Thinking with Pleasure

I’m off to Norway to give some workshops and a couple of talks about my research at the University of Oslo.  I’m excited to have the opportunity to meet researchers and students from the schools of public health and medical anthropology there.  I’ve organised the workshops around my work on pleasure, digital sex, HIV prevention and harm reduction – and I’ve attached the outline here: thinking-with-pleasure-norway-workshops.  It will be a great opportunity to workshop these pieces so I can pull them all together, as they’ll form the basis of the monograph I’m due to deliver by the end of the year: The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV

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Strangling Creativity: the cultural effects of the Sydney lockout

Open Letter to the Premier and Deputy Premier of NSW

by Fiona McGregor

Dear Mike and Troy,

I am writing to you to express my grave concerns about the deleterious effects of the lockout laws on our city. I’m a born and bred Sydneysider, a writer and performance artist. I was a musician in the prolific band scene of the 1980s; and producer and curator of events in Sydney through the 90s and 00s. I have met your sister Julia several times; she has read my books. I have published five, most set in Sydney. You may know my most recent Indelible Ink, which tracks the creeping conservatism of the early 21st century and how it has destroyed Sydney. It was a bestseller when released six years ago, won and was shortlisted for many prizes, and continues to sell well.

If most of my creative work has been about freedom, most has also taken place in the economies of the night. The economies of the night gave me wages that supported my artistic pursuits; in turn, I made art about them. From the early ‘80s I worked, as so many students and artists must, in hospitality. Glassie, waitress, kitchen hand, you name it. The band scene was huge: from the upper North Shore to the Shire, and west, the most humble band had two gigs a week. People are still listening to INXS, or Nick Cave’s early band Birthday Party, whom my band supported regularly when they were in Sydney. Our scene had a significant population of Brisbane musicians who had fled the Bjelke-Petersen regime, such as Ed Kuepper of the The Saints. They wrote songs about Queensland’s police state that are still being played, and earning royalties.

Such was my education, my formation as a young artist. It continued in the 90s with work in bars and restaurants around the Oxford Street area, home then to the most exciting progressive queer scene in the world. Working late shifts on weekends enabled me to get up on weekday mornings and write. My novel chemical palace was read beyond the queer party culture it paid homage to, by people such as your sister Julia, for whom it was emblematic of their own youthful experiences of a free, flamboyant, fun and safe city. The parties I co-produced in venues in and close to Oxford Street employed four DJs, half a dozen performance artists, a lighting designer and art designer, a cloakroom person, a security guard, and two people on the door. They brought in crowds that gave the bars revenue that paid bar staff, managers, and venue owners, themselves with substantial liquor licencing fees to pay. A portion of the takings always went to charity.

We danced until the sun came up – as humans have done since time immemorial. These were our corroborees. We told stories through song and dance, brought communities together, shared love, expressed our politics. We opened spaces for people to make experimental art that could not have existed in any other context. We lived all those great pop songs you still hear on the radio. Saturday Night Fever, Last Night a DJ Save My Life, and our very own Easybeats’ Friday on My Mind. Sydney was alive. People came here from all over the world to participate in this wonderful culture, which celebrated life to its fullest, which valued the ground on which it was made; where genders, generations and races mixed more harmoniously than anywhere else. You would have seen the Mardi Gras parade on television. This was the coalface, where the raw gems got hacked out.

Over the years, licencing and other laws began to strangle this culture. The Entertainment Licence pushed venues already in stress to pay amounts that encouraged corruption. And bands could no longer play as they once had. Musicians out of work moved interstate and overseas. (Subsequently, NSW Government did a $400,000 enquiry into why the live music scene had died … )

 You are putting nails into our coffin. The youth of this city have been robbed; they will never have a fraction of the riches we had. Yet it isn’t just about youth. It is about economies, and culture. We didn’t stop just because we turned fifty. We are still dancing. But we are under siege. We have hardly anywhere to go now. We can’t employ musicians, artists, bar and door staff at even a fraction of the numbers we once did. The destruction is architectural as well. Our venues have closed. Entire buildings have been razed. Sydney, already gutted by Askin’s corrupt pro-development premiership of the 1960s-70s – has lost beautiful deco pubs, most significantly the Exchange Hotel, whose various bars and dancefloors were home to us for thirty years. We are afraid of the police.

