What is chemsex and why do you need to know about it?

HIV rates in London are rising rapidly, and ‘chemsex’ parties are at the root of the problem. But, what is chemsex and what can be done to stop it? 

After receiving an invitation on social networking site Grindr, a man enters a party in London. Drugs lie scattered on the table, and various men are engaging in group sex. At first, the scene is daunting, but after ‘shooting up’ a lethal concoction of crystal meth, mephedrone and ‘G’, he finds himself in a state of euphoria. Inhibitions fall, and an instant rapport is found with sexual partners. Worries about who he should have sex with, how many people he may have sex with, and whether it is protected or not seem to disintegrate.

These ‘chemsex’ parties are becoming increasingly common across London, so much that some health services are describing ‘chemsex’ as an epidemic and VICE have made a documentary on the issue. Increasing numbers of men who have sex with men (MSM) are presenting themselves to sexual health clinics, reporting the use of mephedrone, GHB, GBL and crystal methamphetamine and having unprotected sex as a result. Needless to say that health services are frightened by the consequences.

Within ‘chemsex’, STIs are frequently transmitted. Some men try ‘Pozzing up’ – a colloquial term for having sex with a man infected with HIV – and consequently HIV rates in London are rising at a worrying rate. It has been found that around 5 men are diagnosed with HIV every day in the capital. Data obtained from service providers suggests an average of five sexual partners per person in a party, and unprotected sex being the norm. But the ‘chemsex’ parties can often last for a matter of days. To get through this, a lot of illegal substances can be consumed. This can have an adverse impact physically on the body, but the psychological impact can also be severe because of the pathological dependence on drugs such as mephedrone and crystal meth. A disturbing impact ‘chemsex’ drug users have described is the feeling of “losing days” – where they do not eat or sleep for 72 hours.

Chris Lovitt, the Deputy Director of Public Health for Tower Hamlets, is worried by the combination of health issues involved in ‘chemsex’, “You’ve got a combination of people using illicit substances, and then you have the ability for people to have a lot more sex and that sex has an impact on people in terms of their physical health, but also the issues of them being addicted to the substances and the lifestyle which can be very damaging and can lead to all sorts of issues around consent of sexual activity, rape and then a reliance on the substances so much that they are unable to have sober sex”.

So what can be done to stop this so-called epidemic? Mr Lovitt argues that the apps which make ‘chemsex’ so accessible should include warnings in their app so that people are aware of the dangers of ‘chemsex’, “People mainly find people to engage in ‘chemsex’ with online, on apps such as Grindr. There may be a responsibility from the people who are making money from the apps to make sure that people are aware of legal issues, if you are having a ‘chemsex’ party and there will be drugs there then you are almost certainly breaking the law in terms of dealing. Or if you are hosting a ‘chemsex’ party and people are so off-their-faces that they can’t consent to the sex they are having then there is an issue around rape there.”

‘Chemsex’ drug users struggle to utilise public services available to help them. They are often in good jobs, with a solid income, and there is evidence to suggest a feeling of shame about being associated with drugs services. Also, funding for drugs services is usually focussed on tackling heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol dependency. ‘Chemsex’ drug users can feel that referral to these traditional services is inappropriate for them.

Mr Lovitt realises that there is no easy way to stop people engaging in ‘chemsex’, and it may come down to an amalgamation of departments working together to provide suitable services, “Combining the work from sexual health departments and drug departments can help someone when they want to stop being involved in ‘chemsex’, but we also need to think about what we can do for other people, raising awareness, a community response and changing people’s view on things.”

As it is rare for people who engage in ‘chemsex’ to turn to these public services, GPs need to be aware of the clinical indicators of ‘chemsex’ and identify when a person may be in need of these services, as they are a lot more likely to use the public services if they are referred to them by their GP. It may be that GPs could notice rapid weight loss, anxiety, and even teeth problems because of the effects of crystal meth. Mr Lovitt is aware that ‘chemsex’ will be new to a lot of GPs, but says they must not be afraid to ask difficult questions to help their patient overcome their struggles, “Your average GP would not have had this issue before… Their first response would almost certainly be to think that there are 2 issues here. There is the issue of the sex, and they might want to do a blood screen or send them off to the specialist GUM clinic, and then there is the issue of how you treat the substances. They should make a referral to one of the generic services who might be able to provide a specialist service for the impact of drug taking during ‘chemsex’.”

A communication has been sent to GPs in Tower Hamlets outlining that the issue of ‘chemsex’ is on the rise. “We have sent out a leaflet to all GPs in the last couple of weeks saying that this is an issue we think is on the rise, these are the symptoms, and these are the referral mechanisms.”

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