Sex

Chemsex Panic: British Media Alleges Drug-Fueled Orgies Are Driving Up HIV Rates

Are you ready for this? People are taking drugs and then having sex.

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SenseiAlan/Flickr

U.K. media and government officials are sounding the alarm over something called "chemsex," which involves—are you ready for this newfangled idea?—taking mind-altering substances and then having sex. Oblivious that they're describing something that has happened for literally all of time, British officials warn that "taking recreational drugs during sex can lead to a number of potentially harmful side effects including facilitating the spread of common STIs and HIV, but also serious mental health problems, such as anxiety, psychoses and suicidal tendencies."

That's right, folks: Smoke up, get down, jump off a cliff. Duh. 

Think that's a bit melodramatic? Government officials have nothing on how British newspaper The Telegraph explained the situation: 

An alarming new craze for lengthy drug-fuelled sex sessions, which can last for days a time, could lead to a rise in HIV and hepatitis, health officials has warned. The practice, dubbed 'chemsex' has been reported by more than 60 per cent of people visiting some clinics in London and involves people taking drugs like crystal meth before embarking on 72 hour sex binges with multiple partners.

Precisely 72 hours. There are timers. 

As you might have guessed, The Telegraph's "statistic" about London clinic visitors is craptastic as all get out. Neither the majority of patients at "some clinics in London" nor at any particular London clinic reported engaging in the chemsex. What the stat that Science Editor (!) Sarah Knapton so horribly bungled actually said was that 64 percent of patients seeking drug-abuse treatment from the nonprofit network Antidote reported using certain common illicit drugs (like meth) that are allegedly associated with chemsex. 

The origin of this particular panic is a British Medical Journal editorial, in which public health professionals from Antidote and Britain's National Health Service warn that fighting chemsex "needs to become a public health priority." As evidence, they note that around a fifth of 1,142 British respondents to the European Men-Who-Have-Sex-With-Men Internet Survey "reported chemsex within the past five years" and link to yet-unpublished papers that contain anecdotal tales of drug-fueled sex, sometimes with more than one partner. 

After laying out this underwhelming evidence, the BMJ writers again suggest that "addressing chemsex related morbidities should be a public health priority." And can you guess what they need to address it? More public funding, of course. Always follow the money when people are pushing panics that strain credulity. 

This is not to say that people don't have "chemsex," or that people don't sometimes make stupid sexual decisions under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or that serious drug addicts don't engage in risky sexual behavior sometimes. Of course, on all accounts. But none of this is new, and it's certainly not some dire public health emergency.

Even the Novel Psychoactive Treatment UK Network (Neptune)—a group whose work is cited favorably by the fear-mongering BMJ editorialists—can admit this, tempering a report section on chemsex with the following caveat: "Sex under the influence or intoxication of substances with the potential for associated harm is by no means a new phenomenon." Neptune also notes that "there is no evidence that the use of methamphetamine is becoming more widespread among (men who have sex with men) in the UK… (and) no evidence that its use is becoming more mainstream in the UK" more generally.