Opening gay hook-up app Grindr on his smartphone, a man in an apartment block in central London says he "slams" (injects) crystal methamphetamine around four times a day, at a cost of £400 per week (around AU$750). He insists that it’s not so much and that he’s “not a proper drug addict”.
‘What is a proper drug addict?” he’s asked by a man behind the camera.
“Yeah, I don’t know, probably me.”
First alerted to the spike in gay men regularly using drugs during sex in an article by VICE writer Max Daly, the co-director of Chemsex, William Fairman, admits his main point of reference for meth use was previously TV program Breaking Bad.
His documentary features frank input from a wide range of gay men who take part in "chemsex", usually in group scenarios in sex-on-premises clubs or private apartments. Many of the men involved are HIV positive, but not all. It also talks to the medical professionals dealing with the problematic aftermaths experienced by some of these men, including David Stuart, an NHS counsellor based at Soho’s pioneering sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street, where 3,000 gay men using chems present every month.
Shot over the course of one year, Chemsex features graphic sex, drug use and often far more upsetting personal experiences relayed by the men in a red-curtained confessional booth. A stark vision of some of the worst case scenarios possible, it’s told in a straight-forward, non-judgemental fashion the directors hope will be as well-received in Australia as it has been in the UK - even if the numbers here aren’t quite as alarming as those in London.
“The experience of making the film for me was profound,” Fairman says. “It was an incredible privilege to hear and see the experiences of these men who we became incredibly close to. It was overwhelming in terms of their honesty and bravery.”
56 Dean Street was one of their first ports of call, where they connected with Dr Stuart. As he broke it down for them, they realised it was a much bigger story than anticipated.
“David [Stuart] was 100 per cent instrumental in our understanding of this subject, but also in terms of putting us in some of the places that allowed us to connect with the men before they became contributors,” Fairman says. “Anyone feeling comfortable enough to talk about the subject needed to feel like the platform was safe for them.”
To that end, the filmmakers began to spend one night a week sitting in with some of Stuart’s patients who were willing to talk long before any cameras were involved. They also left flyers in the clinic asking for men willing to share their chemsex experiences, which extended beyond meth (or "Tina") to include GHB/GBL (G) and other substances, including ketamine. “We had no idea whether anybody would respond to that at all let alone pick it up,” Fairman admits.
After about a week, they began to receive a barrage of responses. Fairman and co-director Max Gogarty also attended a monthly open-mic night hosted by Patrick Cash called Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs. “It was 7 o’clock in the middle of Soho and we could see there are people who want to talk about this for themselves, but also to connect with other people who may not feel as good about it. There was this real sense of a desire to start owning the issue, to take it away from the grubby pages of the Daily Mail and the tabloid press who misrepresent it and have people take agency.”
All participants enjoyed rolling consent, which means they could withdraw approval for any footage right up until the final cut. They also had legal and psychological support from both VICE (who produced the documentary) and 56 Dean Street.
“When we’d see them engaging in something destructive, it was difficult to watch. When we were there listening to these men, they were like confessions, testimonials."
“When you see some of those scenes that are quite graphic, they didn’t just flash out of nowhere, they were as a result of long relationships with these men,” Fairman says. “When we’d see them engaging in something destructive, it was difficult to watch. When we were there listening to these men, they were like confessions, testimonials. They were incredibly powerful and I think what all those moments did for us, they compounded the profound sense of responsibility that we had to tell their stories as they wanted them to be told. Mainly it’s about giving other people watching some kind of strength or comfort that they’re not alone.”
Stuart, who hails from Melbourne originally, vouches for the rigour of the filmmakers approach and the care factor for the men sharing their stories. “There had been a great deal of interest from media companies and filmmakers on this subject, and in late 2013 in particular, after a spate of chemsex-associated deaths in a London sauna,” he says. “Many wanted the salacious story of drug-fuelled orgies by hedonistic self-indulgent promiscuous gay men spreading disease, but Max and Will immediately struck me as two, authentic documentarians who wanted it to be more than just a 15-minute breakfast TV or scandal piece.”
