The party scene in the LGBTQ+ world is constantly in flux and much has changed since the disco days of the 80s and 90s and the club scene of the new millennium. The advent of smartphones and their apps have, for the majority, become the platform for meeting new friends, forming new relationships and having the social interactions that the party scenes of the past wouldhave provided. With the apps, clubs have lost some of their appeal; however, the apps have paved the way to a very different kind of party. In the last few years,these parties have become very popular, especially and almost exclusively among gay/ bi-men or MSM (Men that have Sex with Men). These parties go by the name chemsex. It is important to state that this is not what the majority of gay, bi or MSM men do but this part of the population forms the vast majority of people engaging in it, especially in urban areas. Chemsex is on the rise and has been the cause of many deaths. Little researchon the subject has been done or published and there are only few organisations in the UK that are offering support to clients that engage in this activity.
My first encounter with a chemsex client only happened four years ago, and while I had some background in drug misuse and addiction I soon realised that more self-development was needed. From the first session I was confronted with terms that were not part of my vernacular. The client introduced me to names like Tina, G/Gina,MiauwMiauw and to others of his ‘friends in crime’. I remember leaving the first session feeling puzzled and eager to find someone who would clarify what all these terms meant and what sort of ‘friends’ my client had chosen to hang out with.
I was not surprised to find out that Tina (Crystal Methamphetamine), a very strong chemical stimulant, was used by my client during sex to disinhibit and to create a sense of erotic and sexual omnipotence. Often he accompanied Tina with Gina and G(GBL/GHB), both of which one can easily overdose on, generating a feeling of euphoria, further reducing inhibitions. Under the effect of these chemicals, the ability to recognise risk, sexual and otherwise, and to make clear choices is not present. Meanwhile, the aftermath, which could last for days, resulted in paranoia, edgy behaviour and a general deterioration of theclient’s mental health and wellbeing.
Since that time, my work with chemsex clients has grown and so has my understanding of it. Running also a chemsex supportive group allowed me to build a much broader picture of the destructive nature of this practice. Loneliness and intimacy were some of the core issues that brought clients into this addictive world, a world that granted access to anyone who was in search of connection, intimacy and a sense of belonging.
For untrained eyes the sexual element may seem what every man is looking for. However, this is only one side of the story. Conversations and emotional and intellectual bonding often prevail in the chemsex parties. In addition, the group familiarity and the ritualistic aspects of some of the drug taking seems to offer to chemsex clients ‘a safe enough space’. This was an alluring element from the chaotic, lonely and often self-loathing envoirnment that my client was experiencing from Monday to Friday afternoon. Yes, the weekend was when he mainly used to hangout with ‘Tina’ and ‘Gina’ and this was true for many other clients that I worked with. The weekends were for him a time to celebrate as well as time when the loneliness would permeate his daily existence. These two factors would create an urge for him to search for the next party to go to. Usually the search would start with accessing a social app like Grindr to go through profiles that displayed the H&H (High & Horny) tag,synonymous with chemsex parties where Tina, Gina and the stimulant and euphoric MiauwMiauw (Mephedrone) would without a doubt be present. They never miss these parties.
Recently the work with my client turned out to highlight other aspects of this complex world. Apart from struggling to go on dates, his intense use of Tina has further affected his sexual confidence and the ability to sustain or obtain an erection and sometimes to even ejaculate. It has become difficult for him to think of having sex without being on crystal methamphetamine, which has had a big impact on his ability to have sex sober.
When I am able to take a step back, it feels that the way forward with this client group is to go back to basics, exploring the idea of sexual intimacy that is closely related to emotional safety and vulnerability. Meanwhile rebuilding the connection between their minds and their bodies; bodies that are either no longer able to feel or that feel too much,having been numbed or overstimulated by their wicked ‘friends’.
My personal challenges in working with chemsex clients are and have been substantial, as the overstimulation or the numbness have also been part of my experience during the therapeutic process with this cohort of clients. I learned that Monday or Tuesday are not good days to have consultations, as often the clients are still recovering from their chemsex weekend. Cancellations or just not turning up is part of what I, partners, friends and family have to endure. This can be very disruptive and painful for both sides as their disappearance sometimes is disconcerting and very worrying. Moreover, the guilt and shame that this practice generates can be experienced as further proof of their perceived damage and an unlovable self.
Working with chemsex in both group and individual settings has also highlighted other potential impacts that I needed to be aware of. The intimate space that the therapeutic setting offers,as well as some of the topics or experiences that are discussed and shared, can generate a highly charged sexual environment. This can sometimes mimic some of the familiar space that the chemsex parties provide, which can result in clients being triggered, potentially compromising their emotional safety. Boundaries have been fundamental in supporting both me and the clients, allowing us to develop a healthy relationship in which vulnerability can be encouraged and supported.
A bit like the party scene in the LGBTQ+ community, the therapeutic process with chemsex clients always seems to be in flux and feels like a constant work in progress with all the highs, the lows and the numbness.
Giuseppe Picuccio – BA PGDip ADVDip BACP COSRT LDPRT Alumnus
The views and opinions expressed in these blog posts are held by the author(s) and are for general interest in the field. These blog entries do not attempt give advice to the reader, they are for educational and information purposes only.