"The first time I ever tried mephedrone was with a client," says Gabriel,* a 29-year-old male escort in London. "And as I kept working, it's just become far more normal. Now, even with incredibly wealthy clients, most of them are using mephedrone."
Part of the sex-work industry for the past half a decade, Gabriel's witnessed firsthand the way drugs—namely crystal meth, mephedrone, and GHB (or "G," a liquid solvent)—have flooded London's gay scene. Predominantly used during sex, there's now a growing portion of the gay community involved in "chemsex," as it's colloquially known, and going to the "chillouts"—drug-fueled sex parties—at which chemsex tends to occur.
Though chemsex is by no means a new phenomenon (see our past coverage here), less than a decade ago escorts could have avoided it. But the proliferation of mephedrone and G—both of which are cheap, easy to source, and highly addictive—has made using substances an almost unavoidable aspect of male sex work. Now, if they want to make enough money to get by, they don't have much of a choice but to partake.
"Out of ten clients over a weekend, I would say about 80 percent would want chems during the sex," says 33-year-old Dan.* Though he started using mephedrone for pleasure, it began to feature so regularly in his sex work that a recreational habit transformed into an addiction, not to mention a gateway to harder substances.
"It was the sex industry that got me into slamming [injecting] and into the harder forms of doing drugs," he says. "It's something that you just had to get used to. I've actually had to get into slamming myself to fit with the trend, because that's what people are into. They want to see that someone slams and gets a rock-hard cock."
With such a high proportion of jobs now involving drugs, few escorts can afford to turn down substance-based sex work. And while Dan and others do charge more for chemsex—his normal rate is £300 ($470) and he charges an extra £100 ($156) for chillouts—he's often expected to source the drugs himself. Even then, there's no guarantee of financial gain.
"Most of the customers expect you to bring the chems," he says. "You fork out for them, and you have to supply the pins [syringes] as well, and everything like that. And then, once you've done all the running around and everything, you're out of pocket. Some clients don't actually end up paying back; they have all the fun, and then they basically just get rid of you when they're done."
Sometimes the clients forgo the sex entirely. "There are people who've actually asked me, 'Do you know where I can get some stuff?'" says Dan. "I'll bring it round to them, then that's it—they've actually turned round and said, 'Well, you can go now.' So I've been made to feel like a drug dealer a few times. It's very common."
After eventually accepting his addiction was out of control, Dan went into rehab. Though chemsex has become a substantial element of escorting, he's now better equipped to refuse work that would see his addiction resurface.
"I'll admit that I did become addicted to crystal meth and mephedrone, where I was slamming it so much," he says. "But I know my personal limit because I got to learn how to say no, and went into rehab. Unfortunately, money is a big aphrodisiac. The more money people are paying to shag you when you're off your face on these drugs, the more drugs people will do."
Mephedrone and G in particular have proved especially popular across the gay scene, and their arrival marks the start of chemsex's inexorable integration with escorting. Compared to the cocaine that's available in London, they're more accessible, more potent, and cheaper. Coupled with the rise of hook-up apps like Grindr, which have made organizing or finding chillouts much simpler, it's easy to see how chemsex has embedded itself into both the gay and escorting scene. It's now so prolific that even the BBC is taking an interest.
"Back in the day, like ten years ago, ecstasy was the big thing and people were having fun in the clubs," says Patrick, who's been working as an escort for over a decade. "I was doing that, but I certainly wasn't during the week. And then it slowly changed. As soon as the G came on the scene, the whole clubbing scene changed completely."
More and more of Patrick's clients paid for him to have chemsex, and eventually he became addicted to G. Like Gabriel's relationship with mephedrone, he transitioned from using it with clients to using it recreationally. After seeking professional help for his addiction, he spent six months in rehab.
"I left rehab and I relapsed straight away with alcohol, and I've kind of masked how the G was," he says. "I was taking it every hour and a half, and I don't think any kind of treatment can get you over that. Originally I started taking it for work... and then, of course, you get addicted to it so fast. So I replaced it with the alcohol and I'm getting there slowly."
