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,” says Gogarty. “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.”
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 appropriate) addicted to the drug- fuelled 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?
“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.”