We can’t pass our wisdom onto the next generation because this is not a material culture, it is one of ritual and constant reinvention. You have killed Kings Cross and Oxford Street, which lit up the Sydney night for decades, or a whole century in the case of the Cross. You have scorched our bora rings, held up a Not Welcome sign to visiting tribes, and punished us for nothing more than celebrating, storytelling, socialising and loving. Your actions with the lockout laws are stunning in their insensitivity and disrespect. That we pay your wages beggars belief in the way you treat us. What did the people do to deserve this?

I know better than you how violent heterosexual men can become on alcohol. Because these night-time economies I worked in, and wrote about, and still attempt to participate in, were in the frontline of that sort of behaviour. As a woman, I was frequently targeted; even more so as a queer. I saw bashings; many of my friends were bashed. But we would never have relinquished a fraction of our freedom to counteract this; to the contrary. The solution to the problem of violence is agency to the vulnerable, and education to the perpetrators. It was, and still is, punishment given when deserved, according to the law, which at the time was sufficient.

Who will write the songs your children will dance to? A fraction of the artist normally available to a city of this size, because so many have had their livelihoods taken from them. And they won’t be writing pæens to life in the southern Eden Sydney once was to the world, they won’t sing to freedom in the sun, to people who love and look out for each other. They will sing about a city that has become a mausoleum. A people who have been oppressed. A despot in thrall to an oligarch whose casino – the most violent venue in New South Wales – is the only one exempt from the lockout.

What are you going to do, Mike? And you, Troy? Are you even listening?

Fiona McGregor

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Sensationalising the Night-Time Economy

So, I’ve been thinking about the mass media’s investment in sensationalism as a way of growing its markets; the way this dynamic structures the narratives that get told about drugs, sex, nightlife, crime, etc; and the sense in which sensationalism is also productive – it mediates, amplifies and circulates affects and desires around the law and its transgression.

In this sense, sensationalism could be said to amass publics that ramify the erotic thrill of transgression, even as it intensifies popular investments in the policing of public order (cf. classic moral panic theory).  This process is not merely a matter of representation, but cultural and economic at once, deeply entangled and emanating from the prerogatives of capitalised media.

If we turn to the night-time economy, that object of sensationalised reporting, intense moral panic, and popular entertainment in recent times,  you could argue  that its survival and mass appeal materially depends, in part, on a process that paradoxically also produces it as a problematic object of governance, singling it out as the proper target of authoritarian intervention: an object that requires forceful policing in the name of public order.

Stanley Cohen famously argued that moral panics creates folk devils. I take this to be a material process of production, and not merely a question of discursive representation, in the sense that the world is now populated with folk devils. They are among us, the common folk.  And they come out at night.

The expected response to these figures from the right is to scapegoat them, and from the left, to deny their reality.

But instead of exiling these figures, disavowing their desires, declaiming the processes that produce them and our own implication in them, the only constructive response to this situation – a response that Isabelle Stengers would call diplomatic, in the sense that it does not deny but rather seeks to acknowledge the materiality of media as a generative element in the ecology of desires – is to affirm what is common in the making of folk devils, to account for their presence, and to actively engage these figures in the construction of problems in a way that multiplies and transforms general capacities to engage in public life.

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The Sexuality of the Night: Violence and Transformation

Draft Contribution to Forthcoming Issue of Current Issues in Criminal Justice on the Sydney Lockout Laws


The figure of the resident is privileged in discussions about nightlife governance. But the ‘right to the city’ extends to those who use the city, and popular opposition to the lockout concerns questions of access to public space on the part of those marginalized from these policy equations. Opponents of the Sydney lockout object to qualitative transformations in the cultural atmosphere of the city. This article argues that nightlife is of greater value than governmental measures about the prevention of violence capture. Of particular significance are the constitutive omissions of the category of ‘alcohol-related violence’. A better analysis would investigate the attraction of ‘liminal experience’ that prompts violence on the part of certain participants. It appears that certain gendered identities have not been well equipped to handle difference. At a time of reduced support for sex and gender diversity education, the state must get better at modelling capacities to live with difference.

Keywords: Night-time economies; alcohol-related violence; homophobic violence; licensing laws; urban governance; anti-social behaviour; urban safety; drug policing.


On 21 February 2016 an estimated 15,000 people rallied peacefully in Sydney’s CBD under the banner, ‘Keep Sydney Open’. They were protesting Sydney’s lockout laws and their effect on the city’s nightlife and cultural atmosphere (McMah 2016). On 19 March, thousands danced and marched from the city to Star Casino in a bid to ‘Reclaim the Streets’, protesting the apparent hypocrisy of licensing laws that permit the Casino to remain exempt from restrictions that have shut down nightlife in other parts of the city (Roberts 2016). On 27 April, another protest – ‘Keep Newtown Weird and Safe’ – was held in response to a perceived increase in homophobic and transphobic abuse and violence in Sydney’s inner west. Organisers linked this mobilisation to the displacement effects of the lockout laws, which they claimed were dispersing hetero-masculine crowds, attitudes and violence from Kings Cross to the otherwise queer-friendly inner west (Ford 2016).

Taken together, these actions suggest that a significant number of Sydney-siders have sensed a qualitative transformation in the cultural atmosphere of the city since the introduction of the lockout laws. This perceived transformation is linked to the city’s orientation towards cultural and sexual diversity: hence the popular resonance of slogans such as ‘Keep Sydney Open’.

Nightlife, Difference and the Right to the City

The controversy surrounding the lockout laws is about more than the right to drink alcohol in the city at night, or the impact of licensing laws on jobs in the hospitality industry – though the latter is certainly significant (Cooke 2016). It is about the ‘right to the city’ claimed by youth and minoritized groups (Lefebvre 1968, Berlant & Warner 1998; Harvey 2008). Those opposing the lockout are crucially concerned with the cultural transformations associated with the state government’s clampdown on nightlife; the increasingly bullish policing of youth and social minorities in NSW; and the unprecedented increase in police powers that effectively reduce these groups’ access to public space.

Nightlife can be approached as a pedagogical space in which people learn to appreciate and take pleasure in difference (Young 1990, Jacobs 1961).  The value of this space is not captured by governmental measures concerning the prevention of violence. Indeed, cultural opposition to the lockout laws can be taken as an urgent plea on the part of those who use nightlife space for state authorities to diversify their outcome measures.

Nightlife has been an important zone of community-formation for those who have been excluded from family and the cultural mainstream, such as sexual and other minorities (Chauncey 1994, Race 2011). The gradual closure of long-standing queer venues in the inner city represents one casualty of the current approach to nightlife governance: the lockout has effectively eradicated a key space of socialization for these communities, who are often targets – but rarely perpetrators – of nighttime violence

Measures of Violence

The situation is exacerbated by the reductive nature of statistical measures used to diagnose nighttime violence. A key measure has been ‘alcohol-related violence’, but it is unclear whether this category adequately captures the qualitative nature or causes of the violence it enumerates. A significant body of qualitative work in the Drug and Alcohol field questions whether particular effects, such as violence, can be causally attributed to substance use per se (Rhodes 2002; Fraser & Moore 2011; Duff 2012; Fraser, Moore & Keane 2014; Race 2014). This literature demonstrates that the effects of alcohol and drug consumption are contingent on a range of other variables, such as context, cultures of use, affective conditions, and the socio-material arrangements in which consumption takes place, among other factors.

One of the most influential texts for regulatory approaches to night-time economies has been the work of Dick Hobbs and colleagues, which links nighttime violence to the proliferation of markets in alcohol associated with post-industrial urban entrepreneurialism (2000, 2003).   With its focus on the economic conditions within which night-time economies are promoted by urban planners, this research privileges market restrictions (licensing laws, business mix and density, policing) as key components of governmental measures to address nighttime disorder and violence. Hobbs et al. can be commended for their ethnographic attention to the socio-material arrangement of alcohol markets, its implication in violence, and the problems this can create for government. But certain elements of their analysis have been neglected in policy responses that are highly pertinent to current controversies in Sydney.

