Crystal meth: The myths and realities of chemsex in the queer community

The rise of queer people experimenting with crystal meth during sex cannot simply be explained as a death sentence – anyone who has ever done Tina knows it’s more complex than that

Are meth=death campaigns what we really need for queer people experimenting with crystal meth during sex?

No. As a group of queer drug users, service providers and activists working with people who use drugs, including crystal meth, years of lived experience and work in our communities has shown us that this kind of drug prevention messaging doesn’t work – and in fact has unintended negative consequences like reinforcing stigma, shame and silence.

The only people such messages will prevent from using are those who would likely have avoided the drug in the first place.

In his recent article in NOW, queer educator and activist Tim McCaskell suggests that there is an epidemic of silence around the increase in queer people experimenting with crystal meth during sex (i.e., gay men who party and play, or PnP) and that HIV organizations and community groups should start stressing that crystal will make “anything you are going through” worse.

McCaskell writes, “If guys who use [meth] go into the baths or on Grindr and find themselves surrounded by messages telling them to beware of this stuff, it may well make them feel uncomfortable. But frankly, it’s a small price to pay. Hopefully, it will get them to consider what Tina is doing to them.”

This approach not only doesn’t work, it drives people who are using away from their communities and from the few resources that might be able to support them, exacerbating problematic use and erasing the range of relationships people have with crystal meth.

You never hear the stories about how much fun your friend had at his chemsex hook-up because the fear surrounding crystal meth use has created an echo chamber. To speak casually or in a positive light about using such a vilified drug immediately creates a panic in those who care about you. Why would anyone want to invite that level of scrutiny about their choice to use when it is not affecting their life in a negative way?

There is no shortage of shitty prejudices against meth use. Just look at pop culture’s representations. People are already scared to talk about using crystal, whether it’s a problem for them or not. This is part of why we find ourselves at odds with friends, lovers and neighbours in the crisis McCaskell also wishes to address.

McCaskell references condom campaigns during the height of the AIDS crisis as an analogy. But condom campaigns were not abstinence campaigns. Condoms are a harm reduction intervention, allowing people to enjoy sex while reducing the likelihood of potential infections.

Activists, users and experts across Toronto have been working tirelessly over the years to create effective and nuanced responses to meth.

The Gay Men’s Sexual Health Alliance is actively working on a provincial PnP campaign. The Ontario Harm Reduction Network is working to better educate and support service providers. Community Health Centres have been distributing equipment to engage with people who use. The 519 has hired people with experience using meth to look at what neighbourhood supports are needed. And CAMH Rainbow Services and others are providing treatment programs for LGBTQ folks struggling with use, whether their goal is to abstain or reduce the harms of using. Work is being done.

Those involved in these initiatives have been striving to develop resources and supports in an increasingly hostile social and political climate. We are especially committed to ensuring that harm reduction efforts support people without certain privileges and money, since those folks often have less means to negotiate the challenges that come with using crystal. And need to ensure supports for people who decide to stop using meth are accessible.

Effective prevention is about building community and self-worth, addressing mental health and housing and working through trauma. It’s about promoting well-being and preventing folks from being left without resources and support.

A compassionate, productive and understanding queer community response to the use of crystal meth needs to ask: why are people using and when and why is it getting out of hand? How can we open safer, more honest conversations about the drug? How do we honour the importance of pleasure, sex and connection? How can we support people who might be considering using meth, currently use or want to stop using when our provincial government couldn’t care less?

Let’s be real. For many, meth can be fun, or serve a purpose. At the same time meth can be dangerous. So can GHB, cocaine and especially alcohol. Yet Tina cannot simply be explained as a death sentence. Anyone who has ever done it knows it’s more complex than that.

Yes, the come-down can be rough and some people can develop a dependence. But if you don’t know what the possible outcomes are, you can’t manage them.

Promoting the belief that using meth will inevitably cause you to lose all control obscures the fact that there are many people who successfully manage their PnP and use in ways that work for them. Wouldn’t it be better if we could learn from them, to share practices and create environments that promote health and safety for all?

We can probably agree that the health of many queer people is in a fragile place, the result of surviving in a homophobic society, the effects of compounding social injustices, and the shared and individual traumas we carry.

We can probably agree that people should have the tools they need to take care of themselves. We can also agree that for some, crystal use has been a destructive and harmful influence in their lives.

But fear will only encourage silence and silence equals the death of supportive and safe spaces, honest conversations, information sharing and compassion and understanding – all of the things needed to ensure effective interventions to pragmatically, non-judgmentally and holistically address meth use in our community.


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