Monthly Archives: March 2016

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

Footnotes

[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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Filed under Affect, HIV behavioural surveillance, Masculinities, Online meeting sites, Parties, PNP culture, Police, Policy and programs, Self-medication, Sexual practice

Queer Chemistry

queer chemistry

Community Discussion

Monday 4 April, 2016

7 – 9pm

Beauchamp Hotel

Oxford St

Darlinghurst, 2010

Psychoactive substances have long been part of queer subcultural spaces and practices, from the disco culture of the 1970s to ecstasy use at the huge dance parties of the 1980s and 90s to the more recent emergence of ‘chemsex’.
But new contexts of consumption and new substances (such as G and crystal meth) have given rise to new dangers as well as new pleasures.
 
In this community discussion, we explore with queer cultural producers and health professionals how to construct spaces of pleasure and safety and promote queer cultures of care that accept that drug use might be in play.

 

The discussion will be facilitated by Kane Race, author of Pleasure Consuming Medicine and an organiser for Unharm. There will be lots of opportunities for audience participation, input and discussion.

 
For more event details, please visit https://www.facebook.com/events/255888971413198and register your interest.

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Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Drug dogs, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, Masculinities, Medicine and science, Online meeting sites, Parties, PNP culture, Police, Policy and programs, Sexual practice

Keep Sydney Open

Excited to be participating in a discussion about the governmental assault on Sydney nightlife next Monday, next to Don Weatherburn and Murray Lee, (among others, tba).  Slightly terrified, but I will feel a lot safer if I wear my Darlinghurst-issued ‘safety first’ helmet I found in the gutter on the way home from Mardi Gras festivities last weekend.  Details below:  Please come along if you can!

Safety first helmet

Sydney’s Lockout Laws: Cutting Crime or Civil Liberties?

14 March 2016

Registration

Click here to register your attendance

________________________________________________________________________________________

Join us at the Sydney Institute of Criminology where a panel of diverse speakers will explore the Sydney Lockout Laws: the science and statistics, the impacts, and conundrums and trade-offs in regulating the night-time economy.

Since being introduced, Sydney’s Lockout Laws have been contentious, and have highlighted a range of concerns about Sydney’s night-time economy, including safety, alcohol-fuelled violence and crime, civil liberties, entertainment and enjoyment. This panel event canvasses some of the debates in the community. It will discuss: what is the evidence for and against the laws? How are they impacting the community? What is reasonable and unreasonable regulation?

This event is hosted by the Institute of Criminology, Sydney Law School, The University of Sydney. 2016 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Sydney Institute of Criminology, and this panel event is the first in a schedule of events that showcases the contributions of the Institute to public debate, research and policy.

About the speakers: 
Dr Don Weatherburn has been Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in Sydney since 1988 and is an Adjunct Professor with the School of Social Science and Policy at the University of New South Wales. He has published on a wide range of topics: including drug law enforcement policy, liquor-licensing enforcement, the economic and social correlates of crime, criminal justice administration, juvenile recidivism and crime prevention. He has also published three books: Delinquent-prone CommunitiesLaw and Order in Australia: Rhetoric and Reality and Arresting Incarceration: Pathways out of Indigenous Imprisonment.

Professor Murray Lee is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Sydney Law School. He is the author of Inventing Fear of Crime: Criminology and the Politics of Anxiety (2007), co-author of Sexting and Young People (2015) and  Policing and Media: Public Relations, Simulations and Communications (2014), co-editor of Fear of Crime: Critical Voices in an Age of Anxiety (2009), and editor of the scholarly journal Current Issues in Criminal Justice. He is author of over 50 book chapters and refereed journal articles. His current research interests involve fear of crime, policing and the media, ‘sexting’ and young people, crime prevention, confidence in criminal justice systems, and the spatial determinants of crime.

Associate Professor Kane Racefrom the Department of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney has published widely in the areas of drug use, sexuality, HIV and public health; and is recognised for his contribution to HIV prevention and policy in Australia and internationally. Kane is a founding member of the Association for the Social Sciences and Humanities in HIV and a member of the editorial advisory boards of the International Journal of Drug Policy, Contemporary Drug Problems, Biosocieties, Culture, Health & Sexuality, and Sexualities. He is an active volunteer for Unharm, an organisation devoted to drug law reform and making drug user safer, where he has played a leading role in efforts to mobilise queer community around this issue recently.  His book Pleasure Consuming Medicine: the Queer Politics of Drugs (Duke University Press, 2009) examined how moral and legal distinctions around drug use are bound up in the moral policing of citizenship.  He has lived in the inner east of Sydney for over 20 years.

 Chair: 
Associate Professor Julia Quilter 
is a graduate of Sydney University, UNSW (LLB) and Monash University (PhD). Prior to joining the University of Wollongong in 2010, she spent ten years practising as a solicitor and barrister, working mainly in public law and criminal law. She worked at the NSW State Crown Solicitor’s Office and was the Special Counsel to the NSW Solicitor General and Crown Advocate, appearing as junior counsel in constitutional and criminal law matters in the High Court, NSW Court of Appeal and NSW Court of Criminal Appeal.  Shespecialises in research and teaching on criminal law and criminal justice policy. Her research focuses on criminal law responses to alcohol-related violence and ‘one punch’ fatalities, sexual assault, the operation of public order laws and the law’s treatment of intoxication. She is a regular media commentator on criminal justice issues, and a co-author of Criminal Laws: Materials and Commentary on Criminal Law and Process in NSW (Federation Press, 6th ed, 2015).

