Cam­paigner with drug past warns of ‘chem­sex’ HIV link

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - World -

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 be­hav­iours 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.

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 fo­cussing 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 millil­itre 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 dance floors, on drugs, as part of a com­mu­nity.”

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, real­is­ing 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. – AFP

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