There's been a lot in the media lately about chemsex. Vice's documentary on the subject follows the publication of the British Medical Journal's report on the subject. After years spent hiding away in endless sex parties and chillouts, chemsex is now out in the public consciousness for everyone to observe in all its graphic detail. And it makes a lot of people - gay and straight - very uncomfortable.
Featuring graphic scenes of real sex parties in which guys inject mephedrone, smoke crystal meth and engage in bareback sex, CHEMSEX makes for challenging viewing. Just when you were ready to tell your mum you met a lovely new guy (on Grindr, though maybe you'll tell her you met in a bar) along comes the chemsex crisis to ruin your picture-perfect wedding.
It has been leading gay magazine Attitude's cover story. Articles have appeared in the Independent and the Guardian. Even the Daily Mail and the Sun ran editorials. Where once it existed in the subculture of gay excess, chemsex is now experiencing the glare of mainstream media attention. But the problems around sex and drug addiction have been the concern of sexual health clinics up and down the country for nearly a decade. It's something the NHS has been dealing with, being the first point of contact when people slip into comas after overdosing on GHB, or worse, when they die. The only organisation that doesn't want to address it is the government.
There's even unease from within the gay community. At the Stonewall Awards last month, I was talking with one concerned gay man who told me how he felt it was inappropriate that the media was drawing so much attention to the subject. "It's not exactly the image we want to convey to the world, is it," he said. "The girls in my office would be shocked to hear about that kind of stuff."
Yes, it's true. We don't want to burst their bubble and let the girls in the office think that gay men exist outside of RuPaul's Drag Race finger snaps and witty Sex and the City repartee. Wider society is more accepting of gay men than ever before ... but it only really fully accepts us as long as we're shopping and not fucking. Because sex is what technically defines us as gay men. It's not our penchant for pop music, our interest in fashion and the arts that sets us apart; that's all just window dressing in the appropriation of culture that gay men have stitched together to give us common semiotics. The defining characteristic that differentiates gay men from the straight world is that we have sex with other men.
I know it looks like I'm spelling out the obvious here, but it's got to the stage where it's kind of necessary to do. Chemsex a very real issue happening all over the UK. It's tearing sections of our community apart slowly, and it's spreading ominously, and won't get better until policy makers acknowledge that sex is an intrinsic part of gay identity.
Here's a fact: gay sex is immeasurably pleasurable. That's why gay men are at it, a lot. I know this from personal experience. Bad blow jobs aside, I can tell you that the vast majority of gay men who engage in sex enjoy it. While it might not be the most earth-shattering experience every time, the desire is strong enough and the pay-off good enough to have us seek it out again. In this regard, gay men are no different to straight men. Men are men. And men enjoy sex, whether it lasts for an unsatisfying sixty seconds or orgasmic six hours. It's just that for gay men, access to sex is much easier and more accessible than your average heterosexual encounter. Negotiating this sexual minefield is tricky at the best of times for most people. Factor into this that young gay men's sexual identity is virtually invisible in wider society for the most part of their lives and it creates an emotional void in which all manner of problems present themselves.
Of course, these are generalisations and I fully acknowledge that not every gay man is a rabid sex addict. Many gay men are happy in faithful and monogamous relationships. But, comparatively, a considerable number of gay guys do not adhere to those traditional relationship structures. And as much as recent legislation makes LGBT people equal in the eyes of the law, the fact remains that gay men still make up a small proportion of the mainstream. In a YouGov survey of 1,632 adults, just 5.5% identified as gay. Purely from a statistical point of view, gay men, and gay sex, will always exist as something that remains on the edge of what society deems 'normal'. Gay sex and relationships will always be 'other'. It's a subject that MPs avoid, parents switch the channel away from when it appears on TV, and schools avoid addressing in the open and factual manner that young gay people so desperately need it to be presented.
The school system is where we need to start educating young people about sex and relationships in modern Britain, because it rarely comes from parents. And talking about sex and relationships of other sexualities will not turn swathes of heterosexual young people gay. But it will promote understanding, acceptance and respect of LGBT people, and also go a long way to tackling bullying. However, ignoring LGBT relationships in schools only serves to further isolate an already vulnerable section of the community.
