What is chemsex?

Hi, my names Tadgh and I am currently in my second year of my masters in counselling and psychotherapy at university. My working background has been within the social care setting (drug and alcohol services) for the past 20 years. In 2015, I set up a pioneering chemsex service in London and have continued to work with clients who are using chemsex across the UK. Wondering what is chemsex? Read on to learn more.

Two young people are hugging each other. They have rainbow stripes in their hair and in the background there are pills floating against a green background representing chemsex

T/W: This article includes references to substance use, sexual abuse and overdosing.

Growing up as a young gay man in London, I was never aware of drugs on the gay scene until my late 20s. Although alcohol is widely available in bars and pubs and supermarkets, drugs was something that wasn’t really discussed openly in my group of friends or community until later in my life. As I grew older, I started going clubbing and began to see a different side to the gay scene. What I learned, is that while some people drank alcohol and used drugs for fun, others used it to cope with feelings of shame or stigma.

Some drug use can have serious risks and can lead to legal repercussions too. It’s important that young people are empowered with all the right information they need to make an informed decision about taking drugs.

What is a chem?

Let’s start by getting our definitions clear. A chem is a drug, typically GBH, meth or M-Kat, which we’ll explain more about in a moment. So what’s chem sex, or chemsex, then?

What is chemsex?

Chemsex, meaning sexual activity whilst under the influence of ‘chems’, is the use of three drugs to engage in sex with other gay and bisexual men. It’s also sometimes referred to as ‘meth-sex’, although the drugs that are used include GHB (gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid), Crystal meth, (Methamphetamine) and M-Kat (Mephedrone). It began to become popular in 2015, when sexual health clinics in London started to report hearing about the new phenomenon. You can find out more through the LGBT Foundation.

Although some people may be able to use chemsex and experience minimal problems, there are a number of reported risks, such as sexual assault whilst under the influence of drugs, and the negative impact that drugs can sometimes have on your mental health and well-being. There have also been several reports of people dying from the risks linked to their chemsex use. Sexual health services have reported an increase in rates of positive infections of HIV and sexually transmitted infections in gay men in connection with chemsex.

What has led to gay and bisexual men using chemsex?  

The history of drugs and sex have always been intertwined in the LGBTQ+ communities, and especially amongst gay men. Studies have shown that the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to engage in drug and alcohol use when compared to those who identify as straight, and more likely to experience challenges because of this. See The Mix’s 2021 report to find out more. You can also read about a young person’s experience of chemsex here.

There are many reasons given for the use of chemsex. These include peer pressure and wanting to fit in. Some people may make a choice to use chemsex because experimenting with drugs and sex can be seen as doing something that’s exciting and fun. However, many people report that they use chemsex due to the impact of homophobia and stigma, and to cope with feelings of shame and past trauma.

What are the risks of chemsex?

Using chemsex can have various effects on different people. What may impact on one person may then not impact another. There are ways that you can reduce the harm to yourself, so it helps to know what the risks of chemsex are, to help you make an informed choice.

This booklet is written by David Stuart, and covers general first aid practices for what may be considered to be chemsex emergencies. Below are a list of key things to be aware of if you are thinking of using chemsex.

Consent and chemsex

Being under the influence of drugs can lead to various issues, including complications around consent. If you are with someone using chemsex and you are not sure if they want to agree, or you are not sure of what their answer is – then do not continue to have sex with them.

  • If there are drugs and/or alcohol present, this may impact on people’s capacity to consent. Therefore, if someone is unconscious or asleep, or if they are incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, they cannot give consent.
  • The law in the UK says you must have the capacity to be able to consent to have sex with someone else. This means that for you to give consent, you must be able to make an informed choice.
  • Consent is not permanent and can be withdrawn at any time. It is important to remember that consent is not just about the law, but about everyone having positive sexual experiences and making active choices about sex.

Effects of chemsex on mental health & wellbeing

The use of chemsex can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health. It can also contribute to anxiety and depression, and in some cases it can lead to ‘drug-induced psychosis’. This resource has some advice and information about the common symptoms of drug-induced psychosis.

  • The impact of comedowns that can follow a chemsex session may mean that you experience fear and/or depression, which can affect how you feel about yourself in a negative way, impacting on your self care.
  • You can become dependent both physically and physiologically on chemsex drugs. If you develop a dependency on Ghb and you stop taking it, you could experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and will need professional support to withdraw.
  • If you are having sex with others in exchange for drugs or alcohol, it could have a negative impact on your self-worth. It may help to speak to a professional to discuss how you are feeling and what support you may need.
  • Because your inhibitions are lowered when you use chemsex, you may have less boundaries about what you do sexually and then feel anxious or vulnerable about this afterwards.

Sexual health and chemsex

  • Sometimes people may inject crystal meth and mephedrone or share equipment. With injecting there is an increased risk of infections and blood borne viruses like HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B. Take a look at this London Friend resource on safer injecting practices.
  • People who are using certain drugs such as crystal meth or chemsex can often engage in rougher sex, which can cause bleeding. Therefore, it’s important to use condoms and PrEP, a pill you can take to protect you from HIV.
  • The use of chemsex can lead to unsafe, unprotected sex, which can put you at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

How can I get support for chemsex?

Chemsex can have an impact on your everyday life. Some people find that it can have a negative effect on their friendships and work life. People who engage in chemsex can also find it hard to enjoy sex without chemsex drugs.

  • If you feel that you need help or support, start by talking to someone like friends or family.
  • If you feel that you may have been at risk, then talk to the police or a professional. They may be able to help you and guide you in the right direction.
  • Speak to a counsellor or therapist.
  • Contact your local drug support service or sexual health service. Here’s an example of a support group at the Terrance Higgins Trust.
  • Get in touch with the team at The Mix, who are there to offer free and confidential support in a judgement free space.

How to keep yourself safe during chemsex

It’s important you feel safe, and in control of the drugs you take, and the sex you are having. Here are some tips to help you keep those boundaries:

  • Do not mix chems and alcohol together.
  • If you can, let someone know where you are going if you’re using chems at a the house of someone you don’t know.
  • Never share pins (needles) or items for snorting, for example, don’t share notes or straws with anyone.
  • When having chemsex, always use condoms and lube.
  • It’s important to know about the drugs you’re taking. GHB/GBL can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms and it’s highly possible to become dependent on GHB. There is also an increased risk of overdose or death. When using, monitor how much you take, or get someone else to monitor your use.
  • When you’re sober, set ground rules about what you’re willing to do sexually and also what you don’t want to do.
  • Take PrEP/PEP to protect yourself against HIV. However it’s important to note that PrEP will not stop you from getting sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
  • Get tested regularly for (STIs).
  • You should also avoid mixing drugs with alcohol or any other drugs, and if you are going to use chemsex, try and use with other people that you know and trust.

Next Steps

By Holly Turner

Updated on 29-Sep-2022

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