When it comes to how gay men are introduced to chemsex, Jose's story is a sadly familiar one. It's a tale of loneliness and a search for meaning and intimacy. He was 34 when he moved from Madrid to a new city and had just left a complicated relationship. All he wanted to do was banish the past.
One of the first things he did when he arrived in his new home was to check out Grindr. There he found hundreds of guys who were looking for 'party and play.' He's admirably honest about how it all began: "I wasn't naive. I knew exactly what I was doing." Soon he was meeting guys for sex, going to an endless cycle of chillouts and taking GBL, Cocaine, Ketamine, MDMA, and Mephedrone. He had one limit: he promised himself that he would never use Crystal Meth - but as he fell further into the scene this changed.
"Crystal eventually came with the sex. People were always doing it at sex parties, and I gave it a try. At that point it seemed attractive; I wanted to feel a part of the group and horny like the others. It was more addictive than any other drug I'd taken before."
Jose's life spiraled out of control. Even Xanax and antidepressants couldn't help with the devastating comedowns. Sometimes he wouldn't sleep for eight days, and this went on for a year before he sought help from his doctor. After much hard work, Jose is now clean - but in some ways, his struggle has just begun: adjusting to life - and sex - after chems was going to be one of his toughest battles yet.
Intensity of chemsex vs. sober sex
All chemsex survivors I have interviewed speak of the same thing: the intensity of sex when on drugs; indeed, sex and drugs often become so intricately linked that it becomes almost impossible for these men to imagine having sex without also taking substances.
"When I think about it now, I have always associated sex with drugs," admits Jose. "Even if I could have sober sex I would rather have had it with drugs. It's more intense that way."
"Sex with Crystal has no boundaries. You don't even have consideration for the other person and are looking only for your satisfaction. Because of the intensity, you're always seeking stronger experiences – more unprotected sex, wilder sex, more extreme sex. I did things I could never have done without drugs and was taking high risks."
After this, it is perhaps unsurprising that reverting to sober sex holds little appeal. For Jose, breaking away from the drugs meant that he had to reassess his priorities. He'd found out that he was HIV positive in 2006 - before he began using chems heavily - and believes this diagnosis exacerbated his drug use.
"I was outwardly healthy, with an undetectable viral load, but emotionally I was crippled with grief about what I'd done with my life. My drug use was, I believe, related to these feelings. After I become positive, I thought that this life was not worth living, that no one would love me and that I'd spend the rest of my life alone and fucked up. I just didn't care. There seemed like there was no future for me. I completely lost respect for the disease and my body. I became an animal who didn't give a shit."
"Since I've been in rehab I've learned that there is a reason to care about HIV – for the community. We need to respect and look after each other because otherwise, we are making the problem worse by spreading this disease."
"Having sex without chems is very hard, and I've had to reset my likes and dislikes around sex. I needed a high stimulus to feel something. My bottom line now is no sex parties, sex clubs, saunas or anonymous sex."
At the time of speaking to me, Jose has not had chemsex for almost eight months and had to relearn what intimacy was. But, despite the ongoing difficulties - and pain - he has no regrets: "If I hadn't stopped using Crystal I believe I would have killed someone or myself."
When sex is not enough
Diego, who got into chemsex while in an abusive relationship, echoes Jose's tale. For him, the idea of sober sex was fraught with anxiety.
"When you stop taking chems the sex is difficult. I'm now afraid that the sex won't be enough and that my cock won't get hard and that I won't be able to give someone what they want."
He is now 'scared of men' and has spent a whole year not having any sex at all. Like Jose, he is having to start right from the beginning - rethinking his entire mindset when it comes to sexual relationships. But he is hopeful that things will change.
"I want to have sex without chems and I know I will do it, but it's challenging. I want to turn that page and turn back to normal. I know that it will take time."
Ben is the youngest survivor of chemsex that I spoke to. He was a DJ and once the clubs closed he was always top of the list to be invited back to chillouts. Ultimately, however, he would find the experiences unfulfilling and one of the reasons he stopped using chems was because he discovered that he had failed to make any real friends through his experiences.
"I'd meet a guy at a chillout and go back to his, and we'd have sex for two days. I'd then try to meet him again, and it would never happen. I've never managed to meet someone sober after having chemsex with them. That's what I found disturbing. I didn't want to have this constant turnover of men. Yes, the sex is intense at the time, but when you look back, it's almost as if you've only had sex with them in a dream. The drugs fuck up relationships before they can start. I find that so sad."
Ben stopped having sex altogether for six months after he cut out the drugs, which he said he used to make him feel confident about himself. Once he got clean, he had to delete apps like Grindr from his phone and, like Jose, abstain from casual hookups. Crucially, his journey towards embracing sober sex has meant learning to value himself - but the experiences he has had have left him with a bleak view of the gay scene.
"I'm not looking to have random sex anymore. I don't find it intimate or validating. You're objectifying yourself on Grindr, and becoming a physical being rather than a human. I believe this is one of the reasons a lot of gay men experience problems having relationships or a fulfilling sex life, and consequently the reason why they're doing drugs. It increases the pressure, and we have to find ways of relieving that. A lot of the problems in gay culture are very much a vicious circle. It's self-perpetuating."
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