What is Chemsex?

Gay men are continuing to navigate the explosive cocktail of drugs and sex.

What is Chemsex?

Chemsex is often referred to as Party-and-Play, or simply PNP. You might also see references to High-and-Horny, or HNH.

Chemsex is most commonly understood to be the use of specific drugs, used specifically for sex, by gay men and other men who have sex with men. The drugs most commonly associated with Chemsex are crystal methamphetamine, cathenones and GHB/GBL.

This specific collection of drugs are generally referred to as ‘chems’. These are drugs that make you horny, they help you lose your inhibitions, and they let you feel like you can have sex like a porn-star.

Other drugs – including Viagra, alcohol, ketamine, cocaine, and poppers – might also be used in the context of Chemsex, but don’t technically fall under the ‘chems’ umbrella.

It’s the specific highs associated with crystal methamphetamine, cathenones and GHB/GBL that provide the desired pleasure and disinhibition. These are the drugs that drive and define the Chemsex phenomenon.

The downsides of Chemsex can include an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections, as well as wide-ranging health and social impacts. The drugs involved in Chemsex are highly addictive, and their use can sometimes lead to an endless chase of the next high and an unquenchable thirst for even more intense sexual satisfaction.

Who is taking part in chemsex?

Chemsex is a sex-plus-drugs experience that’s specific to – but not exclusively limited to – men who have sex with men.

While the connection between drugs and alcohol and sex is nothing new, what makes Chemsex something that is unique to queer men is the cultural factors that impact the enjoyment of guy-on-guy sex.

These factors include systemic homophobia, cultural and religious attitudes, internalised homophobia, and the way that hook-up apps and location-based smartphones have shaped our experience of sexual encounters.

The combination of these factors can see queer men taking risks they may not otherwise take – risk-taking in pursuit of pleasure.

Chemsex isn’t just about the drugs, Chemsex is a sexual phenomenon fuelled by the highs and lows of the queer experience.

Chemsex is more common in bigger cities – where there is a concentration of gay men and drugs are more readily available – but you can encounter Chemsex wherever you are.

The closure of queer spaces – such as bars, clubs, and sex-on-premises venues – appears to have partly fuelled the rise in Chemsex. The lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic also appear to have fuelled a growth in the number of people using chems when having sex. Chemsex generally happens at home, when you invite a few guys over.

Chemsex often seems to be used as the solution when guys are feeling isolated or lonely.

One of the problematic aspects of having drug-fuelled sexual encounters – or being at a private party where the drugs are out and everyone is getting a bit loose – is that boundaries and judgement all tend to get a bit blurred.

In studies about Chemsex, it’s clear that there’s a considerable number of guys who don’t really remember what went down when the drugs came out. One of the consequences of this is that guys who take part in Chemsex also report high numbers of incidences of non-consensual sex.

If you’re high on drugs that enable you to lose your inhibitions, how does that impact your ability to consent to who you have sex with and how you have sex with them? What responsibilities do we have to the men that we are sharing our Chemsex encounters with? If you’re at a private Chemsex party, what are the rules when it comes to consent?

Safety first!

For sexual health professionals, the aim is to help people who are taking part in Chemsex to practice it safely, and to be able to recognise when things might be going a bit off the rails.

Harm minimisation strategies that are relevant to Chemsex include testing regularly for STIs, avoiding the sharing of needles, and reducing the length of Chemsex sessions.

Beyond the potential physical risks involved with Chemsex, there are also potential mental and psychological health consequences – anxiety, depression, and paranoia are all red-flags that you might have a Chemsex problem.

There can also be a psychosexual impact from using chems and other drugs when having sex, such as becoming dependent on drugs in order to be able to have sex. This might manifest in difficulty in maintaining an erection, or as a psychological inhibition or barrier to arousal.

What about sexual health and wellbeing?

Critics of men who use chems for sex will often cite Chemsex as a primary cause of an increase in the number of people testing positive for STIs – sexually transmitted infections.

Health experts are generally wary of making a direct link between Chemsex and STIs, but there is general consensus that Chemsex is part of the landscape of the sexual experience of gay men – it’s likely to be one of the factors, along with hook-up apps, the move away from condoms, antibiotic resistance, and an increased focus on testing, that’s seeing higher rates of STIs being detected.

Is there still a stigma?

There is a bit of a perception that guys that engage in Chemsex are likely to be chaotic and making bad choices. While that is true for some people, it’s not the complete picture.

People in all sorts of professions and income brackets may regularly be engaging in Chemsex. Lots of people are able to hold down jobs and function effectively while also regularly engaging in Chemsex.

If you feel that chems are causing problems in your life and that you might need professional support, you can go to a sexual health clinic and ask to someone about it. There’s a range of support services available.

If you want help, information, or advice regarding chemsex, contact Controlling Chemsex.

Follow Gareth Johnson on Twitter