Liminal Experience

Hobbs et al. (2000, 2003) identify ‘liminality’ as a key appeal of night-time leisure precincts. This anthropological term refers to threshold experiences that involve some suspension of everyday social and sexual norms, and some experience of alterity. Liminal experiences are characterised by time-out from ordinary activities, a sense of play, and a desire for encounters with the novel and the strange. For this reason, they are sometimes characterized by a dynamic of attraction and repulsion; in certain circumstances they may prompt violence in certain subjects’ bid to reassert sovereign identity (Phelan 2001). Gail Mason and Levin Lo have used this category to understand the appeal of cultural events such as the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to heterosexual spectators (2009). For certain participants, the liminality of nightlife may be experienced as a threat to sovereign identity that is at once pleasurable and destabilising. Violence emerges as a way of re-establishing the sovereignty of the perpetrator in the moment he commits it: a way of re-asserting domination.

Qualitatively, little is known about the acts of rage and desire that perpetrators of night-time violence experience. Certainly, night-time economies are likely associated with many forms of differently motivated violence. Alcohol is no-doubt an element in the forms of liminal experience that attract huge crowds to party in the nightlife precincts of inner Sydney. But if some of this violence can be attributed to the dynamics of liminal experience, as I have speculated, then its persistence suggests that certain sorts of identity have not been well equipped to handle difference.

Crude measures such as ‘alcohol-related violence’ are unlikely to gauge the qualitative dimensions of these processes adequately.   Nor do they capture the transformation in the affective climates of precincts such as Darlinghurst and Newtown that those who have rallied against the lockout laws complain of. It bears noting that a reduction in foot-traffic – or indeed, incidents of reported violence – in traditional centres of queer social life does not necessarily equate to safety for those most vulnerable to night time violence and abuse on the basis of sex, gender or racial difference (Jacobs 1969).

It is telling that the regulatory measures adopted by the NSW government and NSW police to address public disorder and ‘anti-social behaviour’ tend to take social difference the target, rather than beneficiary, of regulatory intervention. Authoritarian strategies such as the use of drug detection dogs position sexual and racial minorities as suspects rather than citizens deserving of state protection. Police stubbornly defend these strategies despite a wealth of evidence that their detections are inaccurate and disproportionately subject social minorities to invasive intervention (Lancaster, Hughes & Ritter 2016; Race 2014; NSW Ombudsman 2016). But as events such as the illegal policing of Mardi Gras 2013 indicate, police are often complicit in the intimidation, violence and abuse that has come to characterise Sydney’s night-time spaces (Mardi Gras, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Inner City Legal Centre, & ACON, 2013).


The lockout laws can be viewed as the latest episode in the increasing investment in regulatory responses to urban problems on the part of the NSW state. But there is a wealth of cultural creativity among Sydney’s youth and subcultural communities that the state could be drawing on to devise more creative, inclusive, and less authoritarian responses to the problems associated with night-time precincts. Australia’s internationally recognized response to HIV/AIDS demonstrates the value of including the denizens of nightlife in policy responses to social problems that concern them (Sendziuk 2003). It is a policy success story that stands in stark contrast to the state government’s top-down, police-heavy approach to nighttime violence. Certainly, authorities could do much better at modelling practices of handling difference in our urban centres. Authorities ignore the sexuality of the night – and its volatility – at their peril. Sydney’s reputation as an open, diverse, inclusive and dynamic city is endangered in the process.

