If you go onto Grindr it’s not unusual to see someone’s headline including something like ‘PNP’, ‘Chem’, ‘T’, ‘Tina’ or similar. Indeed, for quite a while I didn’t have a clue what these meant, and was quite surprised when I discovered it involves an entire subculture of gay men. However, as the documentary Chemsex shows, for some mixing drugs and sex is far more than just an occasional aberration. It can go far enough that it almost becomes a way of life, no matter the repercussions or whether they are in control of it.
Directors William Fairman and Max Gogarty explore what they term a gay healthy emergency in London (and it’s undoubtedly true you see a lot more ads from ‘chem-friendly’ guys in the UK capital than most other places), spending a year talking to men who are part of the Chemsex world, from those just starting and see it as an adjunct of the BDSM they’re interested in, to those who are so far down the rabbit hole they’re in the grip of drug-induced psychosis.
What could have been a moralising polemic is actually far more complex than that. Rather than purely blaming the men, Chemsex empathises with them, teasing out how their relationship with the variety of chemicals they use intersects with things such as depression, internalised homophobia, their HIV status and sex itself.
The men it follows all have different issues and think about drugs differently, although Chemsex does a great job at pulling together the common themes that brought the men into that world, as well as how it gripped them and the difficulties of getting out. It’s oddly fascinating how with many of those interviewed and followed, that they simultaneously seem hyper-aware of exactly what’s going with an extremely clear idea of the dangers of what they’re doing, and yet there’s a disconnect between what they know in their mind and their actual actions.
They can tell you in a precise, deeply thought out way what the issues are, and what the issues underneath those issues are, and then go out and repeat them in a way that suggests not just addiction but a disconnect in their minds. It’s almost as if when interviewed that they they become outside observers of their own lives. These people are far from what you’d stereotypically think of as a drug addict, and in some cases they are highly functioning and not outwardly affected, even if mentally and sometime physically their lives are far more precarious and fragile than they appear.
It’s also an extremely frank documentary, with depictions of real sex. However, it’s certainly not gratuitous, using the sex to show both what the men are hoping to get from ‘slamming’ – they describe it as a kind of connected, all-encompassing sex that makes ‘normal’ screwing seem meaningless, at least the first few times – as well as how disconnected they actually are. One of the most affecting scenes shows a guy in the midst of supposed chem-assisted passion who cannot get off Grindr even while being penetrated, as he needs to find the next guy in order to keep things going.
All this is put into context by a doctor who has his own experiences with drugs and HIV, who now runs the first sexual health clinic that specialises in men who mix gay sex and drugs. He knows that the issues of one feed into and out of the other and so need to be treated together.
Chemsex is hard-hitting and sometimes shocking, and while it’s difficult to tell how widespread the problem is, gay men bringing sex and drugs together is certainly something that is ignored far more than it ought to be. The documentary also works as a very good way of showing that LGBT people often have specific health issues that can easily fall between the cracks of mainstream medicine, as well as that those issues can have as profound psychological dimensions as they do physical.
Overall Verdict: Fascinating and hard-hitting, Chemsex takes a frank and intimate look at a largely ignored health issue, using great insight and thought to illuminate what is going on under the surface when bringing sex and drugs together becomes more than just a bit of fun.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac