‘Chemsex’ boosting HIV infections among gays

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LONDON, United Kingdom — The sexual health expert credited with coining the term “chemsex” told AFP that drug-laced sexual encounters are boosting HIV infections in gay communities.

David Stuart, who manages the chemsex support program at a pioneering clinic in Soho, was himself involved in drugs and escorting and contracted HIV before turning his life around after a 2005 arrest.

“These drugs are contributing phenomenally to the HIV epidemic,” Stuart said in an interview at the clinic in the heart of London’s gay community.

“They are not the drugs of the past — happy dancy drugs — they are much more problematic,” he said.

Stuart defines chemsex as the “use of drugs for sex” which is “associated with certain behaviors such as hooking up online, high number of partners and high prevalence of HIV and sexually-transmitted disease.”

Chemsex drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine, mephedrone and GBL “tapped into something that disinhibits sexual feelings,” he said.

Condomless sex and communal drug use at chemsex parties are partly to blame for continued high levels of new HIV infections which have been at around 6,000 people a year since 2009.

“We have about 30 people coming to our building every day, perhaps because they have been exposed to HIV, maybe through condomless sex or sharing needles.

“We know that between 60 and 80 percent of those guys… are here because they have been in some kind of chemsex environment,” he said.

Drugs ‘part of our culture’

The practice mushroomed with the smartphone revolution, which has facilitated the buying of drugs and the hooking up of willing partners through smartphone apps such as Grindr.

But he believes focusing on the public health issues is to diminish the full impact that the trend is having on the community.

“GBL is a very dangerous drug,” he said.

“One milliliter might be enough to give me the appropriate high I am looking for, 1.8 could kill me. One gay man dies every 12 days from GBL in London.”

He added: “There are so many other harms associated to it: lifestyle and well-being, the ability to have sober sex, the ability to form intimacies and maintain them, getting to work on Monday, spending time with family and friends.”

Sexual assault is also “very much something that is happening within our communities,” he warned.

This was highlighted most tragically last year by the case of serial killer Stephen Port, who killed four men during chemsex sessions.

Stuart believes chemsex is an issue unique to the gay community due to its history of hedonism and of being defined by sexuality.

“Drugs are part of our culture, be that a good thing or a bad thing,” he explained.

“When we were fighting for gay rights and fighting through the AIDS epidemic and when it was illegal to be gay, we came together on dancefloors, on drugs, as part of a community.”

‘Phenomenal’ drop in HIV rates

Stuart moved to London from his native Australia in 1989 — the same year he was diagnosed HIV positive.

He said he then spent years “either ill with AIDS, or recovering from one drug bender or another”.

“Escorting and drug dealing were par for the course,” he said.

He was arrested in 2005 and began to volunteer for an LGBT service within a drug charity.

Stuart started researching the links between HIV and chemsex, realizing that sexual health services and gay charities were “much better suited” to deal with the issue than traditional drug services.

“With a lot of the guys, chems are being used to facilitate intimacy. Drugs are just taking away all that judgement and self-hatred,” he said.

The treatment is complex, combining clinical solutions such as immediate treatment for new cases and the use of post-exposure prevention drugs along with education about using apps such as Grindr.

There is room for optimism, however.

Stuart said his clinic had seen a 42 percent fall in new HIV infections in the last six months.

“That’s the first time in decades we’ve had such a phenomenal reduction,” he said. James Pheby/AFP

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