Sex, drugs and science: researchers are interested in “chemsex”

While “chemsex” is still a marginal practice, it is widespread enough for public health authorities to be concerned. 
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The work of researchers could allow a better intervention with the followers of “chemsex”, a practice where people consume drugs while having sex. There is very little data on the subject, but all stakeholders believe that the “chemsex” is rising in the homosexual community. Scientists are trying to determine the extent of the phenomenon.

It’s a term that is not well known to the general public, but in some spheres it’s much more common. The “chemsex” is the contraction of the words chemicals and sex , a term used to describe the mixture of drugs and sex. The “chemsex” phenomenon can include several substances – such as GHB, amphetamine, ecstasy and especially methamphetamine – as well as several partners.

Chemsex is present in both heterosexual and homosexual communities, but it is more codified within the gay community, particularly on dating apps. Users will indicate their preferences for sexual encounters that involve drug use, known in the community as ”  party and play  “, which can be translated as “party and play”.

If the practice remains relatively marginal within the homosexual community, the phenomenon poses risks. “There are the direct effects of the substance, like psychoses, there is the effect of consumption patterns,” says Dr. Sarah-Amelie Mercure, medical officer of the ITSS and Harm Reduction Department of Health of Montreal. “The other thing we’re concerned about is that because it’s sexual consumption […] our concern is around sexually transmitted infections. “

A practice difficult to quantify

Researchers and community stakeholders in the field agree that there appears to be an increase in practice at this time. But this remains difficult to demonstrate in the absence of figures on the phenomenon.

It is because “chemsex” has not been extensively studied in Canada. If several studies have been published on the subject elsewhere in the world, in England, the Netherlands or Spain, at home, only parcel data on Toronto or Vancouver are available, and nothing on the side of the Quebec metropolis.

This lack of data on Montreal led to the creation of the website, a tool for scientific research and awareness. The project is the result of collaboration between the community and the scientific field. Montreal-based REZO, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections in the gay community, and researcher Jorge Flores Aranda of the University Addiction Institute and Associate Professor of Université de Sherbrooke, set up the platform.

Users of the platform could fill out a questionnaire about their drug use and sexual habits. Some 110 people completed the questionnaire, which gave a first portrait of the situation in Montreal. According to the results, 75% of respondents did not consult physicians in connection with their substance use, and 46% did not undergo screening. But these are still preliminary results.

“Among the people who had problematic use, the vast majority still had some concern about the consequences or risky behaviors that their consumption entailed,” says Professor Jorge Flores Aranda.

On the other hand, what is rather interesting is that for those who had a consumption that was moderately problematic, their level of concern was not high enough.

According to the researcher, this is a sign that we must intervene with people who still have a relatively controlled consumption. “This is where the adapted intervention can really make a change in the medium and long term,” adds Alexandre Dumont Blais, REZO.

In the meantime, another study, conducted in three cities (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) should also provide a better understanding of the “chemsex” phenomenon in Canada. The results of this study are expected in the coming year.

A training “chemsex 101”

The phenomenon is of sufficient concern to Montreal’s public health department to create an initial training for its stakeholders: Chemsex 101. “The idea, with this training, is to have at least a basic what are the substances most involved, what is the link with sexuality, to identify problematic situations, “says Dr. Sarah-Amelie Mercure.

Montreal would be among the first Canadian cities to have developed an approach on the subject. But stakeholders in the community would still like there to be more resources for people who use drugs during sex.

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