Tucked away in the far corner of a crowded outdoor cafe in Bengaluru, Sajan, a former retail business owner from the city sat down with me over bottles of floral-flavoured kombucha to pull back the curtain for a peek into a queer subculture. He’s a gay man in his 30s and has had his fair share of navigating through queer circles in India. But his most intense experiences with intimacy have been with chemsex. Sajan described himself as being presently sober for over eighteen months, and as a recovering addict from this gay subculture scene.
Chemsex or high fun is a phenomenon primarily prevalent in the gay community where men consume a specific set of drugs to induce a high, and have sex riding the high. Sajan is the pseudonym he picked for himself in this story, to shield himself from the stigma that often accompanies gay men experimenting within this subculture.
About six years ago, his then boyfriend in a bid to bring more excitement into their sex life injected him with meth. “The back of my throat went warm, I felt this rush zipping around my entire body, it was a sensory explosion in my system,” Sajan told me. “And the sex while high on these drugs was absolutely sensational. It made all of my previous experiences of getting high or having sex feel invalid.”
Sajan came across chemsex years ago when he was studying in Europe. But he didn’t indulge because he felt the “scene over there, felt serious.” However, upon returning to Bengaluru, he felt “stifled after having had the taste of a freer, fuller gay life abroad” despite having friends in the queer community and being in a relationship. While high, he felt he was able to access that sense of “feeling free”. His first chemsex experience with his ex-boyfriend prompted him to seek more, realising these substances were accessible locally.
Soon enough, Sajan was riding between rooms across the city for chemsex or organising the drugs and playing host himself. So much so, that even during the early days of the pandemic, he’d cough up major markup rates to score.
Once the drugs were acquired, he’d open up his hookup apps, make an announcement on his profile, and like moths to a flame, men would arrive at his apartment. They would inject themselves, hook up and then return to the apps to get more drugs and repeat the cycle.
“These sessions can last for days at a time, with many different people coming in and out of the space, lots of drugs are consumed and lots of unprotected sex takes place. They feel free of judgement and nothing seems out of bounds,” Sajan said. “There’s a saying in the chemsex community, that one simply rolls into many sunrises and sunsets never knowing the date or the day.”
Ankur , an IT professional in his mid-forties presently living in Northern India told me over the phone how chemsex isn’t just people exploring their sexual boundaries. “It is also men cross-dressing and posing all night in front of mirrors, or closeted married men from smaller towns visiting for the weekend just sitting in various corners watching porn on their phones and playing with themselves,” he said. Ankur asked me to change his real name in this story because of the societal shaming associated with sexual kinks and drugs.
But the (un)surprising culprit behind why gay men often turn to drugs to have sex is how gay culture treats itself. For men like Sajan and Ankur, loneliness and lack of acceptance and support from within the queer community drive them towards high fun. High fun promises relief from this isolation through the greatest high of their lives.
I Get So Lonely, Lonely, Lonely, Yeah!
Esthappen, a playwright and development sector professional seconds this. They discovered that adhering to often unattainable gay culture community standards appears to be a key motivation for many gay men. Esthappen delved into this subculture for a theatrical project for a few years before the pandemic.
“The big hope of making the bold choice of coming out is that there is a community out there, and once you find them you’re going to find your home and chosen family,” they told me over Zoom from their home in Goa. “But when you feel alienated within the community, you may turn to drinks and drugs to get rid of the loneliness. Once you discover these chems, they promise to completely take away all of your inhibitions, it’s kind of hard to look back,” they added.
These inhibitions don’t just stem from growing up with ideas that gay sex is dirty. It’s also having to suddenly subscribe to seemingly impossible community standards of attractiveness and availability. According to Esthappen, the drug becomes the language used to negotiate and navigate through these prejudices, and while engaging in chemsex, you feel desired and desirable.
An added layer of shame and secrecy associated with sex, in general, gets compounded within the queer context.
But for gay men in India, it isn’t just sexual desires and demands that are realised within these rented homes and hotel rooms. “The early allure of these chemsex spaces is they act as judgement-free zones to fully express one’s self and sexual desires,” Esthappen explained.
Yogi, a queer anthropologist and presently a won’t-say-no-at-an-after-party kind of user in their early 30s, expanded on this over dinner at a Korean Fried Chicken joint in Bengaluru. They said, “I’m short, I’m this colour [pointing to their dark complexion], I’m not rich. I’m not considered ‘hot’. I was working in Delhi, and I wasn’t getting any takers on the hookup apps. But I had my own rented room – a high-value commodity in the gay community – and I used to be a weed and hash smoker. Quickly, I realised that men would hook up with me for the drugs.”
