As I watched a masturbating NHS supervisor dispense syringes and crystal meth at a condom-free orgy, I wondered, how did we get here?
‘Here’ was a chemsex party, where men engage in sex high on a concoction of drugs, usually at private house parties that can last several days.
These parties have been a feature of the gay community for years but as the number of gatherings has grown, they have been thrust into the mainstream by Vice documentaries and BBC drama London Spy.
Chemsex is portrayed ‘unsafe’, with Boris Johnson backing calls from the Royal College of GPs for it to become a public health priority.
“This is a phenomenon we need to take very seriously,” he said.
“We need to evaluate the strength of the problem and evaluate what steps we can take to minimise the risk of HIV spreading.”
I decided to find out for myself and went to a party wondering whether the issue had been blown out of all proportion.
I’m hardly one to preach having been to my fair share of ‘chill outs’ back in the day, these were almost unavoidable being gay and having London on your doorstep.
But those were with friends carrying on the party a bit too long – not what’s described as drug-fuelled sexcapades with strangers.
I arrived to the three-day event in Angel early on an otherwise ordinary Sunday afternoon and pressed the buzzer wondering what was on the other side of the door.
In a narrow, dimly lit flat a group of 11 men, ranging from their early twenties to mid 50s, strutted around naked or sporting jock straps.
They drank shots of G, a date rape drug affiliate and officially marketed as an alloy cleaner, prompted by hourly alarms on their phones, then alternating between snorting lines of mephedrone and cocaine.
I had only been in the one-bedroom flat for 10 minutes before the first of many orgies began.
A Romanian, who has been in the UK for little more than a year, admitted he attends sex chills most weekends.
“There were no chill outs in Romania,” he said. “It’s definitely a London thing, but also Paris and Berlin.”
The gaunt 23-year-old spent most of the day getting intimate with a businessman more than twice his age.
The businessman, a 54-year-old technological company director, was mostly on the periphery of the action, other than the time he spent the Romanian who seemed to be the only one keen to have sex with him.
By the evening he was smoking a crystal meth pipe in between rounds of sex, as I chatted to him it became apparent he was also a veteran of the sex chill scene.
“Crystal meth can really fuck you up you know, I’ve seen it ruin a lot of people,” he admitted.
“I have a lot of chill outs at my place, they’re way more prepared than this one.
“We have stocks and stocks of drugs, condoms and shorts for people to wear.”
The mention of condoms gave me a shred of hope, at least people had less chance of picking up HIV and STIs at his parties.
Recent studies by medical experts revealed a third of men surveyed admitted to abandoning protection when high, adding that they found it difficult to control their behaviour.
He seemed nice enough and talking to him gave me a break from wincing at risky behaviour and watching lifeless souls glued to Grindr trying to recruit more eager participants.
As a man in his 30s and a younger guy didn’t even pause to worry about using protection, a feeling of dread came over me that seemed to be lost on everyone else.
As the drugs kicked in and the sex began inhibitions fell away.
Three men watched at arm’s length but kept one eye on the porn playing behind them, as if the live show wasn’t enough.
The crowd seemed more interested in recreating what was on screen than having any form of conventional sex, arguing over the selection of the perfect ‘hot’ video.
Their mouths twisted below their white-coated nostrils before launching themselves to join in.
The group tried to usher me over, ‘not yet’ I lied, sitting at the glass dining table pretending to be on my phone.
Sex was all anyone talked about, sex, sex, and more sex. ‘What sort of porn do you watch’, ‘what do you like doing?’, ‘what guys are you into?’, or the charming ‘can I fuck you?’.
Aside from my crystal-meth smoking buddy it was impossible to have a conversation without the other person trying to initiate sex in 60 seconds or less, but I got it, that’s what they were there for.
As Sunday afternoon drifted into evening drug supplies were running low and people debated leaving but settled on justifications for missing work or cancelling Monday commitments instead.
But as boxers and t-shirts were pulled back on the confidence and bravado that came from the sex-chill drug cocktails was beginning to wear off.
An awkward and sombre tone filled the room – perhaps the realisation of what they were doing, or that there was no common ground between anyone there but the desire to get high and have sex.
The realisation that they had lives to go back to on Monday.
These weren’t real friends. No one was there for anyone but themselves – they simply wanted to be high and use one other’s bodies. Once that wasn’t on offer, the whole party was on shaky ground.
The NHS worker who had been doling out drugs returned with much-needed stock bringing more G, mephedrone and crystal meth.
He passed a syringe to an older guy who wanted to ‘slam ket’ when he got home – at least the needle was guaranteed to be clean.
His dual lifestyle didn’t seem to be a source of personal conflict, he admitted to clearing up to £1,000 a week through dealing.
After doing his deals he watched from the sidelines before joining but soon left for another party to tout his wares elsewhere.
The group was so varied it was clear they would never meet beyond this environment, drawn together by their need for drug-fuelled sex sessions.
Most of the men had been invited from Grindr, and many people quite literally came and went.
A 20-year-old turned up for ‘some fun’ before his late shift and revelers descended on him like a pack of wolves.
His clothes were on the floor within 30 seconds of walking through the door and he left within an hour.
Next a Polish worker, who in ten minutes of arriving was having unprotected sex in the kitchen area with a man he had just met.
I couldn’t get my head around it. Was everyone HIV-positive and just didn’t care or did they think they were invincible? Either way the topic wasn’t broached.
Either they were and had no qualms potentially infecting others, or they weren’t and in that moment didn’t care or even realize what they were doing.
Although admittedly high everyone seemed to be coherent and capable of being safe they just chose not to be.
On Monday morning I left on the first train available while in the flat porn still flickered on the TV, Grindr beeped away and the hunt for more drugs continued.
I don’t know how long it went on for and I’m still not sure why they chose to spend three days in this way.
It seemed as though most were seeking gratification they don’t think they could get sober.
A 2014 Chemsex study conducted in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham found that a large number of surveyed men said they used drugs to help overcome or mask self-esteem and sexual self-confidence issues.
For a growing group of gay men this seems to be fuelling a cycle, where weekends equal sex parties and sexual intimacy is associated with being high.
The study also found that a majority of the men surveyed were not happy with their sex lives, and that many wanted a long-term partner.
A 20-something Spanish man admitted to me that he couldn’t remember the last time he had had sex without being high or with just one partner.
We all want love and friendship, but I don’t believe that can be found on weekly three-day benders or at the bottom of a bottle of G, or in empty mephedrone bags or unprotected orgies in strangers’ flats.
If chemsex parties bring you joy I can’t judge you for it, but one thing’s for sure, you will never find me at another ‘sex-chill’.
Picture courtesy of Casey Muir Taylor, with thanks