Berlant L and Warner M (1998) ‘Sex in Public’, Critical Inquiry 24 (2), 547-66
 Chauncey G (1994) Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of Gay New York 1890 – 1940, Basic Books
 Cooke R (2016) ‘The Boomer Supremacy’, The Monthly (online), March 2016>
 Duff C (2012) ‘Accounting for Context: Exploring the Role of Objects and Spaces in the Consumption of Alcohol and Other Drugs’, Social & Cultural Geography13(2), 145-159
 Fraser S and Moore D (2011) The Drug Effect: Health, Crime and Society, Cambridge University Press.
Fraser S, Moore D and Keane H (2014) Habits: Remaking Addiction, Palgrave Macmillan
 Ford M (2016) ‘Keep Newtown Weird, Protesters Demand in Rally Over Safety Issues in Sydney Nightspot’ ABC News (online), 23 April 2016>
 Harvey D (2008) ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review II (53), 23-40
 Hobbs D, Lister S, Hadfield P, Winlow S and Hall S (2000) ‘Receiving Shadows: Governance and Liminality in the Night-time Economy’, British Journal of Sociology 51 (4), 701–17
 Hobbs D, Hadfield P, Lister S and Winlow S (2003) Bouncers: Violence and Governance in Night-time Economies, Oxford Univeristy Press
Jacobs J (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books
Lancaster K, Hughes C and Ritter A (2016) ‘”Drug Dogs Unleashed”: An Historical and Political Account of Drug Detection Dogs for Street-level Policing of Illicit Drugs in New South Wales, Australia’, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, (online first) DOI: 10.1177/0004865816642826
 Lefebvre H (1996), ‘The Right to the City’, in Kofman E and Lebas E (eds), Writings on Cities, Wiley-Blackwell
 Mason G and Lo L (2009) Sexual Tourism and the Excitement of the Strange: Heterosexuality and the Sydney Mardi Gras Parade’, Sexualities 12(1), 97–121
 Mardi Gras, Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Inner City Legal Centre, & ACON (2013) Policing at NSW Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) Events and Venues. ACON>
 McMah L (2016) ‘Thousands Protest Against Lockout Laws in Keep Sydney Open Rally’ News.Com.Au (online), 21 February 2016>
  NSW Ombudsman (2016) Review of the Police Powers (Drug Detection Dogs) Act 2001, Office of the New South Wales Ombudsman
Phelan S (2001) Sexual Strangers: Gays, Lesbians, and Dilemmas of Citizenship, Temple University Press.
 Race K (2011) ‘Party Animals: The Significance of Drug Practices in the Materialisation of Urban Gay Identity’ in Fraser S and Moore D (eds), The Drug Effect: Health, Crime and Society, Cambridge University Press.
 Race K (2014) ‘Complex Events: Drug Effects and Emergent Causality’, Contemporary Drug Problems 41(3), 301–334.
 Rhodes T (2002) ‘The “Risk Environment”: A Framework for Understanding and Reducing Drug-related Harm’, International Journal of Drug Policy 13 (2), 85-94
 Roberts D (2016) ‘Protestors Literally Hang Shit on Star Casino After Anti-Lockout March’, Pedestrian TV (online), 19 March 2016>
 Sendziuk P (2003) Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to HIV/AIDS, UNSW Press.
 Young IM (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press

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Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Drug dogs, Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, Masculinities, Parties, Police, Policy and programs, The statistical imagination

Why the NSW Government is Addicted to Drug Enforcement

An historical & critical account

In 2004 I wrote this piece (click on the link) that tried to figure out why the neoliberal state is so invested in drug enforcement despite all the evidence against its effectiveness as a public health measure.

Waking up to news today of NSW police officers engaging in obscene racial vilification and abuse, trolling the Facebook page of NSW Green MP Jenny Leong (who recently introduced legislation to stop the use of drug dogs in NSW parliament), I’m both alarmed and horrified at how prescient my analysis was.

All the signs indicate that the NSW government is doing whatever is can to funnel consumers into the Star Casino – one of the only venues in inner Sydney that is exempt from the NSW lockout laws.  One mechanism they are using is the Sydney Lockout; another is the police use of drug detection dogs – among other, unprecedented, police powers.

In my piece, Recreational States: Drugs and the Sovereignty of Consumption, I try to work out why the neoliberal state is keen to give licence to and profit from once “immoral” forms of consumption (like gambling), but remains so intent on policing and punishing other forms of consumption deemed illicit (like drug use).

Fun police

The term I use to describe these operations is ‘exemplary power’.  Have a read, and if you’re as worked up about the current situation as I am, one way of developing and consolidating your thinking is to undertake research and training in cultural studies.

Or just get out onto the streets and protest while we still can.


Reclaim the Streets Sydney

Keep Sydney Open



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The Exemplary Power of the Casino State

This is so evil. And so transparent.