 

Time: 6-8pm (registration and refreshments from 5:30pm)

Location: Law Foyer, Level 2, New Law Building (F10), Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney

Cost: Free however registration is essential

Contact: Professional Learning & Community Engagement

Phone: 02 9351 0248

Email: law.events@sydney.edu.au

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Filed under Affect, Drug dogs, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, Medicine and science, Parties, Police, Policy and programs, The statistical imagination

Queer Futures

Please join us on March 11th for “Queer Futures,” the first session in Future Tense, the 2016 Gender and Cultural Studies Seminar Series at the University of Sydney!

Queer Counterpublic Health in Digital Times

Kane Race (University of Sydney)

Queer counterpublics have been seen as a significant resource for gay men’s HIV prevention in the critical literature, where they tend to be conceived as rhizomatic structures consisting of relays among various forms of media circulation and visible, accessible inhabitations of urban space. While the theorisation of counterpublics can be criticized for its metro-centricity as well as its tendency to characterise digitally-arranged sex as ipso facto privatising, this paper argues that creating contexts for collective reflexivity about private sexual exchanges persists as an important problem for HIV community education and a priority for counterpublic health in the digital context. Concerns about counterpublic health are particularly topical right now, given the intense governmental assault on ‘nightlife’ in Australian urban centres (a traditional locus of LGBTI socialisation); not to mention the proliferation of homonormative discourses which are characteristically HIV, sex and drug phobic and fail to register the significance of digital sexualities for their constituents. Compared with previous generations of gay men, the sexual subjectivities of upcoming generations of same-sex attracted individuals are being formed in substantially altered conditions, which creates a range of pedagogical challenges – not least the question of how to promote acknowledgement of (and non-vitriolic reflexivity around) a range of hidden, widely engaged in, but presumptively illicit sex/risk practices.. Referencing a range of empirical examples drawn from common sexual media engagements among gay and MSM, this paper argues that some trajectory from private to public – or what I call ‘frame-overflowing’ – is a necessary precondition of counterpublic activity, even while it intrinsically runs the risk of breaching ethical sensitivities.

 

Kane Race is Associate Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His book, Pleasure Consuming Medicine: the queer politics of drugs (2009, Duke University Press) draws on gay community responses to HIV/AIDS and drug harm reduction to promote what he calls ‘counterpublic health’. Other publications include Plastic Water: the social and material life of bottled water (with Gay Hawkins and Emily Potter, MIT Press, 2016). Kane is an active volunteer for Unharm, a Sydney based grassroots organisation committed to drug law reform, where he has worked recently to mobilise queer supporters around questions of the government of nightlife as a key formative space for queer life. His work is also recognised for its policy impact: it has changed practices of HIV education and prevention in Australia and internationally.

 

The Queer Future of Normality: Rethinking Anti-Normativity in Contemporary Critical Theory

Elizabeth Stephens (Southern Cross University)

Critiques of normativity and normalisation have played a central role in recent critical writing on sexuality, gender and the body. Queer studies has long been identified with “non-normative logics and organisations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity” (Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place 6). Queer is often defined as a sustained opposition to the normal (eg Warner, The Trouble With Normal). For Rosemary Garland Thomason, the “normate” body is the ableist bodily template against which all bodily difference is measured and assessed. In critical race studies, the “normal” body is that of the (middle-class) white body which has erased its own cultural specificity (eg Carter, The Heart ofWhiteness). In queer theory, disability studies and critical race studies, the normal is usually assumed to function as a disciplinary standard. Despite its central importance to critical theories of sexual, gender and the body, however, this understanding of the normal and the concept of normativity that underpins it, is itself rarely subject to close examination. This paper draws on my recent research on the cultural history of normality to rethink the meaning of normativity in contemporary theory, by drawing attention to its specificity and the conditions of its emergence into the popular sphere. Through an analysis of the large-scale studies of “normal” people undertaken from the end of the nineteenth-century, this paper argues that the normal functions as a dynamic, a principle of organisation, rather than a binary standard. The contradictions and inconsistencies evident within the concept of the normal, and the cultural networks within which it circulates, are an important source of its cultural strength and authority, rather than a challenge to them. This paper considers the implications of this historicised understanding of the normal for future work in these areas of critical theory.

 

Elizabeth Stephens is Associate Professor of Culture Studies and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University. Her publications include Queer Writing: Homoeroticism in Jean Genet’s Fiction (Palgrave, 2009) and Anatomy as Spectacle: Public Exhibitions of the Body from 1700 to the Present (Liverpool UP, 2011). She is currently completing a new book, co-authored with Peter Cryle, entitled A Critical Genealogy of Normality.

 

Friday March 11

2-4 pm

The Refectory, Quadrangle A14

Please join us after the seminar for drinks at the Holme Courtyard café/Bar

 

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