Soon, one of the men they’d hooked up with introduced them to chemsex, and began to use their house for it. “And frankly, once you do it, you’re crazy about it,” they confessed. “Within the gay community in India, we don’t even say the word sex, or call it chemsex, we just call it high fun. It is communicated through the diamond or rocketship emojis on one’s profiles on the hook-up apps,” explained Yogi.
Chemsex is not necessarily restricted to openly gay men alone. It can also toe the line between homo-curiosity and homo-eroticness. Yogi explained, “We’ve always referred to the homo-sex act through playful words like ‘masti’ which translates to fun but doesn’t ascribe the speaker with a specific sexuality. So ‘masti’ can happen between two men but neither of them have to be gay. It is understood as simply seeking pleasure or release, the act doesn’t define their sexual identity at all.”
Say My Name
The term ‘chemsex’ was coined by the late David Stuart, an LGBTQI+ sexual health advocate based in the United Kingdom, in 2019. He observed this phenomenon among the gay community in the United Kingdom; especially in London. He adopted the text nickname 'chems' used with drug dealers and added 'sex,' reflecting the purpose of buying these drugs. In his 2019 research paper for the journal Drugs and Alcohol Today, the ‘chem’ in chemsex specifically refers to three specific synthetic, lab-created chemical drugs.
First, crystal methamphetamine or crystal meth, initially used in the medical treatment for narcolepsy, asthma and as a weight-loss drug before being banned. Second, GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), first developed as an anaesthetic, presently is one of the date rape drugs and most recently, cathinone, a synthetic amphetamine known as bath salts specifically designed to provide psychoactive experiences.
For Stuart, this phenomenon has something to do with “the uniquenesses of gay sex and gay culture” and those “uniquenesses” stem from cultural factors that impact the enjoyment of homo-sex. He highlighted that societal disgust, religious views on homosexuality, AIDS stigma linked to gay acts, and the universally accepted risk-taking in gay sex as major factors affecting the perception of chemsex.
According to Stuart’s research, chemsex is unique to gay men because of hookup app culture, where you get select hookups like off a menu and filter using different options like tribes -- fitness, bear, and so on; or by body type, by race, by sexual position. This, along with the need to effectively “market” oneself, significantly impacts the enjoyment of gay sex.
Oh No! Not Another Issue!
Priyank, a gay baking professional in his mid-30s, wanted to break the silence around chemsex practices, after finding many of his gay friends suddenly into this scene. “Even ten years ago, chemsex only seemed to be happening in small pockets across the city,” Priyank told me. “Now, it’s a lot more pervasive.”
In 2016, as the co-founder of Queer Collective India (QCI), he organised Bengaluru’s first High Fun/Chemsex Awareness Seminar as part of the roster of programs during Bengaluru Namma Pride month. It took place at the hall in SCM House on Mission Road. Priyank’s friend, a recovering addict presented a personal testimonial on his journey from addiction to recovery, an LGBTQIA+ lawyer spoke on legal options and an addiction expert shared resources on the panel.
“There were over 80 people in the audience, but it was ill-received, [queer] people didn’t want the community’s internal issues made public. We had started a conversation they didn’t want to have at all.”
Seven years on, the tone and tenor of the seminar have changed since its debut. Initially, their approach wasn’t to tell people not to indulge in chemsex because everyone at the collective [QCI] believed in the slogan and statement ‘my body, my rights.’ Instead, the collective encouraged ‘safe practices’ if individuals do partake in this subculture. They also provided a list of resources if people were looking to break the habit.
This early approach aligned with other international LGBTQIA+ sexual health organisations, like Northern Ireland’s The Rainbow Project, which describes and sets rules of use intending to create non-judgemental and confidential channels for seeking help.
However, the organising committee of Namma Pride, the Coalition for Sex Workers and Sexuality Minority Rights (CSMR), deemed the early approach of QCI problematic. “They [CSMR] wanted the ‘don’t do drugs’ stance to be made very clear from the outset,” said Priyank. And over their next several seminar editions, the familiarity around this phenomenon has grown.
As it is with any drug usage, the fear of death by overdose started taking root. In the year 2019, QCI recorded eight deaths just in Bengaluru because of overdosing on these chemical drugs. From that year’s edition, “we also buckled down on discouraging people from even trying it because we were seeing that these drugs weren’t something that could be used in a controlled manner,” Priyank explained.
The growing response to the seminars, “mostly by concerned friends wondering how to help their friends in the chemsex scene” pushed Priyank and QCI to begin doing chemsex outreach throughout the year as well starting in 2019.
Being a peer-run collective made up of mostly recovering addicts, QCI has had to learn on the job to set clear boundaries in handling these cases. “One of our basic requirements is that the person needing intervention needs to be clean for five days and needs to have decided to stop doing these drugs before we can offer our help,” Priyank said.
