What is Chemsex?
Chemsex refers to the practice of having sex with one or more partners under the influence of drugs like methamphetamine, GHB, ketamine, ecstasy, amyl nitrate, or mephedrone. More often than not, users are men who have sex with men (MSM) who gain access to drugs and sexual partners through online dating apps like Grindr or Scruff. Also referred to as ‘party and play,’ this once-fringe activity has entered the mainstream in a big way. Widespread use of dating apps is one of the main factors behind chemsex’s growing popularity.
Participants enjoy chemsex for several reasons. The most obvious is because of the wild, uninhibited sex that results from drug use. Often these sex binges last for days with little need for sleep or food. But it’s not just the sex that’s appealing. Chemsex allows MSM to (temporarily) replace feelings of shame and rejection about their sexuality with feelings of empowerment and freedom. Indeed, for some users, chemsex is the first time they feel accepted and comfortable in regards to their sexual identity.
Read on to learn about the dangers of chemsex, what makes chemsex addiction different from other forms of addiction, and how it’s treated.
Is It Addictive?
In a word, yes. Chemsex is incredibly addictive. The drugs used during chemsex (most commonly meth and GHB) are stimulants that provoke the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine. As a result, users feel energized, euphoric, invincible, and sexually aroused.
Dopamine itself isn’t the problem when it comes to chemsex. Rather, it’s the quantity of dopamine released under the influence of drugs that leads to addiction. As a comparison, pleasurable, sober activities like eating and sex increase dopamine output by 150-300% above baseline levels.
Conversely, meth use increases dopamine output by more than 1200%—three times more than other stimulants like cocaine. This dopamine overload overstimulates the brain’s pleasure center. This overstimulation creates extreme sexual desire and intense physical pleasure during sex. It also temporarily cancels out negative feelings like shame and anxiety.
Many users get hooked on chemsex not only because they feel empowered to live out their sexual fantasies, but also out of fear that sober sex will be boring in comparison. And these fears are justified. Sober sex is no comparison to chemsex. The combination of drugs and sex, both of which are powerful behavioral reinforcers, creates a ‘super-high’ that’s more addictive than drugs or sex alone.
While the physiological effects are the biggest explanation for chemsex’s addictivity, there’s also a behavioral component worth noting.
In any addiction, getting hold of the desired substance is a key part of the addictive behavioral cycle. For some drug users, this may mean tracking down a dealer, driving to meet them, and engaging in a face-to-face transaction. The process isn’t necessarily challenging, but it does require effort.
Needing to expend that much energy may dissuade casual users from seeking out drugs on a regular basis. As a result, only the most motivated users will go through the trouble of obtaining drugs. Chemsex, on the other hand, couldn’t be more convenient. Users just have to open an app, match with a profile denoting ‘PNP’ (an acronym for party and play) and wait for their drugs and partner(s) to arrive. The whole process is so easy that one recovering chemsex addict called Grindr the Postmates of chemsex. Having such on-demand access is yet another reason would-be casual users become full-blown addicts.
Why Is It Dangerous?
Chemsex is dangerous because of the sexually disinhibiting high that results from mixing two pleasure-producing actions (drugs and sex).
In the short term, users feel invulnerable to harm or risk. This results in more risk-taking behaviors like engaging in condomless sex or sharing needles. Both of these behaviors put users at a greater risk of HIV, Hepatitis C and STDs. Indeed, the growing popularity of chemsex parties is one of the reasons behind the increase in new HIV diagnoses despite years of public health efforts.
Other short-term side effects of chemsex include:
- Hallucinations/perceptions of persecution
Long-term meth use is linked to decreased sexual functioning and intimacy issues. Preliminary studies also show a connection between meth use and the worsening progression of HIV/AIDS due to nerve cell damage and cognitive problems.
Finally, tolerance and withdrawal occur with frequent and excessive use of any of the drugs associated with chemsex. Over time, users can become dependent and many need to seek professional help to overcome their addictions.
How Is Chemsex Treated?
Because chemsex is a relatively new phenomenon, treatment options are diverse and vary from provider to provider. That being said, there are some some best practices.
For starters, treatment focuses on breaking the connection between sex and drug use. In addition, clients are encouraged to become familiar with, and accepting of, their sexual desires. To that end, treatment providers usually recommend that clients take a break from all sexual activity for a few months as the brain begins to lessen its desire for drugs.
Many providers also recommend that clients avoid dating, and even flirting, during the recovery process. While not required, some clients choose to stop masturbating for a period of time as well.
In addition, both motivational interviewing and contingency management have shown concurrent, effective outcomes on meth use and sexual health-related outcomes among men who have sex with men.
Motivational interviewing is a counseling method that uses a person’s internal motivation to change their behavior. It’s a collaborative, person-centered technique that guides individuals to strengthen their motivation to change.
Contingency management is an approach in which individuals are rewarded for showing positive behavioral changes. In terms of substance abuse, this strategy aims to change an individual’s environment so drug use and abstinence are easily detected. Clients following a contingency management program receive positive reinforcements for staying sober. They lose these reinforcements if they don’t remain abstinent.
What Makes Chemsex Treatment Difficult?
While addiction treatment providers have made advances in treating chemsex addiction, the process is still challenging for multiple reasons.
The first is that many chemsex addicts have tried and failed to quit drugs more than once. Often, they’ve also already tried drug addiction treatment before. Relapses usually occur because traditional addiction treatment programs only address one part of the chemsex issue (drug addiction), while viewing the other part (risky sex) as just a symptom of the drug abuse, rather than an assoication needing to be broken.
Another challenge of chemsex treatment is breaking the link between drugs and sex. In early recovery, almost any sexual thought can trigger a drug craving, making the likelihood of relapse that much greater. This association can be broken, but it can take up to 18 months for the brain to re-learn how to enjoy sober sex. It goes without saying that it’s a long, slow process requiring hard work from the client and the treatment team.
Finally, addicts must come to terms with the reality that sober sex will be enjoyable, but will never reach the artificial intensity of chemsex. This, coupled with sexual difficulties (trouble maintaining an erection, inability to ejaculate, and inability to orgasm) common in early recovery can be discouraging to those seeking treatment.
La Fuente Can Help With Chemsex Addiction Treatment
At La Fuente Hollywood Treatment Center, we’re proud to be a national leader in LGBTQ-affirming rehab and treatment. And because chemsex addiction affects mostly men who have sex with men, we’re well positioned to provide the safe, non-judgmental environment they need to recover and overcome their addiction.
So if you or your loved one needs help overcoming chemsex addiction, then contact us, and let’s start your recovery process.