While gay men’s use of drugs in sexual contexts is often portrayed as deviant, extreme and unconnected with the sentimental norms of stable relationships, ethnographic research in France suggests that many young gay men’s practices of drug use are entangled with the search for love and a willingness to build emotional bonds with other men.
“The suffering and loneliness that follow romantic breakups can trigger uncontrolled drug use while feelings of ‘love fusion’ between ‘slammers’ can encourage further risk-taking,” writes Romain Amaro in the current issue of Contemporary Drug Problems. “But romantic relationships can also provide crucial symbolic and material support to place limits on drug use in ways that reduce harm.”
The study is based on ethnographic immersion on two gay dating sites and 25 in-depth interviews with gay men who use drugs in Paris and Lyon. The interviews focused on the social contexts of drug use and the major events in the men’s lives that triggered their use of drugs.
The men were aged between 23 and 30. While 14 men were involved in slamming (injecting drugs in a sexual context), the other eleven men engaged in other aspects of the chemsex scene. Several of the interviewees had been diagnosed with HIV.
Studies with heterosexual couples who inject drugs have shown that the act of injecting can be an intimate experience, with the sharing of a syringe seen as a sign of trust and love. These relations are highly gendered: women often come second in the syringe exchange and tend not to inject themselves.
In the interviews with gay men involved in chemsex and slamming, couple life and romantic relationships were recurrent themes. For several men, initiation into injection drug use followed a breakup or the beginning of an intense relationship with a drug-injecting partner. In the wake of a breakup, slamming allowed some young gay men to sexually ‘free’ themselves from a monogamous relationship.
He gives the example of Gaspard, a 28-year-old engineer who had had two periods of particularly hazardous drug use – one early in his sex life when he found out that he was HIV positive, and another following a romantic breakup when he started injecting drugs.
“Once I got out of it [the relationship], then, I went all out. A lot of partying, mainly. And back to using chems but now, with an increasingly active search for them, a desire to try out new things and all that.”
Two weeks after the breakup, Gaspard met his current boyfriend at a sex party, showing that such gatherings can lead to encounters that are not only sexual. Moreover Gaspard credited his boyfriend with keeping his feet on ground and placing limits on their drug use. His boyfriend discouraged him from slamming and – at the time of the interview – Gaspard had been seeing an addiction specialist for six months.
Jules, a 23-year-old student, described a feeling of romantic fusion during a drug-injecting session:
“I met my ex, with whom I stayed almost six months. I was 21 years old, almost 22. We met during a slamming session. And mephedrone helped. You’re in love with everybody, it may have eased the beginning of our story as a couple, maybe a bit too much? In the beginning, it was my boyfriend who injected me.”
Feelings of love facilitated through chemical use could lead men to problematic behaviours. The couple’s intense relationship was marked by heavy drug use, social isolation, and Jules almost losing his job and university place.
Other men described drug use as a response to loneliness and boredom. For example, 26-year-old Amine explained:
“I wasn’t working, I had a lot of spare time, so I did it all the time, I had nothing else to do. I used drugs out of boredom, and I was very bored. During that time, I always had my computer on, all the time, at home. I looked for a hook-up and that was it, if I found one, it was good, if there were drugs, even better.”
However Amine soon realised the risks that slamming was exposing him to. Getting a job, attending Narcotics Anonymous, seeing an addiction specialist, and starting a new relationship with a drug-free partner enabled him to moderate his drug use.
“I met someone who helped me… If he hadn’t been there, I couldn’t have managed my drug use.”
The interview with Edouard, an HIV-positive 29-year-old teacher and former executive, illustrates how some men separated their sexual desires from romance.
“On GHB, I have quite ‘hard’ practices. I got a biohazard tattoo, I was high when I did it, right above my cock. It’s a symbol of biological pollution, like this radiation thing, but for biological hazards. I had this tattoo done on me and then I started slamming. It’s something that arouses me… I don’t ever use condoms anymore, I almost never have sex without chems, and it’s been like this for almost two years.”
Edouard has been in an open relationship for six years, with a man who is not involved in the chemsex scene. Whereas Edouard handles risks quite loosely with other sexual partners, he carefully manages risks with his long-term partner.
‘‘We’re sero-discordant. We always have sex with condoms, especially since we had a little issue a few years back when I gave him an STD, so we decided to be careful.’’
Moreover, the relationship helps him keep his feet on the ground. Moments of tenderness with his partner stop him from going too far.
“I don’t live alone, so I can’t be having fun every night and I care about this relationship. He doesn’t like ‘hard’ stuff and I don’t want to be selfish. I’m more comfortable when we spend an afternoon together on a city break in London than when we have sex under the shower for five minutes and hug.”
The link between romantic relationships and injection drug use is “anything but straightforward,” says Romain Amaro. “By examining the subjective, emotional, and relational rationales that underlie slamming, I show how young gay men navigate between caring for their health and their emotional ties with other men.”
A search for connection
The same themes are echoed in a separate study into crystal meth use and slamming among Dutch gay men. All respondents reported experiencing more sexual freedom on account of the drug’s ability to minimise feelings of embarrassment and insecurity about sexual performance and attractiveness. A number of respondents also cited the need for human connection as a major factor in engaging in chemsex. Several interviewees had struggled to find connection within the gay scene, form new friendships or find a partner.
Many respondents felt they experienced a sense of connection and community from being in the crystal meth and slamming scene. Although some described superficiality and egocentrism in the scene, they also indicated that communal drug use and a common sexual interest gave them a feeling of connectedness and a sense of belonging.
This is just one theme in a wide-ranging report. It also outlines data on the prevalence of sexualised drug use in the Netherlands, interviewees’ sexual behaviour and perceptions of risk, information needs around hepatitis C and harm reduction more generally, the effect of drug use on men’s physical and mental health as well as their ability to function in society, and their often unsatisfactory experiences with drug treatment services and other healthcare providers.
Amaro R. Taking Chances for Love? Reflections on Love, Risk, and Harm Reduction in a Gay Slamming Subculture. Contemporary Drug Problems 43: 216-227, 2016.
Knoops L et al. Tina & slamming: MSM, crystal meth and intravenous drug use in a sexual setting. Amsterdam, Mainline, Soa Aids Netherlands, 2015. (Full text freely available).