The strong arm of the increasingly militarised NSW government is tweaking the urban geography of Sydney so it becomes a cash cow that funnels money straight into the coffers of corporate oligarchs via gambling and pokie machines.

Basically, Baird, Grant and their cronies are playing the city to court the support and donations of corporate tycoons and ensure a constant stream of revenue   from the gaming industry for their increasingly intensive and aggressive operations.

The once ‘independent’ –  now ministerially controlled – Office of Liquor and Gaming is presumably cheering on the push to raze Moore Park and Kippax Lake (a precious habitat for wildlife in the inner city) to build a massive footy stadium in an area whose loutish drinking culture the government claims to be concerned about.

SO concerned, in fact, that it has taken it upon itself to impose an inner city curfew on all other signs of nightlife “for our safety”.

But no concern is evident in any of these decisions for the public culture of the city or what it might take to keep it friendly, diverse, collectively accessible, interesting, relaxed, open, relatively free and dynamic.

Meanwhile this state – newly weaponised with unprecedented police powers and immensely fortified by the opportunity to control all regulatory decisions on liquor AND gaming – is so addicted to gambling revenue that it is prepared to condone and profit from a commodity-system that is industrially designed to create compulsive attachments – highly lucrative ones at that – that are known to exacerbate socioeconomic inequality and destroy communal and family relations.

Despite its claims and protestations, the state is ultimately devoid of *real* concern for the health, welfare and safety of its citizens, as this licentious investment in industrial gambling demonstrates.

The only thing stopping the state from trying to monetise other commodities deemed ‘dangerous’ and ‘addictive’ – like, say, drugs – is the irresistible opportunity that drug enforcement provides to harass minortized groups, emergent communities – indeed anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the state’s self-proclaimed right to determine norms of consumption and forcibly populate sanctioned markets.

Indeed, so invested is the ‘casino state’ in the invasive powers it has accrued through drug enforcement that it expressly rejects and denounces (as criminal!) medical interventions and measures (like pill testing) that might actually reduce some of the harms associated with consuming drugs procured through markets that the state hasn’t or can’t or just couldn’t be arsed working out how to regulate.

In the case of gambling , by contrast, the state makes consumers directly responsible for managing the potentially destructive effects of consumption. Indeed, it’s very eager to put all responsibility on the consumer and disavow its own implication in gambling problems.  We’re talking, remember, about a form of consumption that happens to appeal overwhelmingly to the most economically desperate, vulnerable, structurally disadvantaged citizens.

The message we’re meant to get from all this – the message the state is stepping over itself to send us – is that those who don’t comply with sovereign authority and its arbitrary decisions and determinations about what counts as legitimate consumption are basically just gonna get what’s coming to them. Comply or die. Necropower incarnate. Allow the body that consumes properly and profitably to live as long as it manages to (when fed a diet of shit), and let the bodies that don’t consume in profitable ways die. That’ll teach those masses a lesson or two about the unquestionable right and might of power.

Hypocritical, thuggish, and contemptuous of the social life of citizens.  And of course Troy Grant, Minister of Police, is right behind it, doing the heavy lifting, flexing his might in plain view, just to demonstrate the power of the state to suppress any trace of difference or dissidence or enjoyment that is not immediately monopolisable and easy to cash in on.

So blatant.  So transparent.  A violent demonstration of power undertaken in plain view.  Like a schoolyard bully.  Or a drug lord.  Both of which happen to be figures the state silently gives the nod to.  Exemplary power.

Are we feeling safe yet?

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Gay Sex and Drug Use Demand Better, Less Phobic, Forms of Attention

Review of Chemsex

(2015, dir. Gogarty & Fairman, Pecadillo Pictures & Vice Productions)


3 December 2015

Our relation to drugs is highly ambivalent ­– and understandably so. The Ancient Greeks captured this instability with their concept of the pharmakon, which they used to refer to those things that can function as both poison and cure: their identity is unstable.

