A new Russian harm reduction program for Muscovites engaging in chemsex is getting started in a country known for skyrocketing rates of new HIV infection, as well as pervasive prohibitionist and queerphobic policy. “Chemsex” refers to the use of drugs—particularly crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and GBL/GHB—during sex, often in the context of queer sex parties or meet-ups facilitated by digital media platforms like Grindr.
On January 31, the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice (ARF) announced that it will: deepen collaborations with the queer community by offering more chemsex-related events; create chemsex harm reduction publications, organize a “self-help group,” and recommit resources to its safer sex supplies program. That program currently provides STI testing and self-tests, condoms, counseling, and sexual health literature at gay techno events.
ARF is responding to booming chemsex-related drug use in the Russian queer community, with around 8 percent of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Russia and Ukraine practicing chemsex, according to a 2017 study by Ukranian LGBT organization ALLIANCE.GLOBAL.
The spread of chemsex in Russia is “associated with the emergence of new and affordable drugs and with the development of technologies for their purchase,” ARF outreach worker Maxim Malyshev tells Filter.
HIV infection is among one of the major harms associated with chemsex. In Moscow, 20 percent more new infections were detected in 2017 than in 2016, and Russia is experiencing one of the fastest-growing waves of new HIV infection in the world. But as Malyshev notes, “Repressive drug policies and the imposition of moral values serve to radicalize the[se] negative effects of chemsex.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in championing policies aspiring to a “drug-free world,” has overseen draconian drug laws—like one that prescribes 15 years in prison for people convicted of possessing more than two grams of cannabis. Russia has one of the highest populations of people who inject drugs in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, with around 1.8 million people.
And of course, as Malyshev adds “Along with drug users, the gay community is vulnerable to [policies made by government] corruption and repression.”
A 2013 “gay propaganda” law tapped into and amplified existing anti-gay sentiments, while also limiting LGBT-inclusive education and support services, all in the name of protecting children.
“No one wants to get beaten on the street, but that’s the fear LGBT people in Russia live with now,” Nikita R., an 18-year-old transgender man, told Human Rights Watch. “We know that most people believe the mass media, and the stories there teach them that we are horrible creatures, so we are in danger all the time.”
Adding to the harms of prohibition and queerphobia, people living with HIV/AIDS are criminalized in Russia.
Because of the dangerous conditions in which ARF works, programming is constrained by needed precaution. “We don’t give out syringes and other materials for safe use as the party organizers are worried that this will attract the police to the parties,” writes Malyshev.
The violent conditions faced by the queer community and people who use drugs make chemsex harm reduction more imperative than ever, though. Malyshev tells Filter, “It is important to take into account the special needs of the gay community and a [we]re actively looking for resources for this,” while also “highlighting the volunteer forces of our employees, who care about the health of the gay community.”
The commitment of resources to a new chemsex initiative may come as a surprise to those who have followed the government Russian of ARF, as Filter reported back in December 2018. An article published in the foundation’s newsletter provided safety advice for people who use “bath salts,” or synthetic cathinones. The government—similarly to an earlier case regarding an ARF article that simply discussed methadone—labeled it “drug propaganda,” and a court following suit by issuing a potentially crippling 800,000 ruble ($12,500) fine.
But through grassroots fundraising, harm reduction organization bounced back.
“Today we are actively seeking separate financial support for a harm reduction project in the context of chemsex,” writes Malyshev. “This gives hope and faith that so many people support the foundation despite government repression.”
Photograph: Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice