Lambeth men warned of dangers of ‘chemsex’ after rise in HIV


The borough has the highest number of people affected by HIV in the UK.


By Jacqueline Fanchini

An escalating trend is putting gay and bisexual men’s lives at risk by increasing the possibility of them attracting HIV and STIs, according to a new study.

The Chemsex report, commissioned by Lambeth, Southwark, and Lewisham councils, looks into drug use in sexual settings among men who have sex with men (MSM) and highlights the associated significant risks.

Lambeth has the highest number of people affected by HIV in the UK – 1 in 69 residents aged 15-59, as well as one of the largest MSM populations in the UK with MSM accounting for 15% of the male population.

As concerns have been voiced by Public Health England about the rise of HIV and STIs among MSM, the borough felt there was a need to look into specific possible factors that may be contributing to it.

Councillor Jim Dickson, Lambeth’s Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing, said: “This research provides essential insight into the complex needs of this particular at risk group of our local residents.

“It will enable us to work with partner organisations to find new approaches to reducing harm and to support the health and wellbeing of affected men.”

Lambeth has been urged to take such actions by the National Aids Trust (NAT) in the lead to the May elections and encourages those living with HIV to write to their local councillors.

Yusef Azad, Director of Policy and Campaigns at NAT said: “Disinvestment in HIV prevention and testing would seriously harm public health, especially in an area like Lambeth, and will cost the council and the NHS in the long term.”

It is the first report that looks specifically at the use of particular ‘chemsex’ drugs and their association with sexual behaviour.

The expert Sigma Research team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, headed by Dr Adam Bourne, mainly focused on drugs such as crystal methamphetamine, GHB/GBL and mephedrone.

The report points out that compared to the rest of England, men in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham are four times more likely to use mephedrone (10.2% vs. 2.9%), seven times more likely to use GHB/GBL (10.5% vs. 1.6%), and eight times more likely to use crystal methamphetamine (4.9% vs. 0.7%).

Dr Bourne says his most surprising finding was the amount of men who did not know how to use some of the drugs properly, leading to them passing out, having panic attacks, extreme paranoia or requiring emergency medical attention.

“Gay and bisexual men need better information and advice as well as access to gay-friendly drug and sexual health services that are able to address the psychosocial aspects of chemsex,” he said.

The report showed that these drugs were taken because they can lower inhibitions, improve the quality of sex, increase libido, and facilitate a sense of adventure.

However, those surveyed found it difficult to control their behaviour and had engaged in unprotected sex with a high risk of HIV transmission because negotiating safe sex becomes harder when under the influence.

Such encounters were regretted and those who devoted much of their time to ‘chemsex’ found that their personal relationships and career progressions suffered as a result. 

Dr Bourne concedes that there is a contradiction between these men’s behaviour and the fact that most of them are actually looking for long-term partners that would provide them with more intimacy and emotionally connected sex.

He added that many of them had issues with low self-esteem and low self-confidence, whereas some also had internalised feelings of homophobia, and so many took them to counter-act those emotions.

The report’s main focus was to conduct a qualitative study and Dr Bourne said it in no way confirmed a rise in ‘chemsex’ as the data does not yet exist and as it is only one of many elements contributing to the spread of HIV in LSL.

“Research often plays catch up with reality,” said Dr Bourne, pointing out that studies are ongoing into other factors.

Christian Dolan, 26, was born and bred in Brixton and found out he was HIV positive in August 2009 when he was about four months into a monogamous relationship.

He was never involved in ‘chemsex’ but did use apps such as Grindr – which aim to help MSM in the same area meet – when he was dating and found himself being approached regarding the activity. 

He said: “It’s scarily and easily accessible.”

Mr Dolan works in marketing and administration in a private physiotherapy clinic in the City of London but he also has a website where he tackles what he calls the main concern regarding HIV, ignorance.

He said that although he was always upfront about his situation, many people are not or cannot as they do not get tested often enough to know that they have been affected. 

“We only become aware of something if it affects us in a particular way,” said Mr Dolan.

He stresses that HIV is not a problem bound to just one group, affecting people of all races, genders and persuasions.

To get informed and join the conversation, find him on

Photo courtesy of emagineart, with thanks.

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