Moral Panic Around “Chemsex Crimewave” Predictably Lacks Coherent Analysis

    Moral panic continues around chemsex, the term used (most often in Europe) to describe a gay subculture of private sex parties involving drugs like crystal methamphetamine, GHB or mephedrone.

    The “threat” of chemsex burst into public consciousness in the UK. A 2016 study found that 13.2 percent of men who have sex with men had used chemsex-related drugs within the prior week. British tabloids predictably worked themselves into a frenzy. 

    Just last week, a Buzzfeed UK article reported on a soon-to-launch London-based prison and probation services initiative that aims to address what the article called the “Chemsex Crimewave.”

    After a UK man raped and murdered four men with GHB (alone, and not at at a chemsex party), the new initiative aims to funnel “depraved offenders” and “chemsex criminals” into the criminal justice system.

    The initiative is touted by Buzzfeed and Stephen Morris, the lead probation services official spearheading London’s criminal justice approach to chemsex, as a sensible, progressive response to the “Chemsex Crimewave.” Intended to expand nationwide, it’s designed to provide services to mostly queer male participants, who are failed by traditional sex offender and drug rehabilitation programs, according to Morris.

    But by responding to violence only after it has happened, using the criminal justice system, the London initiative seems to miss the systemic issues behind risky circumstances that may lead to violence. Gentrification, urban displacement and financial insecurity have eroded public queer gathering spaces in London (as in many other cities), as gay cultural theorist Jamie Hakim has noted.

    There’s been a 58 percent reduction in LGBTQ space in London since 2006—not just gay clubs, but all kinds of space for all kinds of LGBTQ people,” Hakim told Vice UK.

    This harsh economic system has led gay and bi men to feel “isolated by a lack of disposable income, and by their ability to get work and experience public space,” said Hakim. The chemsex scene, in part, provides a means to find queer community in a culture that encourages us to be “competitive individuals in all aspects of our lives.”

    And this is what the Buzzfeed article squarely misses: Chemsex is often fueled by a desire for intimacy.

    One man “from Slovakia didn’t enjoy sex but went [to chemsex parties] because of the conversation,” says Hakim. Another “interviewee in his 50s lost his job and became HIV positive, but he made really good friends in the scene—one had a cancer scare, and he supported him all through that.”

    That’s not to say that kind of experience is the norm: “Chemsex can be very isolating,” says Hakim. “I talk about the figure of the guy obsessively scrolling through Grindr—but some interviewees absolutely did experience enduring intimacy.”

    By obscuring the community aspect of chemsex, Buzzfeed instead characterizes people who engage in it as violent sexual deviants–a common homophobic trope, as Hakim notes.

    Chemsex has sometimes led to deaths and sexual abuse. But the harms that can result from chemsex parties would be better addressed by attending to underlying social issues–economic precarity, alienation, stigmatization of drug use and homophobia–than by channeling more people into the criminal justice system.

    Image: Still from Vice documentary, Chemsex via Peccadillo Pictures