Chem trails

The harsh re­al­ity of Lon­don’s drug and sex party cir­cuit

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Early on in Chem­sex – Max Gog­a­rty and Will Fair­man’s ar­rest­ing doc­u­men­tary on a cur­rent sex­ual sub­cul­ture – Dick, one of the brave con­trib­u­tors, com­ments on the way that giv­ing a name to a dan­ger­ous prac­tice can (fig­u­ra­tively at least) detox­ify that ac­tiv­ity.

The film con­cerns it­self with the rise of drug use on Lon­don’s gay sex-party cir­cuit. As the film notes, in­tra­venous drug use is re­ferred to as “slam­ming” and the ses­sions are re­ferred to as “chem­sex”. The lan­guage adds a sheen to the messy re­al­ity.

“Def­i­nitely. That’s one of the rea­sons that Dick and his anal­y­sis fea­tures at the front of the film,” Gog­a­rty tells me. “It’s an im­por­tant theme and it frames the be­hav­iour within slang that is now widely ac­cepted.”

Gog­a­rty, whose day job is with BBC3, was in­spired to be­gin the project af­ter read­ing an ar­ti­cle on “chem­sex” by Max Daly on vice.com (Gog­a­rty pre­vi­ously worked there). That piece pointed him to­wards the ad­mirable David Stu­art, who works at 56 Dean Street, a health cen­tre for gay peo­ple in Soho. The frank­ness of the con­trib­u­tors is strik­ing. It must, surely, have been dif­fi­cult to get chem­sex par­tic­i­pants on cam­era.

“We looked into it first with the idea of mak­ing a video,” Gog­a­rty says. “But we were told that you’re never go­ing to get ac­cess to the peo­ple you need to talk to for that sort of story. But af­ter talk­ing to 56 Dean Street and David Stu­art we were able to spend time with peo­ple us­ing the ser­vices. It took nearly 18 months. But the lux­ury of hav­ing that time al­lowed us to build up the right trust to fea­ture the sto­ries you hear.”

Neg­a­tive mes­sages

Along the way, we learn how com­mon un­pro­tected sex is at such events and hear one young man de­scribe his even­tual HIV di­ag­no­sis as a re­gret­table in­evitabil­ity. Such sto­ries risk at­tract­ing all kinds of con­tro­versy. As one of the older con­trib­u­tors notes in Chem­sex, life has, in the UK, been get­ting con­sis­tently bet­ter for gay peo­ple and this is just one area in which things are get­ting worse. Gog­a­rty and his team must have wor­ried about putting out neg­a­tive mes­sages.

“That was ab­so­lutely a con­cern,” he says. “We met ev­ery­one from the Ter­rence Hig­gins Trust to the Lon­don School of Hy­giene and Trop­i­cal Medicine to Lord Nor­man Fowler, who was one of the peo­ple who worked on the Aids cam­paign with the Thatcher gov­ern­ment. We did a lot of re­search. We ag­o­nised about how to tell this story. But we knew that if we didn’t oth­ers would. It was an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence for us.”

Chem­sex takes us from West End clubs to quiet sub­ur­ban streets to cold tower blocks. We meet a former banker who be­came (the word is surely ap­pro-

One of the rea­sons for the rise in sex­u­alised drug use is the tech­nol­ogy that’s be­ing used. Hook-up apps have changed the way peo­ple look for sex

pri­ate) ad­dicted to the drug­fu­elled erotic may­hem. David Stu­art lis­tens pa­tiently and tol­er­antly to one oth­er­wise-sen­si­ble fel­low who be­lieves that Aids is not con­nected to HIV. The film does not pre­tend that ev­ery­body in­volved in the chem­sex scene is work­ing through some child­hood tor­ment. So, what is go­ing on? Why is this hap­pen­ing now?

Hook-up apps

“There’s not one rea­son,” Gog­a­rty says. “But the film does ex­plore some of the rea­sons that un­der­pin the rise in sex­u­alised drug use. One of which is the tech­nol­ogy that’s be­ing used. Hook-up apps have changed the way peo­ple look for sex. The drugs be­ing used are dif­fer­ent and the way they are be­ing used is dif­fer­ent. Those two things cou­pled with other things have cre­ated – in David’s word – a per­fect storm that has shifted things for a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of peo­ple.”

Gog­a­rty and his col­lab­o­ra­tors found them­selves in­clud­ing sex­u­ally ex­plicit footage and de­pic­tions of in­tra­venous drug use. They must have had to make dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions as to what was ap­pro­pri­ate for in­clu­sion.

“Through the edit, me and Will ended up in a place we were com­fort­able with,” Gog­a­rty says. “We spoke a lot about it and won­dered if we were go­ing too far. We did cut things back. But we wanted the jour­ney we went on with th­ese peo­ple to speak for it­self. If we had to re­vert to re­con­struc­tions that wouldn’t be the film we wanted to make. That’s why it took a long time.”

Though there are shots of which Ter­rence Rattigan’s fa­mously cen­so­ri­ous Aunt Edna would dis­ap­prove, Chem­sex is pri­mar­ily no­table for the power of the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries. Most of those in­ter­viewed have shaken them­selves free from the scene. Their de­ter­mi­na­tion to speak on cam­era reg­is­ters as an im­por­tant sec­ond (or third or fourth) step to­wards a safer life.

“All the credit has to go to the peo­ple who are in it,” Gog­a­rty says. “They care enough about the com­mu­nity to speak about in­ti­mate things for the greater good. I hope that is what peo­ple will take away from this film.”

Out­burst: Queer Arts Fes­ti­val runs from Novem­ber 12th-21st. out­burstarts.com

A still from Chem­sex. Above right: Di­rec­tors Max Gog­a­rty and Will Fair­man

Go­ing un­der­ground

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