For several years, it’s been heralded by some as the biggest silent killer of gay men since the Aids epidemic in the UK, but is chemsex causing a hidden crisis amongst the Irish LGBT community?
Phillip McMahon, writer and director of theatre company This Is Pop Baby, believes it is.
“People are dying, and to me, that’s a crisis,” McMahon says. “I have personal experience of losing friends to this.
“It’s not just Dublin or Cork or Galway: we know from our research that there are people all over rural Ireland who have been through all sorts of things with chemsex. Yes, a lot of people, potentially the majority of people, are totally ok, but there are a lot of people who are lost in the cycle.”
McMahon, whose theatre company This Is Pop Baby is best known for their celebratory productions, including Ireland’s 2020 Eurovision song entry, is about to share a work-in-progress that delves into this often dark world.
Chemsex doesn’t have one clear definition, but broadly speaking, it describes a combination of drug-taking and sex, predominantly amongst the gay male community. Linked to several drugs, including GHB or 'liquid ecstasy', it can involve sex with a partner or casual hook-up, or group sex at private parties.
GHB induces euphoria, lowers inhibitions and increases sex drive, but it’s also notoriously easy to overdose on. A difference of one millilitre, for some, is the difference between a good time and losing consciousness.
GHB is highly addictive. It’s also cheap, and undetectable in the blood after only a matter of hours, which, McMahon says, is one reason there’s little or no official information in Ireland on G-related deaths.
“Toxicology reports are not testing for GHB, so deaths linked to GHB aren’t getting recorded. But it’s known within the queer community that there have been a lot of deaths in Ireland from GHB.”
As a production, Party Scene (Reflections on a ChemSex Crisis) is in its infancy, and will be presented at Cork’s Midsummer Festival as a filmed work-in-progress. Following the screening, McMahon and his collaborator, choreographer Phillip Connaughton, will be joined in a Q&A with drugs counsellors working within the LGBT community in Ireland, to explore both the production and the underlying issues.
McMahon knows the conversation he’s opening up is one some within the LGBT community won’t welcome. But it’s a conversation he believes needs to happen.
“When you shine a light into difficult areas, you’ll always get resistance,” he says. “Some people don’t want a light shone on this subject, for lots of reasons.”
To research the dance-theatre production, McMahon spoke to people within the chemsex scene, people who used to be involved but are no longer part of, and people in support services. And it cemented his belief that the deafening silence on the issue in the Irish LGBT community needs to be broken.
“I was struck by the idea that, particularly around Aids and marriage equality, queers have always shown up for each other, have always said, ‘Here’s a problem, how can we fix it together?’ And I worry that’s not happening with this,” he says.
Some reticence from within the LGBT community may be the result of the 'socially acceptable' face put on aspects of the gay party scene during the marriage equality referendum, he believes.
“I do think marriage equality was a fabulous moment, but I think it also acted as a band aid on real issues of trauma, addiction, isolation,” he says. “When you start looking at this, you quickly realise that only a very small part of it is actually about sex.
“It’s a real part of it, but once you strip away the veneer, and ask why people are in this hectic cycle they can’t get out of, you very quickly get to isolation, depression, trauma and self-esteem issues, people feeling like they don’t fit into regular LGBTQ society, who suddenly discover that they have this freedom in this underworld.”
Another very real fear in sparking a discussion around chemsex is that a frank discussion will be used to fuel homophobia.
“I’m very conscious of that,” McMahon says. “You kind of just have to be prepared though, because the other option is to not talk about it. So I do feel that responsibility, but in other ways, I don’t know what to do about that, except take it as it comes.
“When we floated this, we thought, this one is a bit of a hot potato, but we kind of went, look, we can’t get comfortable in our making. We have to go to scary places. For us, we’re talking about an issue within our own community so we have licence to tell the story. However people react to that, it’s kind of their own business, I suppose.”
As a theatrical production, Party Scene (Reflections on a ChemSex Crisis) won’t be complete until next year. A half-hour work-in-progress, divided into 13 scenes and starring four dancers, was filmed onstage at the Gate Theatre in Dublin by filmmaker Joe McGovern, and will be screened online.
This is a departure from the company’s normal process and, for McMahon, a nail-bitingly intimate glimpse at a part of the theatrical process not normally made public.
“A lot of people aren’t familiar with the term 'work-in-progress', so it’s kind of interesting to say, ‘look, this is where we’re at with this work. What do you think?’. It would usually happen behind closed doors, but we’ve gone and made a film of it. It’s a challenge, and I’m kind of going, ‘God, what are people going to make of this thing?’”
What’s important to McMahon is the role art can play in stripping away moral overtones while exploring an issue as nuanced in the area of bodily autonomy as it is hidden.
“I respect everyone’s right to do whatever they want with their body,” he says. “If you want to, go and do it. For us, drugs and sex are not a moral issue. And it’s important to say that some people in this scene are totally ok. But we’re going, who is not ok, and what are we going to do about that, and how can a piece of art help?
“I think one way a piece of art might help is to actually help create a conversation that doesn’t feel moralistic, and that also doesn’t feel like a public service announcement.”
The filmed work-in-progress, created during Covid-19 restrictions that McMahon describes as a “psychic rollercoaster”, will eventually give way to next year’s full-scale production. In the meantime, McMahon hopes to get the conversation started on chemsex, using the emerging piece of dance-theatre to do so.
“But if people show up expecting some kind of soft-core porn, that’s not what they’re going to get,” he says. “They’re going to get something thoughtful and artful, that tries to honour our own community and ask questions at the same time.”
- A work-in-progress viewing of Party Scene (Reflections on a ChemSex Crisis) by This Is Pop Baby, with Q&A to follow, screens on YouTube as part of Cork’s Midsummer Festival on Tuesday, June 15, at 9pm. https://www.corkmidsummer.com/whats-on/party-scene
- If you are affected by the issues in this piece, helpful contacts include Gay Men’s Health Service (https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/list/5/sexhealth/gmhs/, firstname.lastname@example.org)