This article is the first installment of a four-part series on meth and the gay community. You can read the second installment here.
If you try to learn about methamphetamine (widely known as meth, crystal, tina, speed, crank) from methproject.org, you’ll see the slogan “Meth – Not Even Once.” hovering over information about “crank bugs,” unwanted sex and “meth mouth.” Head to the meth page of drugfreeworld.org and you’ll see a video that begins with a teenager saying, “They said meth would help me get through my exams.” It cuts to him holding up a convenience store with a revolver as cops rush in to kill him.
Plenty of articles and websites explain the destructive effects of meth (sometimes in sensationalistic ways), but few delve into how the drug infiltrated the gay community, its positive perception among those who use it, or why its popularity continues despite growing public awareness of its harmful effects.
To explore these topics, we spoke with David Fawcett, a substance abuse expert, certified sex therapist, clinical psychotherapist specializing in gay men’s health and the author of Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery; Craig Sloane, a clinical social worker, substance abuse counselor, sex addiction therapist and educator in New York City who is also a board member of the National Association of LGBT Addiction Professionals and their Allies (NALGAP); and Wes Parks, a licensed professional and national certified counselor specializing in LGBTQ mental health with a background in forensic psychology that has put him in close contact with drug users in state jails and mental facilities.
The birth of meth, and its infiltration into the gay community
Invented in 1919, Japan, Germany, Britain and the U.S. all gave their World War II soldiers meth to keep them energetic and alert. After WWII, each country had its own respective meth epidemic, but Americans repackaged meth as diet pills and anti-depressants throughout the ‘50s and it became popular with college students, truck drivers and athletes through the ‘60s. People began making in home labs until the U.S. outlawed it in 1970.
After 1970, the Hells Angels and other American biker gangs began making and selling it in California, where it eventually intersected with a San Francisco gay community waking up from the 1960s’ sexual revolution. The 1969 Stonewall uprising and the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness gave American gay men a more cohesive political identity and the desire to bond through drugs in discos, bars, bathhouses and bedrooms.
Meth proved perfect for a community relentlessly stigmatized by societal homophobia. It dispelled the dark shadows of societal disapproval and internalized shame, replacing those feelings with a euphoric, long-lasting physical high, a chemical kinship with others and nonstop energy for dancing and sex until dawn. It negated how the homophobic society of the time told gay men to feel about themselves, their relationships and their sex lives.
HIV, grief and meth addiction collide
Internalized shame around homosexuality make gay men more susceptible to low self-esteem, mental illness, sexual abuse and, thus, substance abuse. Society’s continued lack of support for gay men and relationships ensured that our sex and drugs remained closeted behind bedroom doors and sequestered in gayborhoods, hiding the damage until it exploded into a public health epidemic.
Already plagued by shame, fear and isolation, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the criminalization of gay sex through 1986 filled gay men with even more grief, loss and trauma, all of which increased the desire for chemical escape. So while newly founded gay advocacy organizations like ACT UP and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) fought the indifferent Reagan administration on behalf of gay lives, the government tried to stem the rise of a new, doubly potent form of “crystal” meth being cooked up in American home labs and imported by Mexican cocaine traffickers.
Eventually, the introduction of protease inhibitors in the 1990s rendered HIV “no longer a death sentence,” but plenty of gay men still experienced survivor’s guilt, with few ways to process or alleviate their grief. Coupled with the “celebrations of life” that were the growing circuit and sex party scenes, a self-destructive impulse came about that made meth attractive.
Even in the new millennium, meth has asserted itself as a dominant force within the gay community. The rise of gay dating websites and mobile social apps has made it easier than ever for American meth users to find others interested in chemsex and “Party and Play” or “PNP” subcultures (that is, the consumption of meth and other drugs before prolonged, and often condomless, sex).
It’s hard to get reliable drug data — many users are reluctant to discuss it and meth use in heterosexual communities has been largely under-researched. But a 2014 study of gay and bisexual men in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City found that anywhere from 9.2–13.1% of gay men had used meth. Meth use in America has now spread from traditionally gay, white users into communities of color (including transgender ones), bringing with it increasing HIV infection rates despite 30 years of prevention efforts.
Meth is inexpensive and incredibly potent
The average American guy can purchase a quarter-gram of meth for $20–$40, and its addictiveness comes from the waves of dopamine it unleashes into the body, dopamine being a neurochemical that compels people to seek increased physical and emotional pleasure. Meth releases 12 times the amount of dopamine that naturally occurs. To put things in perspective, cocaine only releases four times that naturally occurring amount.
Each method of ingesting meth — swallowing, snorting, smoking, injecting (“slamming”) or taking it anally (a “booty bump”) — slightly changes the onset of its effects. Wes Parks, a licensed personal counselor in Dallas, notes that many people initially try meth thinking only of its euphoric short-term effects — rather than its extreme toll on the body — or thinking they can control its use the same way they might with cocaine or ecstasy. And while some people can, individual genetics and life experiences determine its addictiveness, and many men find themselves unable to resist.
The aphrodisiac and euphoric qualities of meth create a false sense of sexual community
Many gay men first encounter the drug online or through PNP sex parties where attendees share the drug freely. In these situations, consuming the drug with others can itself feel deeply intimate. Increased blood flow throughout the body increases physical sensation, and the intense rush of dopamine provides an increased sex drive and physical pleasure demanding of immediate gratification.
