'm blowing clouds, I'm doing what I can to find someone to video chat with. Without smoking, an encounter could last a couple hours, and your interests and turn-ons might be much more sedate, which is perfectly fine. But with smoking, it might be a 12-hour deal."
There are obvious disadvantages with this, compared to meeting up in real life. "If you do experience problems overdosing, you might be on your own and behind a video screen," says Kristian, pointing out that, in this scenario, it could be harder to seek or send help. Even if you did know someone's rough location, how would you go about calling an ambulance for someone in Mumbai? But the real issue goes deeper than risk.
While there is a digital chemsex scene of sorts, "it's often global and not geographically centred", says Dr Dean Murphy, research fellow at the HIV Epidemiology and Prevention Program, University of New South Wales. "It's a very diffuse community, if it's one at all." As anyone who's struggled to properly enjoy a "virtual pub" session in the last month will now realise, virtual interaction is rarely as pleasurable as the face-to-face kind. "Since it isn't in person, there's a limit to how satisfying it can be," says Tom. "Sometimes it's just two people chatting a bit, sending a cloud vid back and forth a few times, and then it's done." For this reason, many regular chemsex participants under lockdown haven't even been tempted to try it.
"For me, the idea of camming misses the point completely," says Matt, a gay man and regular chemsex participant. "It's not just about the high. I can get high and watch a movie, for example. Chemsex is about physical engagement and intimacy. I don't want to call it 'emotional' necessarily, but it does accelerate a kind of intimate bond. I just don't see the point of trying to replicate that over webcam. It's about the other person's smell, their taste, the way they feel on my skin, the way they touch me – all the little bits and pieces that make sex great."
Despite the name, sex isn't the be all and end all to chemsex; simply hanging out and talking is often a big part of it. Even then, touch still plays a role in this more or less platonic intimacy.
While chemsex has been demonised in the media, it obviously performs an important role in lots of people's lives. Not every chemsex participant has a problematic relationship with drugs and sex, nor are they all trying to scour away the supposedly irrevocable trauma of being gay. At a time when everyone is feeling the effects of isolation in lockdown – with many people quarantined away from their friends and family – engaging in cam sessions could be a way for people to have their needs met.
"Another alternative to hooking up is to watch porn, for example," says Professor Kane Race, an academic at the The University of Sydney, whose research interests include chemsex. "Getting high and watching porn is a very common practice with crystal meth users, but cam space has the added advantage of making you feel you're not alone. It provides a level of interaction and some chat. This means it's less isolating than watching porn, and a greater sense of belonging might be attached to it."
Although it's too early to be able to point to a statistical increase in camming, it has achieved a newfound status as the safer, more socially responsible option. But even if some men are continuing to engage in chemsex during lockdown, it's better to view this as a mundane transgression – the equivalent of meeting your friends for a board game night, rather than further evidence of gay men’' unique and pathological hypersexuality.