Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld
by James Wharton
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
There’s a new epidemic that’s affecting the urban gay communities of the U.K., most predominately in London. It’s called chemsex and it involves gay men gathering in each other’s homes for long weekends of drug use and sex. This sex is fueled by the use of three drugs in particular; meth, GBL (GHB), and mephadrone, all substances which fuel libido, lower inhibitions, and allow users to stay up all night, often for days. James Wharton introduces us to this subculture—which certainly has equivalencies in our own urban centers—in a meticulously researched, thought-provoking, nonjudgmental manner.
Wharton explores the roots of the problem as well as its consequences. There is a drug-related death linked to this phenomenon every two weeks in London. Issues of consent are explored with the question of how a person so inebriated because of drugs can even give it. He also recalls his own time partaking in this culture and how he himself, passed out from the effects of the drugs, awoke to being sexually assaulted. He describes just how common such instances are and how the gay community’s difficult history with London law enforcement complicates reporting of such cases.
At the heart of this book is Wharton’s account of HIV transmission among the men who engage in chemsex. With drug use comes poor decision-making and safer sex is often the last thing on a man’s mind. He recounts many friends he has from this scene who ended up positive as an unwanted result of their drug use. He interviews two of the leading HIV advocates and activists in the U.K. today, Matthew Hodson and Greg Owen. It’s an even better balanced account with the contributions of these HIV/AIDS prevention and education heavyweights. He also interviews subjects and experts as diverse as his former drug dealers and many who survived and some who still take part in the scene—really getting inside this gay cultural phenomenon. This is a fascinating read as well as an incredibly important one. Judgment and intolerance won’t solve this problem, especially when they come from within the gay community. There isn’t one clear solution, but many, and Wharton explores many.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.