56 Dean Street deals with patients identifying with a ‘sex problem’ rather than a drug one. “Guys aren’t walking in asking for help with drugs; they’re walking in expressing difficulties with some very modern challenges associated with hooking up in 2016, including new technologies, apps, easy availability of chems and other complex psychosocial, psychosexual issues. GBL overdoses or having others disrespect the fact that we might be too high to consent to sex ought not to be normal parts of our sex lives or weekends, yet they are experiences that are very common amongst our patients.”
Diagnosing more than 20 regular chem users with HIV each month, Stuart says it’s more than just a public health concern. “We’re a community of gay men emerging from a traumatic HIV epidemic that has spanned 30 years, with a legacy and stigma that still remains and we’re emerging from a past that includes normalised social homophobia, rejection, estrangement, bullying, sexual shame and illegality.
“As we define our cultural identity in 2016, it’s important to remember that we may still be vulnerable, especially so given the prevalence and easy availability of new drugs like crystal methamphetamine and GBL, and given the new technologies that are defining and changing our sex lives. In this sense, chemsex is an issue that requires a brave look at the role sex and drugs play in our lives and communities and goes far beyond HIV.”
Later in the film, Stuart levels with his own personal history of chemsex use during a difficult period in his life after being diagnosed as HIV positive himself during the height of the crisis. “As I watched people I know and care greatly for share bravely on film, putting aside shame and fear to tell a story likely to help others struggling with chemsex, it felt wrong, almost cowardly, for me to deny my past and shroud it in secrecy. It was very late in the filming schedule that I agreed to share my history and, though it’s hard for me to watch, I’d have been remiss and disrespectful to the themes of the film, and to the other participants, had I not.”
Though the filmmakers and their subjects won’t be present at the Australian panel discussions, medical professionals and community leaders will take their place, with Nic Holas, co-founder of The Institute of Many (TIM), an advocacy platform for HIV positive people, attending events in Melbourne and Brisbane.
Through his work at TIM, Holas has noted that use of chemsex is a hot button issue at group meetings. “Anyone who had gone through problematic usage was almost angry about it and saying, ‘you can’t ever do this, it ruined my life’. That might be true for them, but it wasn’t true for everyone.”
With support from Living Positive Victoria, TIM has been leading the charge in creating resources aimed specifically at the HIV positive community, who are three times as likely to engage in chemsex as HIV-negative gay men in Australia. He welcomes the discussion Chemsex is sure to provoke and says the documentary is at its strongest in its presentation of helpful harm reduction advice. “I love the series of scenes where a guy is having a party and he’s keeping a spread sheet to keep track of all the G. The advice we give is to keep a running tally on your phone with a screenshot of the time you take it. I love he’s gone the next level. That level of care is what’s required, because all it takes is a couple of big doses and you’re on your back in a hospital bed.”
“I love the series of scenes where a guy is having a party and he’s keeping a spread sheet to keep track of all the G... That level of care is what’s required, because all it takes is a couple of big doses and you’re on your back in a hospital bed.”
Holas does have concerns about whether some of the participants were in a strong enough mental position when interviewed, including one man who reveals he was raped while blanked out on G. He also points out that the picture painted by Chemsex is not necessarily equivalent to what we’re seeing in Australia.
“The vast majority of people who use this drug aren’t doing it in a problematic way,” he says. “If we only take the testimony of hospital doctors and emergency ward nurses, then this drug is the greatest threat to the community because that’s what they see, week-in, week-out. They’re doing a very hard job because the people who go to hospital are in a really vulnerable moment and they lash out. Cops are the same. They’re seeing the worst of this, whereas in the community, the stats on the number of people using it compared to the number having a problem with it is not what’s being reported on by the media.”
One thing Holas thinks is missing is the role alcohol plays in unsafe sex practices. “We don’t talk about that anywhere near enough in Australia. Alcohol is present at far more incidents in which people become HIV positive than other drugs. If we start saying meth is to blame, then Grindr’s to blame as well, as well as gay bars and saunas, what we do is we alleviate gay men of all of the responsibility and we really have to start teaching gay men to take some fucking responsibility for their actions, their choices and for each other.”
Chemsex is screening at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival this Friday and will then have a limited theatrical release from April 8 as well as VOD platform.