Gentrification is behind the rise of chemsex, says new report

London is increasingly playing host to drug-fuelled orgies involving gay or bisexual men known as 'chemsex'.

The dark side of the phenomenon – and particularly its link to a spike in HIV rates – has sparked moral panic in recent years.

Typically, the private parties, which are often organised via dating apps, involve inhibition-quashing drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, GHB or mephedrone.

Chemsex is often linked to hook-up apps and drugs. But Dr Jamie Hakim, a University of East Anglia media studies lecturer, thinks this is too simplistic.

Dr Hakim thinks that gentrification is behind the emergence of chemsex.

Between 2006 and 2017, 58 percent of London's LGBT+ nightlife spaces closed.

Exacerbating the problem, the 2008 recession sparked a rise in the London cost of living that was unsustainable for some, pricing them out of the few LGBT+ spaces that remained, a new study by Dr Hakim has concluded.

Many gay and bisexual men were left with nowhere to go. With loneliness and isolation closing in, some – often new to London and with no social base – turned to hook-up apps to seek connection.

By entwining sex and drugs, chemsex offers this with an alluring intensity. ​One of the 15 chemsex participants interviewed during the research said:

In a way, you’re enjoying a private club… everyone thinks the same as you think.

You don’t have to worry about anything because you’re going to be in an environment where you feel safe and whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you say you’ll be very much accepted.

Another interviewee explained why he turned to chemsex: 

I was feeling really lonely. I was looking for company. I was really depressed living in London… you don’t have friends, you don’t have family, you’re living in a big city… you have the weekend to yourself and you don’t know what to do.

Dr Hakim says his research demonstrates an important (and often overlooked) factor when chemsex is often stereotyped and simplified as a solely destructive behaviour. He said:

It’s not necessarily the sexual activity that is significant about chemsex.

Other participants I interviewed said there’s less of a gay culture in London now, but people are still looking for places to fit in, to belong.

Sex is only one of the many group activities that occur during chemsex sessions, many of which were non-sexual in nature.

One of the key activities that took place was a lot of deep emotional talk.

Dr Hakim thinks this pattern is particularly true for London's Vauxhall, an historically poor part of town where large amounts of capital has flown in.

Here, the competitive, profit-driven nature of post-recession London now reigns, thinks Dr Hakim.

The hedonistic gay cultural spaces that gave Vauxhall its identity have dwindled in the last decade, both because of now-unaffordable rents and the changed attitude of the local council toward a preference for more ‘respectable’ businesses.

The physical spaces where gay and bisexual men historically gathered in London are diminishing.

On the potential risks of taking drugs during sex, Taku Mukiwa, head of health improvement at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: 

We know that drug use can lead to people taking risks during sex that they wouldn’t ordinarily take, which increases their chances of getting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. While drugs can help to make you feel more confident and less inhibited, they can also cloud your judgement and decision-making abilities

Similarly, sharing needles to inject drugs increases the chances of getting HIV or hepatitis B or C.

There is support available for people seeking to break the cycle of sex and drugs, and our Friday/Monday website has a range of tools to help – including a ‘is this a problem?’ tool.

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