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Sex and meth: Why 'chem-fun' is rife among the gay male community in HK

Meth is slamming Hong Kong. Ice and sex go hand in hand, and so-called ‘chem fun’ is rife among the gay male community. Arthur Tam finds out why

‘Crystal meth is for pure sex’, says Paul Schulte, a local drug counsellor and author of the recent book, Paths to Recovery for Gay and Bisexual Drug Addicts: Healing Weary Hearts. “Everything looks good when you’re on meth and you look good to someone on it.”

Sex and drugs may have gone hand in hand since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, but there isn’t much that’s sexy or glamorous about meth. In fact, rather than the perceived glitz associated with certain narcotics, the common stereotype of a meth addict is someone unkempt, gaunt and covered in sores. But that hasn’t stopped it being associated with sex. And it’s disproportionately used during sex by gay men, often during group sessions known as slamming parties. The act of sex on meth, whether in a pair or a group, is known as ‘chem fun’ – chemical fun.

“Straight men and woman obviously take meth as well for sex, but I do believe gay men take it to another level,’’ says Dr Sky Lau, who spent three years researching his 2014 PhD thesis Experiencing Risky Pleasure: The Exploration of ‘Chem Fun’ in the Hong Kong Gay Community. “I would say that gay men tend to take meth in groups more than straight individuals.” Indeed, a glance though profiles on Grindr and Jack’d (gay social apps) these days reveals it’s not uncommon to see guys writing that they want ‘chem fun’ or ‘high fun’, or otherwise simply indicating it with a pill emoticon. “I would say that 70 percent of the guys on Grindr are looking for chem fun,” says D, a recovering meth addict and gay man.

But why are so many gay guys, in particular, turning to meth? “The gay community is a stigmatised community,” says Schulte. “Many in the LGBTI community can say they’ve been beaten, bullied, kicked out of their families, churches and communities. If they aren’t out, they’re closeted to their parents and full of shame with low self-esteem. Crystal meth comes along and it is an excellent drug to make all those issues go away.”

Dave McGuire, clinical supervisor at The Cabin rehab facility in Central agrees. “In the gay population, there is so much more stress and that creates an environment for flourishing addicts. I wouldn’t say that addiction is created by environment, although it’s definitely a factor.”

According to a survey conducted by the Butler Center for Research in the US in 2013, 48 percent of individuals in the LGBTI community versus 15 percent of heterosexuals have suffered sexual abuse and 51 percent versus 28 percent had suffered physical abuse. Dependence on alcohol and one other illicit drug is 43 percent versus 29 percent.

Lau also believes that, although meth is mostly used to initiate sex, it also serves as a very important tool for socialising. “This subculture is not all about a perceived seediness. I don’t deny that health risks and addiction are part of this group activity, but there is wider context where gay men can have a comfortable space to socialise and make friends, free of judgement. Some men have even found their boyfriends through chem fun.”

D agrees with Lau to acertain extent. With few options and activities for gay men to socialise, he turned to Grindr to find friends. “I think that Shanghai and Hong Kong are both very difficult places to get along with people,” he muses. “I went to a sex party that I found on Grindr and someone gave me ice. That was my first contact.” But for D, it wasn’t a comfortable space. “You keep saying the same thing over and over again, when you’re on ice, you go in circles and nothing you say makes sense in the real world. You try to solve things on ice and but it’s so dangerous because you can fuck up. You can’t put logic together. You crash and you disappear for two days and that hurts your relationship with work, family and friends.”

Disappearing for a couple of days is not the most severe danger associated with meth, however. “Most don’t use condoms during chem fun,” says D, pointing out the sheer lack of inhibition caused by a meth high. It’s certainly a worrying fact that the number of recorded cases of HIV in Hong Kong has risen steadily in the past four years. Men make up 145 of the 173 cases reported in the first half of 2015, and just over half of these cases involved MSMs (Men who have Sex with Men). The youngest case involved a boy who was 17 years old.

A study from an Aids Concern, a longstanding local NGO, recently published a study showing that 41 percent of gay men in the city did not use a condom for every sexual encounter. “Ice is an absolute gateway to HIV,” says Schulte. “It’s 12 to 18 months from ice to HIV”. And it’s not just HIV that’s a concern. During chem fun, users often combine ice with other drugs to get that  perfect high. A commonly taken side drug is the anaesthetic GHB, often known as ‘g’ or ‘water’. Because it’s difficult to get an erection on meth, users also frequently combine the meth hit with Viagra. This drug cocktail, ultimately, wreaks havoc on the body.

“In the moment it feels so good,” says 23-year-old N. “I first tried chem fun when I was 19 and I was just curious. I felt like I was melting into the bed. I just wanted to go on forever. But after the effects wore off, I felt horrible – it’s the worst thing ever. I tried for the second time, but without a condom. I felt more reckless, but I realised how risky it was afterwards. I haven’t tried it since.” N however, admits that he doesn’t regret the experience. “I’d rather know what it’s like,” he adds.

Not everyone that takes meth is an addict. In fact, according to psychiatrist Vanessa Wong, ‘80 to 90 percent of people who use either crack or methamphetamine don’t get addicted.’ Even so, for the 10 percent who do, it can be extremely difficult to beat the addiction, even with the best care.

HIV is by no means specifically an issue solely impacting the gay community. But it is, sadly, now an increasing concern, and it’s hard to deny that meth use is playing a big part in that fact. Recent figures indicate that rates of HIV infection in the city are the highest they have been in the last 30 years.

“Look, I’m gay,” says Schulte. “The community has come so far but it still faces stigmatisation. There’s a problem, and the gay community has to take responsibility for it.”

Read Lau’s thesis at hub.hku.hk, and find out more about Aids Concern ataidsconcern.org.hk

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