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How Chemsex Helps Queer Men Find Their Place in Big Cities

We speak to gay cultural theorist Jamie Hakim about how chemsex is a response to neoliberalism and the alienation of the modern city.

by Matthew Broomfield
Mar 12 2018, 8:30pm

Image taken from the VICE documentary Chemsex

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I remember getting fucked on the balcony of a seven-story south London tower block at 7 AM on a Monday morning. I was high on a cocktail of crystal meth and GHB. Gazing down at milkmen and school moms, I felt impossibly far from their world—and absolutely at home in a chemsex haze.

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-organized 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.”

Hakim 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—organizing group parties in apartments 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 that 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, and 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 ketamine and dancing; another man 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 and 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 that 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 apartment and a Tinder boyfriend?
Well, I spoke to a varied bunch in terms of age, class backgrounds, and 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, and 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 had nothing 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 that was clearly very homophobic, however, the 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, and 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—but some interviewees absolutely did experience enduring intimacy. The guy from Slovakia didn’t enjoy sex but went because of the conversation. The interviewee in his 50s lost his job and became HIV positive, but he made really good friends in 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, and 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 groups focused on raising consciousness, 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.

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