The instability of drugs has been used again and again to condemn them. We’re much more comfortable attributing stable identities to drugs and categorizing them as either good or evil. But as Isabelle Stengers has argued, our desire to categorize drugs definitively “allows the question of the appropriate attention, the learning of doses and the manner of preparation, to be done away with”.[1] This is a problem, because the propensity for a drug to be good or dangerous depends precisely on these considerations.

 Chemsex, Intimacy and Paranoia

I was reminded of the fundamental ambivalence of drugs when I watched Chemsex, the recently released documentary that explores gay men’s use of drugs for sex in London, UK (dir. Gogarty & Fairman, Pecadillo Pictures, 2015).

It’s the dangerous end of this spectrum that the documentary Chemsex takes as its principal focus: the film sets out to investigate what it describes as a “hidden healthcare emergency” in London. We’re introduced to guys who slam [inject] the amount of crystal meth that would last most users several days in a single hit. We see disturbing interviews of men in the midst of crystal meth psychoses, or in the throes of the intense euphoria having just injected methedrone (a drug rarely seen in Australia, unlike crystal meth).

While the film presents footage of a variety of different drug practices, it’s injecting (rather than the much more common habit of snorting, or smoking methamphetamine) that features most prominently in the film, and the eerie soundtrack by Daniel Harle trains the viewer to lump all these practices together as the same, disturbingly abject and sinister, phenomenon.[2]

For those unfamiliar with gay fetish scenes, this effect would be compounded by the documentary’s graphic footage of gay BDSM activities and group sex.

For those less fazed by such practices, the participants’ openness to allowing straight male documentarians to film them is probably the real source of astonishment. But then, when people are high on psychoactive drugs, they’re prepared to do a lot of things they’d normally be reticent about, as Chemsex in general amply demonstrates.

 Relocating Partying

The topic has received a flurry of attention and alarm in British public health circles recently, but the phenomenon itself is not new: it’s been a source of concern and excitement in urban gay centres in the West for over a decade.

In the early 2000s drugs such as crystal methamphetamine and GHB replaced ecstasy as drugs of choice for a subset of gay men, while the internet replaced socializing as the most common way of looking for sexual partners. In this context, it became possible to party at home and cruise for partners without going out in public. Activities that once took place at saunas, dance parties and cruising grounds were gradually relocated to private homes and became much easier to organise and more accessible from these locations. The communal pleasures of the dance-floor gave way to the erotic intensities of sex on drugs, which – for many enthusiasts – seemed to cut to the chase at any rate.

But many of us gays miss dancing, and the changing geography of gay partying has also given rise to new dangers – indeed, sometimes very serious ones. It’s hard to know when to ‘call it a night’ when there’s no risk of the DJ stopping playing, and drugs like crystal meth can keep you buzzing for days. Not only is crystal easy to integrate into domestic practices and everyday routines, it seems designed for repeat administration (just ask truck drivers or computer workaholics). In short, it’s frighteningly easy to become dependent on it for a range of different purposes.

Meanwhile, taking too much G can cause users to lose consciousness, become comatose and (in the worst-case scenario) die. Unlike some clubs and dance events, private homes are rarely equipped the right care and emergency services to prevent these occurrences. In their own ways, then, each of these drugs demonstrate the critical significance of “the learning of doses and the manner of preparation”, to recall Stengers’ comments.

 Sex in the Era of HIV/AIDS

There’s a lot to be learnt from Chemsex about the complexities of gay sex in the wake of the HIV epidemic, which has ravaged this community for the past 30 years. Despite the availability of effective treatment and much better therapeutic prospects for people living with HIV, gay men are still processing the traumatic effects of the epidemic and its cultural impacts on sexual desires, fears and intimacy. For at least some men, drugs seem to provide the most ready-to-hand contemporary solution to the age-old question, ‘how to have sex in an epidemic’. (But this must ultimately an indictment on the state of sex education today, which tends to be organised around reproduction rather than the practicalities of achieving sexual happiness, especially when it comes to the desires of non-heterosexuals).

For some gay men growing up in this context, drugs facilitate a process of what psychologists call ‘cognitive disengagement’ from the many fears and stipulations associated with having sex in the shadow of HIV/AIDS. [3]

For other gay men, these substances are simply valued for much the same reason that many in the wider community value alcohol: They can make sex more fun, sensual, intense, uninhibited and/or easier to negotiate.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the difficulty of fostering intimate or effective relationships when the process of arranging sex is divorced from other social contexts, as it is on digital platforms – and the dangerous effects of the isolation some men experience as a consequence.

