Chemsex opens with a night-time shot of London, then cuts to a full moon in a cloudy sky, then cuts to a dark suburban streetscape, and then cuts to the low-lit interior of an apartment with a close-up on a syringe sitting on top of a remote control. “I’m gonna slam it in a minute,” a guy says. “I’m pretty much slamming every day, four slams a day… About £400 in a week… That’s not so much.” The guy then fixes drugs for injecting. He tourniquets his bicep and injects, slowly, the first of many close-up injectings. He sits back on the couch, his eyes widen, his breath increases. “See now all I wanna do is get fucked, have sex, it’s crazy.” He starts playing with his crotch. “Straight away?” asks a voice from off-screen. “Uh-huh, yeah,” the guy nods, still fondling his crotch, “just, like, cock cock cock cock cock…” He goes silent, his eyes widen again, and he stares vacantly into the camera. In the next cut he is on his phone, on Grindr.
Released late last year in the UK and debuting in Australia at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival this past April, the Vice Media horror-documentary Chemsex brings audiences into intimate proximity with the PnP (party and play) scene among gay men in the UK. Straight directors William Fairman and Max Gogarty assembled confessional interviews and actual footage of this ‘underground’ subculture where men have sex with each other in group or one-on-one settings using methamphetamine, mephedrone, GHB and other drugs. The premise Chemsex works from is that the expediency of mobile hook-up apps like Grindr, combined with the dangers of illicit drug-taking, combined with ‘risky’ kinds of sex has created “the perfect storm” for a “hidden health emergency.” As the documentary unfolds, a more psycho-sociological explanation is offered alongside these technological and biological ones: lonely, ever-vigilant gay men, damaged by a culture of shame, homophobia and fear of HIV, use the disinhibition and disassociation induced by synthetic drugs in a misdirected search for connection and intimacy.
I’m using scare quotes here deliberately. Chemsex is a scary film and there is much contained therein that demands considered unpacking. The heady combo of drugs, epidemics and exceptional types of sex—group sex, anonymous sex, BDSM sex, sauna sex, anal sex—doesn’t have a great history of being handled with nuance or particularity in mainstream media channels. In the case of Vice Media, extreme, unexpurgated visibility and the patina of ethnographic realism are the documentary modus operandi that function as both an engine of sex negativity and an alibi for sensationalism. While Chemsex examines shame and fear as objects of contemplation, those aversive feelings are also its likely effects.
One of the first things we learn in Chemsex is that if you start using Grindr, “within four conversations you are going to be introduced to chemsex, and within eight conversations you are going to get introduced to slamming” (injecting methamphetamine). This suggestion that hookup apps are partly responsible for an increase in the popularity and accessibility of PnP is offered by David Stuart, researcher, writer and chemsex specialist who becomes the doco’s key expert talking head. Stuart is the Substance Use Lead at 56 Dean Street, where men are supported with problems surrounding sexualised drug use, and incidentally, though not unimportantly, the place where most of Fairman and Goggarty’s automethnographers were recruited. Stuart’s “you” could be the straight white male 20–30 something targeted by the VICE juggernaut, but he’s more likely describing a hypothetical gay man using Grindr for the first time. Either way, the downloadable immediacy of the app doesn’t paint the picture of a very clandestine subculture but, rather, one that is “hiding in plain sight.” Grindr—which has over 12 million users worldwide—is an easy access portal to a world of drugs and viral sex, even if welcoming ketamine, GHB and meth into the intimate space of your smartphone is an unwitting or involuntary solicitation.