20 Apr 2018

Sex, drugs and research: study probes world of ‘chemsex’

Chemsex can take its toll: health researchers are
investigating how best to reduce harm and aid recovery. 
Photo: Diverse Images/UIG via Getty Images
by Anne Crawford

A Monash University researcher has focussed international attention on ‘chemsex’ or ‘party and play’, the practice of sexualised drug use by men who have sex with men, in a bid to identify solutions to problems associated with it.

The phenomenon among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM), has raised concerns by health professionals about the associated transmission of HIV or other sexually transmissible infections, as well as the risks and social problems involved with drug use.

The drugs GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyrate), ice (crystal methamphetamine) and ketamine are typically used, sometimes in combinations of drugs. They increase confidence in social settings, facilitate more intense sexual sessions, greater longevity of sex and, with it, the potential for a higher number of sexual partners and likelihood for condomless sex, the study says.

Associate Professor Jason Ong from Central Clinical School at Monash University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Associate Professor Adam Bourne from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Sexuality (ARCSHS) and Dr Mark Pakianathan from St Georges University (London) collated a number of studies into chemsex and healthcare approaches to it in a Special Issue edition of the CSIRO-published journal Sexual Health.

Associate Professor Ong said that despite media reports, only a minority of GBMSM use drugs, and only a small proportion of these do this in a sexual setting.

“Reading about chemsex in the popular press, sometimes the impression is that sexualised drug use is an uncontrolled and disastrous epidemic that is plaguing the majority of GBMSM in Australia and around the world,” he said. “Also we can’t simply demonise chemsex and assume all users are ‘bad’ and must stop using drugs immediately.”

However, the practice could take its toll on those engaged in it.

“There are some men whose drug use can become problematic and lead to significant social and medical challenges,” Assoc. Professor Ong said. “This is where we, as health professionals, must be equipped and ready to stand in the gap to provide high-quality and evidence-based services to help those who seek to reduce or stop their drug use.  My editors and I have specifically sought to publish practical and evidence-based articles from global leaders in this field to dispel myths that may surround this topic and to learn from their decades of experience.”

The journal edition, ‘Sharing solutions for a reasoned and evidence-based response: chemsex/party and play among gay and bisexual men’ is multidisciplinary and includes epidemiological papers, a clinical case study, review of international policies, and studies from multiple countries that describe community- and clinic-based responses to chemsex. Findings and discussions emphasise the need to engage “sensitively, non-judgmentally and meaningfully” with gay men about the practice to help improve their sexual health and total wellbeing.

Adam Bourne, Jason Ong and Mark Pakianathan. Sharing solutions for a reasoned and evidence-based response: chemsex/party and play among gay and bisexual men. Sexual Health 15(2) 99-101 https://doi.org/10.1071/SH18023. Published: 9 April 2018

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