When people gather anonymously to talk about dancing in the shadow of drugs and sex, the energy in the room glows with a warm ball of white light. This feeling, I think, must be the immanence of healing. So much shame and secrecy is still attached to chemsex — a term that refers to using substances such as methamphetamine, GHB/GBL, and newer synthetic drugs such as 3-MMC while engaging in casual and often group sex. To evade public scrutiny, the act is often facilitated online using coded language (“Party and Play,” “PnP,” “Tina”) or even specific emojis (diamond, rocketship). Rarely is this subject discussed beyond hookup apps — and even less so outside the gay male scenes where the term originates from.

While the combination of drugs and sex is nothing new, chemsex as an underground cultural phenomenon became popularised in conjunction with the mainstreaming of online dating apps and HIV antiretroviral drugs in the late Eighties and Nineties. “Stigma towards methamphetamine from those who did not use it kept us united as a group… we called ourselves ‘chemsex club’,” wrote David Stuart, an HIV activist who claims to be one of the first to use the word. “We were united less by commonalities or friendship, but more so by our shared preference for chems.”

Most of the current discourse around chemsex comes from the public-health sector, which tends to frame it in a paradigm of risk and harm reduction. But a field of academic study sometimes called critical chemsex studies has recently emerged that aims to centre the practice instead within the realms of pleasure, intimacy and identity. One seminal text in this growing field is Pleasure Consuming Drugs by the writer Kane Race, which tackles the question of how drugs have come to mediate sex in the gay discourse.

In the book’s final chapter, “Exceptional Sex”, Race opens with a personal experience: one night in Sydney, he was approached in a video lounge by a guy who was rolling hard on ecstasy. The swooning stranger was too impaired to carry through the sexual encounter, and eventually staggered out of the place as they parted ways. Kane remained haunted by the encounter, returning to it over the years as he attempted to untangle the ethico-political tensions between autonomy and care. “What is my duty to this stranger? How do I enact it?” Kane writes. “Why does this guy put himself in this situation? Why does he feel he has to knock himself out to be here?”

Last autumn, I co-moderated a discussion in New York City on chemsex where we attempted to answer these very questions. Titled “Appetite, Euphoria, and the Inevitability of Coming Down,” the event was hosted by The Infernal Grove, a study group that meets once a month to pursue “an unsystematic structural analysis of drug use, addiction, and recovery (not necessarily in that order)”. In addition to Infernal Grove founders Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, both professors at Syracuse University, my co-moderators included experimental filmmaker Devon Narine-Singh and multimedia artist Mikiki, whose chemsex-inspired video work was showing at the Whitney Museum that week in honour of World Aids Day.

That evening, about two dozen artists, filmmakers, writers, and other creative-types showed up to a darkened dance studio near Herald Square that doubled as our meeting room. Many more attended virtually through Zoom. A tall man with a blonde ponytail hopped on the piano in the corner, improvising a haunting welcome tune as we took our seats in a circle, smiling shyly as we introduced ourselves by way of unpacking our relationships to drugs. What was remarkable was the diversity of not just age, gender, and racial identities in the room, but the breadth of psychoactive experiences across the sober-using spectrum — from former heroin junkies to professionals who’ve never touched a drug, devout AA members to party-loving recreational ravers, underground psychedelic healers to sober-curious skaters.

This colourful cast of characters reminded me of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I’ve attended in the past, where folks from all walks of life form unlikely alliances in pursuit of communal healing. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous seems to be going through a contemporary rebrand; what David Foster Wallace described in Infinite Jest as a “goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharine grins and hideous coffee” is turning into a veritable hot scene. More sober-curious young people are showing up to meetings who aren’t hardcore alcoholics per se, perhaps sensing that AA can provide something increasingly rare these days: a sense of community, which is to say support without the strings of self-interest.

Yet, AA’s dogma of total drug abstinence does not appeal to everybody, and many are hungry for alternatives. New groups such as The Infernal Grove now cater to those seeking more sustainable relationships to substance use beyond the established orthodoxy of traditional sobriety paradigms. Despite the necessity of these alternative paths, I had been afraid that the chemsex discussion would be seen as problematic or triggering. Conversations about drugs usually play out as a moral drama of extremes: the anti-drug abstinence of AA vs the drug-positive enthusiasm of recreational settings. It is still so rare to enter a thought space where sobriety is discussed as more of a spectrum, where the ambiguous zones of druggie disinhibition can be untangled by people from all over the drug-sober continuum. It felt like the future.

“Honestly? This conversation is extremely triggering to me, but I’m also very excited to be here,” confessed someone who was in AA. Another person explained she had never touched a drug in her life, but was here because of an addict family member. The conversation turned to how recreational sex and drugs are not beyond the realm of care and attention; how even though drug practices often take place in a sub-intentional zone — “zoning out, getting distracted, losing yourself to something, cutting loose, getting carried away,” as Kane put it — they should not be exempt from insight and consideration.  Whenever we began to romanticise drugs too much, extolling the ways they can be used as quick escape routes from normative or oppressive societal demands, the sober people would chime in. “Sure, there is an element of surprise in drug use, but also, there isn’t,” one said quietly. “Maybe you imagine breaking through a barrier, but then you wake up hungover and nothing has changed.”

The conversation that night brought to light intersectional commonalities in the reasons why people of all stripes engage with chemsex — most commonly, it seems, to dissolve the culturally-conditioned sexual anxieties that can be so tricky to shake off while sober. Gay men and straight women alike spoke of letting go of body dysmorphia and shame while in the disinhibited state of chemically-enhanced euphoria, of exploring desires that the cultures of toxic masculinity and transmisogyny have impinged their abilities to see. “It is possible to look at the shadow without the shadow taking over,” said Mikiki, speaking on how the history that people carry often shapes their sexual inclinations. “Of course my desires are related to my trauma, but am I not allowed to explore that?”

Untangling the ways drugs can modulate pleasure, dampen the voices of our inner critics, and foster a kind of dark intimacy is still such a sensitive topic — and the movement to destigmatise chemsex is, in many ways, still in its infancy. As a woman, I am also not the traditional demographic that is typically “allowed” to even discuss this concept, let alone in these expansive terms. In fact, Stuart has accused folks who use this term but do not identify as gay men of cultural appropriation.

But like a growing number of academics in the field, I believe this framework should include a wider population — because as the discussion in New York suggested, many other social groups already engage in these practices for similar reasons as gay or bisexual men, yet are under-represented in current research. Adopting a broader and more intersectional lens to the study of drug use and sex could allow a deeper understanding of how the dense mesh of governing power structures both shape and curtail our desires. It could also help us to understand how this practice reflects the historical and social contexts from which they emerge — including the pharmaceuticalisation of sexuality, contemporary culture of endless self-enhancement, and crisis of intimacy under neoliberal individualism.

As the conversations around chemsex continue to evolve, perhaps our conceptions will also move beyond the current narrative of retreat and resilience. “I want a different conception of corporeal agency, where drugs don’t feature such an obvious and thrilling escape route,” Race wrote. “What would it take to engage more fully with the texture of these escapes? What possibilities of care, what new pleasures, what ethics, what multiplicities emerge?”

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