Researchers at Birmingham City University and Sheffield Hallam University have discovered secondary schools in Britain claiming to incorporate sexual diversity into their sex and relationship education (SRE) are in fact upholding heteronormativity.
"If [pupils] openly want to discuss homosexuality, I don't think the classroom is the best place to do it. It's something that we say if you have concerns about, we have the drop-in clinic with the school nurse," said one teacher, who has been teaching SRE for over eight years.
Keeley Abbott, lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University and research lead, said this highlights a lack of understanding amongst teachers around what constitutes real inclusivity within the context of sex and relationship education. "Lesbian, gay and bisexual students could be being left vulnerable here with a lack of any sex education provision that is relevant for them," she said.
Dr Sonja Ellis, lecturer in Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, added, "Teachers also need to be aware of the various ways of imposing heteronormalizing practices through their use of terminology, and should be using words such as 'partner' instead of 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'."
It's this invisibility of gay sex and intimacy in society and the shame that comes with it that feeds into many of the issues around chemsex today. Growing up as a gay man in a world that is dominated by a privileged, white male ideology, in which religious dogma is ever-present, and where men are discouraged from outwardly embracing any emotional and compassionate complexity is perhaps the most depressingly constrictive box to find escape from. It's no wonder so many gay men suffer disproportionately high mental health issues, never mind the myriad issues faced by those from non-white cultures.
It's little surprise that when gay men find ecstatic, joyful, pleasurable release during intimate physical contact with each other it becomes something that is sought out again and again. When recognition of any emotional intimacy has been starved of you during your formative years, buried beneath layers of social pressure to conform, gay sex becomes that briefest of moments when those constraints evaporate. Throw drugs into that mix and you can have a recipe for disaster.
In the summer of 2014, I met with the National AIDS Trust to ask for their support on an initiative I devised to raise the issue that ignoring LGBT-inclusive SRE in schools was not only destructive to the future mental health of hundreds of thousands of young people, it was also irresponsible not to educate them about protecting their sexual health.
Good SRE for young people regardless of sexual orientation makes them aware of the pressures that are all too present in an increasingly connected world. In a society dominated by social media, where the perfect selfie sits alongside pressures of body image, and easy access to porn all means the lines between sexual fantasy and reality blur. MPs are so unbelievably out of touch with the problems facing young people today, from issues of consent to revenge porn.
Most parents haven't a clue about the kind of pressures their kids face. Good quality SRE should be taught within a framework of Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) lessons. A Parliamentary Committee that took evidence from a huge range of professionals, teachers and experts in the field came back with an overwhelmingly pro-PSHE report in February 2015. It identified that SRE in schools was inadequate and the government should look to implement a statutory system in all English schools. It took Education and Equalities Minister Nicky Morgan five months to respond, sidestepping every recommendation the Committee made.
Ironically, it was Neil Carmichael, Conservative MP for Stroud, who had the most damning words for Morgan. As Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, he said, "The response made by the Government is disappointing. Ministers entirely sidestep the call made by MPs in the closing months of the last Parliament to give statutory status to PSHE. They also reject or brush over nearly every other recommendation made by the previous Education Committee in their key report published five months ago."
It's not enough to give gay adults the right to marry, when we aren't educating young gay people about the importance of constructive relationships and the value of intimacy. It's not enough to be preaching to gay men about regular sexual health check-ups and to be aware of the facts around HIV, when we aren't even giving all young people basic information about safer sex.
Education is the key to breaking the perpetuating cycle of chemsex, which is only getting worse. It's time to let young gay people know that their sexuality doesn't need to tear them apart.
Cliff Joannou is Deputy Editor at Attitude magazine.
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.
CHEMSEX is released in the UK on Friday the 4th of December. To see a full list of cinemas showing the film, click here.
CHEMSEX will be released on DVD and On-Demand in the UK on the 11th of January.
To read the rest of the articles from our Chemsex Week – a series exploring the people, issues and stories in and around the world of chemsex – click here.