London’s Vauxhall district is rapidly changing, fuelled by the property boom that is altering the face of the city. But at its heart, it still holds on to a commercial gay club scene, complete with saunas and sex on the premises.
The gay community in the city has known many challenges over the past three decades, linked to the Aids epidemic that ravaged its ranks from the 1980s, silently at first, and then more loudly, along with the social ostracisation that it provoked.
Today, however, the community is facing a new challenge, due to the growth in the numbers of men indulging in days-long orgies organised on social media, fuelled by drugs, such as liquid ecstasy, or “G”, in a practice known to doctors as “chemsex”.
Years of efforts to spread safe-sex practices are being lost among a new generation, which grew up after the arrival of Aids, leading doctors to warn that HIV rates and sexually-transmitted diseases cases are rising rapidly.
Last night, Radio 4’s The Report programme included the stories of men involved in “chemsex”, including a Liberal Democrat general election candidate, Adrian Trett – who unsuccessfully ran in the Vauxhall constituency.
The focus has angered some in the gay community who believe it will lead to a new round of discrimination, though others – including many in the community itself – recoil from a new round of hedonism in a UK society where homosexuality is a more public part of life than before.
The latest chapter has prompted a new vocabulary: “chems”, “chill outs” and “G-comas”, with participants losing their sexual inhibitions after taking a cocktail of crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB, which prompts both euphoria and sleepiness.
“Slamming”, where drugs are injected during orgies, is increasingly common too, which has led to overdoses, panic attacks, convulsions and sexual assaults, according to the Metropolitan Police.
Injecting crystal meth, which is better known as “Tina” in the gay community, brings a longer, more intense “high” than smoking it, escalating the libido and removing inhibition. Five sex partners in a session is an average.
Indeed, police and doctors report that the use of crystal meth is largely confined to those in the gay community involved in group sex. Seven in 10 use needles. Two-thirds of those with HIV admit to not taking their HIV medication while under the influence.
Most worryingly of all, nearly nine in every 10 believe they contracted HIV – which is rising again in London – through their use of drugs such as crystal meth, GBL and Mephedrone.
One in every eight gay men in London is HIV positive, compared with one in every 26 in the rest of the UK, while Lambeth has the highest prevalence of HIV of anywhere in the country, affecting 14 of every 1,000 people in the borough.
The growth in “chemsex” parties has been fuelled, too, by social media, where groups are brought together relatively anonymously, and where the past life stories of those involved remain a mystery to others.
Phone apps such as Grindr are driving the numbers. “Everything we are hearing from clubbers and gay men on this scene is that it is prevalent and increasing. Three years ago, this wasn’t mentioned at all,” says Yusef Azad of the National Aids Trust.
Often, involvement is justified on the back of boasts about sexual liberation, but that often it hides loneliness and despair: “I don’t have the confidence to talk to someone in a bar or a club,” said one 22-year-old, who organises all of his sex life online.
The numbers involved are unknown, but they are growing significantly. A study last year by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed that a third of men surveyed in London reported that they had had unprotected sex while under the influence of chemsex drugs.
Even more worryingly, figures gathered by Antidote, the north London clinic that is the city’s only dedicated drugs and alcohol service targeted at the LGBT community, report dramatic rises in the numbers of people taking drugs during sex. In 2011, a fifth of those questioned by the clinic said they had done so. A year later, the number had risen to 80 per cent, though the total numbers involved are believed to have increased significantly since then.
“The reason so many gay men use chems is a search for intimacy. Gay men often grow up keeping a secret,” says Dave Stuart from the Dean Street Clinic. “They grow up being hyper vigilant and not sharing who they really are.
“That is the direct opposite of intimacy. They come of age into a sexualised gay scene where they try to navigate hook-up apps, normalised drug use and risky sex. They try to incorporate intimacy, but with no frame of reference,” he said.