This article was first published on The Conversation.
Since last year’s release of Chemsex, described by The Guardian as a ‘scary but valuable documentary’, the drug-fuelled sexual practices of some gay men have increasingly become a matter of heated debate, both within the gay community and in the national press.
Most recently, papers have picked up on the story of barrister Henry Hendron, whose partner died last year after overdosing on GHB at the couple’s London flat.
But unfortunately neither last year’s documentary nor most news stories since have managed to suspend moral judgement when addressing the topic. ‘Chemsex’ is not receiving the depth of critical analysis it badly needs. According to most accounts, including the one put forward by the documentary, gay men are driven to long sessions of ‘chemsex’ because they are lonely and suffer from internalised homophobia. It is for those reasons, the narrative goes, that some of us end up pursuing human contact through ‘inauthentic’ and ‘dangerous’ means: ‘inauthentic’ because intimacy is catalysed by drugs, and ‘dangerous’ because it often involves unprotected sex.
Chemsex is a textbook exercise in how straight culture is still obsessed with gay sex. It includes all the telling elements of a 1980s sensationalist exposé on gay sex and AIDS.
There’s the crass and objectifying voyeurism: gratuitous sexual scenes punctuate confession-style interviews, the lives of those involved reduced to the kind of sex they do. There are the interviewers, never caught on camera and their questions never heard, so as not to trouble the ‘truth’ granted by a disembodied ‘birds-eye’ view of ‘reality’. There are the health specialists who voice the ‘actual truth’ of the matter beyond the narratives put forward by participants themselves.
Further evidence of the ideology sustaining the film were the comments made by one of its (straight) directors. During an interview filmed at the 2015 BFI Film Festival, William Fairman unashamedly told the journalist how important it had been for them, the film directors, to ‘get in there and be the ones to uncover it’. This is a comment that sounds too much like a straight man ‘columbusing‘ – ‘discovering’ something that is not new – a small part of gay culture, one which the gay community was already trying to address before the film’s supposed ‘reveal’.
As its way of contributing to the conversation, this year’s BFI Flare added a series of shorts to its programme. These were screened together in a session called Chems. Despite being filmed by gay directors, most of the shorts presented don’t do much more than replicating the same moralist tropes already present in Chemsex. G-o’clock is unable to convey anything about its characters other than their sex and drug habits. And 56 Dean Street’s David Stuart describes chemsex as ‘a shameful thing’ in the short documentary Let’s Talk about Gay Sex and Drugs. The majority of the films resort to uncritically reproducing familiar moralist platitudes on both gay sex and drug use.
The one notable exception was Marc-Antoine Lemire’s Les Meduses, which uses a fragmented, nonlinear narrative style and rich visual metaphors to highlight the complexity of both ‘chemsex’ and the inner lives of those involved in it.
Why we transgress
Why are we still gormlessly creating such one-sided and reductive narratives about gay sex? Sexual behaviours and sexualities are inseparable from the wider political landscapes in which they emerge and are enacted. Further, as sociologists, historians and philosophers have argued for a long time, at least since Foucault, power always coexists with resistance, and morality with deviance. Transgression and risk-taking are ‘normal’ in societies that regulate behaviour through social norms. It is through the transgression of limits that individuals affirm their own individuality and are able to become themselves.
Granted, such limit-experiences do flirt with death, even if to different degrees — from acceptable binge-drinking or bungee-jumping to ‘scandalous’ long sessions of drug-taking and unprotected sex. Still, despite flirting with death, they are also life-affirming practices where individuals are able to reassert and know themselves as such.
Given this, some effort must be made to probe the wider social and political landscapes where chemsex takes place, before morals, before summary judgements, before uncritically reproducing older tropes of moral panic. Part of those landscapes must include the current state of the mainstream LGBT movement. Over the last few years, radical political and sexual agendas have been ‘cleaned’ out in order to promote the figure of the ‘righteous gay’ as the pathway towards morally-acceptable queer citizenship. In the past, queer politics used queer sex and sexuality to challenge the whole of society and its institutions. Today, the mainstream LGBT movement seems more concerned with assimilating into existing institutions such as marriage and the military, rather than challenging their existence.
The flip-side of the politics of this assimilation is that they have been pursued at the expense of a wider variety of queer sexualities, desires, pleasures, identities, and ways of being.
It’s in that context that I think – somewhat controversially – that chemsex emerges as a form of resistance.
Chemsex is a way of surviving assimilation. If this “cleaning” of LGBT culture means the destruction of queerness or deviance in one’s identity, then risk-taking can become a way in which this identity can be reaffirmed and new forms of queer belonging rehearsed – even if only temporarily.
João Florêncio is Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, University of Exeter. Tweets @NoisyBits