We meet David Stuart, the founder of the pioneering program at 56 Dean St (a London sexual health clinic) that provides much-needed services to gay men who find themselves in trouble as a result their drug use for sexual purposes combined with this sense of isolation.   As Stuart reports, hook-up apps and websites have made chemsex much more visible and easier to access in the course of looking for gay friends or sexual partners in the city.

What the film neglects to mention, though, is that chemsex remains a minority practice within this population,[2] and that many app-users remain quite capable of exercising what they believe to be the best judgment.

Chemsex also provides us with rare accounts of what people enjoy about sex on drugs and the happiness and connections it has allows some men occasionally to develop. Rarely, though, does it take these accounts at face value. More often they seem to be framed as delusional. But this is it’s mistake. These ‘good’ experiences are precisely the reason that some men continue to use these drugs in full knowledge of their dangerous possibilities in some situations.

Against the idea that drug use is always the product of some state of reckless abandon, there is fascinating footage in the film of the careful lengths some men go to arrange group sexual encounters that are consensual, pleasurable and free of unwanted dangers.

One fellow organising a sex party at his home even goes to the trouble of drawing up a detailed timetable to schedule his guests’ G consumption as a way of ensuring their safety. Indeed, the film could have said much more about the techniques and ‘manners of preparation’ some gay men have devised to occasionally enjoy the pleasures of drugs, while keeping themselves and their partners relatively safe from harm. Indeed, these techniques are much more interesting and important to their practitioners than the film seems prepared to give them credit for.

 Unconstructively Moralizing

Unsurprisingly, normative morality about both sex and drug use is centrally at play here. Chemsex is framed in such a way that the many pleasures associated with illicit sex and drugs are only ever allowed to emerge as dangerous. The spectacle of non-normative sex and illicit substance-use gives the film an ominous tone that works against a more constructive treatment of its subject matter.

If you want to get a sense of how moral fears about gay sex are being exploited to frame our emotional responses to Chemsex, imagine setting the film’s creepy music as the soundtrack for a documentary about the activities and excesses associated with popular mainstream events like Melbourne Cup, or St Patrick’s Day, or Anzac Day. I guess it would make a good comedy. But most garden variety, casual drinkers just wouldn’t take it seriously. Nor should they.

By treating the drugs it deals with as inherently bad, and stabilizing the pharmakon in this way, Chemsex ultimately fails to find an appropriate “register of attention” to deal with its subject matter. For this reason, I worry that the film runs the risk of doing more harm than good, by further marginalizing the vast majority of occasional users (not to mention casual sex enthusiasts).

This is a great shame, because people’s emotional and social circumstances change, making them much more vulnerable to some of the situations the film deals with, which are undoubtedly concerning.

Despite the (presumably) good intentions of the directors, what Chemsex demonstrates most powerfully is that the complexities of gay sex and drug use demand much more careful, creative, open and intimate forms of attention.

Ultimately, Chemsex sells gay men out and deprives gay drug users of even the slightest sense of agency by portraying them as inevitable victims of their own – “pathological” – sexuality.  In this sense, the makers themselves put it best: “It’s a horror story”.



The original, truncated version of this review was published in The Conversation


[1] Isabelle Stengers (2015) In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Lüneburg: Meson.

[2] Rates of injecting are much higher and have increased much more steadily in London compared to Sydney gay men, among whom they have remained stable at around a third of the 11% of gay men who have used crystal meth at all in the last six months in community samples for some years now. In 2014, only 4% of gay men surveyed report regular use of crystal meth (defined as ‘at least monthly’). The findings of these surveys are presented here.  Some experts attribute the higher rates of injecting among gay men in London to the availability of the drug mephedrone, which is much more painful to snort than most other uppers, but rarely a part of chemsex practices in Australia.

[3] See Race, K. (2009). Pleasure Consuming Medicine: the queer politics of drugs. Durham: Duke University Press, Chapter 7.

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