Let’s Talk About Chemsex and Gay Panic Over PNP

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On their own, sex and drugs are cultural taboos.

Above: Screenshot from PNPTube.

And no one does a better job of not talking about sex than Americans. Combining them only adds to our reluctance to talk about them — stigmatizes them — especially non-heteronormative — that is to say gay sex. But understanding how sex and drugs are connected isn’t something we should shy away from or necessarily perceive as deviant.

A recent Instagram campaign by a major gay pride promoter has triggered a predictably boring controversy in the LGBT community about this, but it emerges annually. It’s inherently controversial and brings out the self-righteous, especially the recently sober self-righteous.

These stories also guarantee lots of clicks (guilty!).

Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt ‘N’ Peppa

[Intro: Punch it, (Hurb)]
Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this
(Come on, why not?)

People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know?
(No, but that’s a part of life)

Come on #lyrics

Chemsex or PNP is nothing new — humans have used drugs to fuel sex for millennia — gay panic around it is.

According to The Conversation: “Humans have intentionally used drugs to facilitate and enhance their sexual experiences for millennia. Ancient Egyptians used extracts from the blue lotus flower to increase sexual desire. More recently, in the 1960s, psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary stated: “LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man.”

Despite this long history, our understanding of the relationship between sex and drugs remains limited. Researchers have traditionally had a tendency to focus on associations between drug use and “risky” sexual behavior, such as lack of condom use or having multiple sexual partners and almost exclusively in relation to to STI/STD and HIV transmission.

There’s virtually no mention of straight i.e. heterosexual sex and partying anywhere.

And again, Americans can’t seem to handle talking honestly about sex not related to procreation. Salt ‘N’ Peppa’s 1991 global super hit “Let’s Talk About Sex,” is nearly a mandate on this thesis.

Let’s talk about sex, baby
Let’s talk about you and me
Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be #lyrics

More recently research exploring the relationship between sex and drugs has focused on “chemsex.”

Chemsex usually refers to men who have sex with other men using drugs like methamphetamine (or mephedrone in the U.K.and Australia) but also includes: GHB, MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, LSD, or weed to enhance and prolong their sexual experience.

While important, it doesn’t capture the experiences of people who have different gender and sexual identities. Harm reduction campaigns about combining sex and drugs is targeted at gay and bisexual men, meaning that other groups who engage in this activity are unlikely to take such information on board.

 

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A post shared by Jack Parr (@jackwparr)

2017’s This World We Live In is one of the few films on the subject and one does so without demonizing or stigmatizing anything or anyone.

Written and directed by U.K.-based filmmaker Gage Oxley, World is a jarring and uncomfortable dramatic short, a film that works in rather profound ways precisely because Oxley refuses to compromise his vision for his film and he has cast the exceptionally strong Jack Parr as Joey, an image-conscious 22-year-old student swept up in a new city who begins to fall into drug addiction as a way of repressing his inner demons. “Quite intentionally bringing to light one of the LGBT community’s darkest issues, This World We Live In brings us face-to-face with Joey’s practice of chemsex, a very specific form of drug use describing the use of certain drugs in a sexual context.”

The short film is rather brutal, not in terms of violence or even that particularly graphic of a portrayal, but in the way Oxley captures the unflinching honesty of a young man’s downward spiral. The film seeks to bring to light the issues around chemsex, yet Oxley wisely does so without demonizing Joey or the issues he’s dealing with. Of course, it helps to have an actor the caliber of Parr, whose portrayal of Joey is simultaneously vulnerable, aching, confused, and rather heartwrenching. There is a shower scene in particular that is riveting in its raw simplicity, part Gregg Arraki’s Mysterious Skin, yet also an original artistic statement all its own.

Watch it here.

Let’s talk about sex for now
To the people at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don’t be coy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it
Now we talk about sex on the radio and video shows
Many will know anything goes #lyrics

Why do we transgress?

 

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A post shared by Brad Hammer Productions (@hammerbrad)

Above: This Instagram post is from Friday: Just when you thought you had seen it all! 😂 #poppers is live now on #jakejacob #youtube. @jakeinpix presents #poppers / Directed by @hammerbrad 

Why are we still gormlessly creating such one-sided and reductive narratives about gay sex? Sexual behaviors and sexualities are inseparable from the wider political landscapes in which they emerge and are enacted.

The emergence of the post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault (who it should be noted engaged in power fisting and partying) as the most relevant framers of 20th century western society addresses this as transgression: power always coexists with resistance, and morality with deviance.

Thusly, transgression and risk-taking are “normal” in societies that regulate behavior through social norms. It is through the transgression of limits that individuals affirm their own individuality and are able to become themselves.

Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, first published in 1976, is the liminal treatise on the subject. The three-volume study of sexuality  examines the emergence of “sexuality” as a discursive object and separate sphere of life and argues that the notion that every individual has a sexuality is a relatively recent development in Western societies.

Foucault’s scholarship and the idea that sexuality, including homosexuality, is a social construction is associated more with The History of Sexuality than with any other work.

Foucault takes us not only into the first two centuries of our own era, but into the Golden Age of Rome, to reveal a subtle but decisive break from the classical Greek vision of sexual pleasure. He masterfully explores the whole corpus (body) of moral (mind)  reflection among philosophers (Plutarch, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca) and physicians of the era, and he begins to see and uncovers an increasing mistrust of pleasure and growing anxiety over sexual activity and its consequences.

Let’s tell it how it is, and how it could be
How it was, and of course, how it should be
Those who think it’s dirty, have a choice #lyrics

It is stigma, I would argue, that in fact has fueled a fetishization of the habit. Pornhub has seen a nearly 500% increase in their PNP category in the last two years alone. It is mostly amateur, but an entire brand, called SlamRush has emerged as the most viewed in the site’s history (vis-a-vis the gay category).

Let’s talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be #lyrics

Are there health consequences? Clearly. And I am in no way, shape or form advocating or encouraging drug use. Such limit-experiences do flirt with death, even if to different degrees — like acceptable binge-drinking or bungee-jumping to the not  “scandalous” long sessions of drug-taking and unprotected sex. Still, despite flirting with death, they are also life-affirming practices where individuals are able to reassert and know themselves as such.

Given this, some effort must be made to probe the wider social and political landscapes where chemsex takes place, before morals, before judgement, before uncritically reproducing older tropes of moral panic. And that must include the current state of the mainstream LGBT movement.

Over the last few years, radical political and sexual agendas have been “cleaned” out in order to promote the figure of the “righteous gay” as the pathway towards morally-acceptable queer citizenship. In the past, queer politics used queer sex and sexuality to challenge the whole of society and its institutions. Today, the mainstream LGBT movement seems more concerned with assimilating into existing institutions such as marriage and the military, rather than challenging their existence.

It’s in that context that I think – somewhat controversially – that chemsex emerges as a form of resistance. Chemsex is a way of surviving assimilation. If this “cleaning” of LGBT culture means the destruction of queerness or deviance in one’s identity, then risk-taking can become a way in which this identity can be reaffirmed and new forms of queer belonging rehearsed – even if it’s only temporarily.