Posted on Fri 27 Nov by AlexK / Sexual Health, Film, Open Discussion, Gay, Chemsex

By Anna Wates


From what seemed like a little known aspect of London’s underground gay sub-scene, there's been a lot of media coverage about chemsex recently. The term chemsex, which broadly describes the use of psychoactive drugs in a sexual context, has suddenly emerged as a public health concern. Following a British study among gay and bisexual men living in South London, and an editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), there is increasing anxiety about the risks of chemsex, particularly in contributing to the rising prevalence of HIV diagnoses in London.

Beneath the mainstream media narratives which often focus on the more sensational elements, lies a more complex reality, one that opens up important questions around intimacy and the subtle psychological obstacles that gay people face growing up. This reality is explored in the new documentary Chemsex, showing as part of this year’s Fringe!

This compelling, raw and ultimately very moving film introduces us to a number of gay and bisexual men involved in the chemsex scene. Directors William Fairman and Max Gogarty describe the film as “a confessional show-and-tell about a community's search for intimacy and belonging, in what are all too often the wrong places”. This feels apt given the deeply personal narrative style of the film in which we follow the men as they take drugs, have sex, get help through counselling, and talk openly about their experiences. All the while Fairman and Gogarty’s lens holds an unflinching gaze.

In an age of technological connectivity, it’s all too easy to empathise with this search for fast intimacy – this longing for instant, if momentary, sexual rapport with strangers – even if it’s clear this will ultimately lead to alienation.

David Stuart, who runs a chemsex support service at 56 Dean Street, features heavily in the film and shares his experience of living with HIV/AIDS during the height of the crisis. He describes how – fearing his mortality, depressed and at home – he would look forward to weekly visits from a friend with whom he would get high. This provided a brief moment of release in a seemingly bleak situation. Now in good health, Stuart reflects that, though recreational drugs can be an effective means to self-medicate against pain, they can also result in a different type of suffering in the form of addiction.

In linking chemsex with this moment, the film provokes challenging questions about mistakes made in the handling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As Stuart observes, you can’t simply get people tested, hand out medication and be done with it. The trauma of the disease itself, and the initial lack of political will to treat it, remains ingrained not just in individual psyches, but collective identity as well. Though the film shows interviews with men of all ages involved in the scene, a large number are those who will have grown up queer in the 80s and 90s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis would have had a huge impact on gay men's psychology. We are only now seeing the effects of this, as evidenced partly through the appeal of chemsex, which seems to provide a means to (mis)manage negative feelings – a lack of confidence and self-esteem, internalised homophobia, as well as stigma about HIV status.

This film deftly illuminates an urgent, complex, and pivotal cultural moment, and leaves us with a great deal of soul-searching ahead.

Chemsex will be screening on Sat 28th November at the Rio Cinema. It will be followed by a Q&A with directors Max Gogarty, Will Fairman, alongside David Stuart and Simon Welch, who also appear in the film.  

By Anna Wates