As London's only sex-worker support service, the SWISH Project is one of the few places escorts can turn to for help with addiction. Over the last 18 months it has seen a huge increase in the number of male escorts accessing their drug services.
"Before, with 'club drugs,' we would normally see a small number of escorts accessing drug services. We are now seeing more and more male escorts coming in for support and treatment with injection injuries, and quite often physical health problems, from using GBL, crystal meth or meph," says Paul Doyle, addiction liaison at SWISH.
"One of the growing issues we are facing is the growing number of escorts who are not entitled to government support like detox, rehab, and housing," he continues. "To properly support sex workers with chemsex we need better access to support and treatment, improved provision for mental health services and improved referrals to specialist sex work projects. We also need to make sure that clients are aware of the legal issues, as well as the emotional and mental health issues of using drugs."
Like many of London's escorts, Gabriel's reliance on chemsex-based work began to take its toll. "My mephedrone use, I have to admit, was at one point... I wouldn't say 'spiraling out of control,' but it was becoming an issue. I was finding probably about twice a week I was using. Often it would start with doing the client for a couple of hours, which involved drugs, and then I would go out and party with friends, or go to a chillout or something like that. I also know a lot of guys who will do at least a dose of G before every client because they're not necessarily dealing with the escorting particularly well, mentally."
In some cases the drug dependency has become so strong that escorts have found themselves going to chillouts for the drugs rather than the money. Others have found themselves unable to perform sexually without the drugs. There are sexual health issues too, as drugs like mephedrone remove inhibitions and nullify concerns such as condom usage, which is a huge risk in a city where one in eight gay men are estimated to have HIV.
The addictions also manifest physically. "I've seen it with lots and lots of boys, when I go to do a duo with a guy, they look completely drug fucked, or nothing like their pictures," says Gabriel. "They look great and muscular in the photographs they're advertising, but when you actually meet them in real life they're quite often underweight or out of shape because their drug use on the whole is out of control. And they're constantly partying, either with each other or with clients."
As well as the long-term impact of addiction, chemsex also presents more immediate dangers. G is notoriously easy to overdose on; just a few millimeters too much could induce a comatose state for hours, and Gabriel's witnessed instances where clients have purposefully tried to overdose escorts to take advantage of them, whether it's sexually, so they lose track of time or so they can slip out without paying.
"The one particularly bad experience I had with a client was I went over to Stockwell to do an outcall at the client's apartment, and he'd taken a little bit of mephedrone," he says. "I wasn't taking anything that night as I had other commitments later, and all I can assume was he put some crystal meth into a little bit of lube and dissolved it, and then slipped it up my arse, because I was completely off my face and then subsequently off my face for a very, very long period."
Gabriel now says he's grown wise to the occasional subterfuge and tricks of clients. When he does engage in chemsex he self-doses, sticks solely to cocaine or mephedrone and only does it with clients he trusts. As an experienced escort, he's reached a stage where he rarely advertises and can count on his regulars to sustain him financially.
"A lot of the boys don't speak particularly good English, so that kind of booking doesn't tend to happen, and I think they get a lot more of the drug-based stuff instead," says Gabriel. "It's one of the other reasons I can do quite well: because I'm English and I don't have a huge amount of competition. A number of clients, particularly American or English clients, prefer to see English, Australian, or American [boys], where English is the first language."
Gabriel's situation is a rarity. Not every escort is in a position where they can dictate the amount of drugs-based work they accept. For most, particularly those new to escorting or even the country, it's usually the only work on offer. Even British escorts like Patrick struggle, and while he's now managed to get himself off drugs, he is still dependent on alcohol. To avoid relapsing completely, he feels his only option is to leave sex work entirely.
"I'm trying my very best to try and find a way out," says Patrick. "I've kind of weaned off everything now; the mephedrone, the G, and everything. But it's a massive part of the scene. I can't see how it's gonna change. There's a massive part of me that wishes I never really got involved with it all. I'm trying my best to get out of it all.
"And I'm praying to God for my life, really, that I can kind of go and do the transition of life, basically. But it just takes you back to the same place all the time. It's a pretty brutal world, really."
*Names have been changed.
Look out for VICE's upcoming feature-length documentary about chemsex, which will be released in October.