Some users describe sex on meth as “delicious,” “superheroic” and unlike any sex they’ve ever had. Users temporarily reject inhibitions — bodily self-consciousness, sexual guilt, shame and social anxiety — and can spend entire weekends having sex, sometimes with guys they see as “out of their league” or with guys who are more racially and bodily diverse than their usual partners. Fawcett and Sloane note that meth presents a seemingly attractive alternative to the common perceptions of the gay hookup scene: a shallow judgmental scene full of exclusionary cliques and unrealistic body standards.
It’s common for meth users to take Viagra to help counteract the flaccidity that meth can cause. Sloane says, “Many gay male meth users that I have worked with in my practice have reported that erection and/or ejaculation are not necessarily the end goal of the meth/sex experience, but rather experiencing the perceived feelings of sexual power, confidence, invulnerability and intense desire while high.”
But while that sexual bond feels powerful, many users of meth in the gay community say it rarely turns into non-sexual, non-drug relationships lasting beyond the bender. The drug also shuts down numerous neurological pathways in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps people make decisions and predict consequences. This, along with common expectations of condomless sex in the chemsex scene, Fawcett says, increases the risk for transmission of STIs and HIV.
So why has meth remained so desirable despite years of anti-meth messaging?
Drugs have long been connected to gay sex because of societal shaming
Society uses shame to repel men from same-sex sexual encounters, so many gay and bisexual men use drugs to help lower inhibitions during sex. “Because many gay men have never had sex without some sort of drug,” says Fawcett, “learning to have sex without drugs is like a second coming out — very intense and vulnerable.”
Many users combine meth with other “party” drugs like GHB, ketamine or mephedrone, creating an intense multi-faceted high that becomes hard to re-create without repeated simultaneous use. Each additional drug brings its own addictive qualities too.
Recovering meth addicts often have to change their social and sexual peer groups, treat multiple addictions and resolve any features of sex addiction they might have. They must become accustomed to a sober sex life that feels much different from meth-fueled sex binges.
Meth powerfully alters a person’s perceived sexiness
The gay community’s emphasis on youth and beauty, combined with anti-HIV stigma, can make older and HIV-positive men feel like “damaged goods.” Meth helps alleviate that feeling.
“Meth is very effective at helping people not give a damn as well as making them feel invincible, sexy and extroverted,” Fawcett says. Meth use in group sex can also make men feel like they’ve connected to a larger, more accepting community with its own secret world.
“Many gay men rely on an extraordinary amount of external validation for self-worth,” Fawcett continues. Gay men in their 40s and 50s and men living with HIV often feel invisible, less sexually desirable and more disconnected, he says, and these groups are among the most high-risk groups for forming meth addictions. While meth users mistakenly think that the drug improves their mentally acuity and physical ability, Fawcett says it actually affects focus, motor skills and concentration in negative ways.
Shaming doesn’t work as a social health strategy
“Shaming people into changing their behavior has never been particularly effective,” says Parks. On the contrary, shame makes people defensive and opposed to hearing messages, even if the messages are true.
Negative portrayals in public service announcements actually make it hard for users to relate. Furthermore, those shame-filled messages can actually backfire.
“Shame can increase use and push the user deeper into isolation,” Sloane says. “Shame-based anti-meth campaigns can trigger both current users and those users attempting recovery to use more,” as users try to escape the messages of recklessness and low worth.
Parks adds that these messages also don’t work because addiction is a disease. We wouldn’t try to shame someone out of having diabetes; using shame to fight addiction seems equally absurd.
“Friends and family members need to inform themselves about crystal meth, understand the reasons that their loved one would want to use, understand the addictive process, seek their own support to soothe their distress and plan how to best talk to their loved one about their concern,” Sloane says.
Some meth rehabilitation centers have moved away from shaming to a strategy of harm-reduction, encouraging users to be honest about their use and adopt behaviors that keep them safe from overdosing and contracting STIs.
Remember, meth is only a symptom of underlying cultural issues
It’s common to hear that meth addiction is a disease, but when we focus on treating a disease (especially one that has transformed into a highly charged cultural issue), we ignore the underlying cultural influences — depression, anxiety, rejection by peers and loved ones, societal disenfranchisement, shame, PTSD, abuse — that drive gay and bi men to start using meth in the first place.
In Parks’ opinion, society as a whole needs to de-stigmatize medical and mental illness and make treatment more accessible; it needs to move towards “a culture of aid versus a culture of shame,” he says. “When people turn to drugs as a coping mechanism, it often is because they’ve run out of other viable ways of coping, and because of a lack of support from the larger community.”
Parks thinks society as a whole benefits when “we show through our actions that getting help is a sign of strength and nobility of purpose, and not a sign of weakness or failure.” Only then, he believes, will individuals truly engage in the healing process to overcome addiction and the original stressors that lead to self-medication.
Sloane agrees that we need change on individual, community and institutional levels, no longer blaming meth users or moralizing about sobriety, but eradicating stigmatizing attitudes that marginalize others and fighting for greater LGBTQ equality and healthcare.
“We have been locked in the same concept of addiction and treatment for 75 years,” Fawcett says, “and the field is long overdue for some disruption.”
He thinks a newer model of treatment should move away from seeing addiction as a disease and instead treat it more like a learning disorder — an approach that could incorporate advances in neurobiology and take a more holistic framework of co-occurring addiction, mental health and other adaptive issues into account, treating the whole person rather than just their drug use.