It’s All About the Right Kinda Help
"In my years in the chemsex subculture, it became evident that I couldn't enjoy sex without substances, breaking my own recreational use rules,” said Sajan. “Initially liberating, these spaces eventually felt repetitive, succumbing to the broader gay community's standards of attractiveness. There's a constant desire for new, diverse bodies in these environments.”
But during the early months of the pandemic, three close friends of Sajan’s died from overdosing on these drugs, and he knew he had to stop. At first, he coped with these avalanches of feelings by doing more drugs, trying to make newer associations with them.
After a series of sessions that lasted nearly a month, Sajan had run out of the drugs, was finally alone, and felt it was time to get back on his feet. “I didn’t want to die like my friends,” he quietly admitted. “So, I decided to eat. The most common effect of meth is losing one’s appetite. And I hadn't eaten or hydrated in a long time. I started by just drinking some orange juice but immediately my stomach went for a toss. I hope I never forget that particular pain,” he recalled.
Sajan called his parents, who rushed him to a hospital. After tests, they discovered that he had four perforations in his bowel. On being coaxed by the doctor to understand the cause, Sajan finally admitted to his habit, and he was put on the right medical courses. After this hospitalisation, he was given no choice by his family and friends but to get clean. He set a condition that “I would get to choose the place because I wanted to go to a queer-affirmative rehab centre,” he told me. “I’d heard horror stories of recovery and didn’t want to undergo similar experiences.”
While Sajan was lucky to be given the space to do the research and find a rehab facility that worked for his recovery process, accessing these queer-affirmative rehab centres, counsellors and recovery processes is littered with hurdles. Rovan Varghese, a gay man and queer-affirmative counsellor based in Kerala, said, “The fact that the thought of the drug triggers the sexual experience and vice versa ends up impacting their connection with the world around them – people or situations. It takes understanding the nuance of the unique connection between the two activities to actually address this addiction. Already existing systems for drug de-addiction and rehabilitation in this country fall woefully short.”
Priyank remembered bringing in a representative from Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to speak at one of the early editions of the seminars, “as one of the worst decisions they have ever made”. The person he had invited made prejudiced and off-the-cuff remarks such as he was surprised that the gay persons engaging in chemsex “hadn’t shot themselves in the head.”
This seemed to speak to the truth that these NA rooms can be the most homophobic spaces in general. “Queer people don’t feel safe at all in these spaces. So, why would they reach out to any of them?” Priyank said.
But even arriving at a point where you can reach out for help in itself is difficult in the first place, particularly for queer people. “This is because the gay individual understands that society will judge them far more quickly and harshly than say a straight drug addict or an alcoholic person because of society’s association of queerness with illegal and socially frowned acts,” said Priyank.
The additional trouble with getting off the drugs and dissociating the drugs from sex is that for non-high fun, you have to come back to the same hookup apps while you are in recovery. “There aren’t other available avenues presently for gay men to find each other for sex,” believes Priyank.
Lessons in Chemistry
“We're repeating the same mistake with chemsex that we made in the 90s with HIV/AIDS. By the time we recognised the issues, it was already widespread,” said Yogi, the queer anthropologist, sounding the alarm. “This isn’t just a big city issue anymore. In less than a decade many small villages have meth circulating. Two years ago, on fieldwork trips to study ‘kothi’ hotspots in villages across South India, I would see syringes strewn around cruising spots, and people knew what they were doing, had their own street names for these drugs and knew where and how to access them.”
Datafying chemsex usage is notoriously difficult in India, due to the lack of access to chemsex users willing to openly speak about the experience and the interconnected relationship between privacy and safety for queer persons in India. To understand the proliferation of this phenomenon within the community, the Queer Collective launched a comprehensive, anonymous Substance use/ChemSex survey as part of Bengaluru Namma Pride Month 2023. It will focus on Karnataka alone for now and “if we’re able to collect comprehensive data and create replicable crisis management and recovery protocols, we’ll extend the survey to the other Southern states.”
While the survey will hopefully begin with providing a sense of the numbers engaged in the high fun scene, for Yogi and Esthappen there are other lessons to be learned from this phenomenon.
“Unlike the broader queer community, where we find it difficult to overcome class and caste divisions in our shared spaces, these rooms effortlessly bring together individuals from various backgrounds, ranging from local butchers to Bombay businessmen,” Esthappen told me. “So, what can we take from these spaces into our politics and the larger queer community around?”
Yogi believes the secrecy of this subculture might be a call to the larger queer community and society at large to dispel the shaming around gay sex, around sexual and kink experimentation, “and the force-fitting of gay life into brackets of heteronormative expectations.”
Take Sajan, for example. He believes that meth-induced great sex didn’t solve the feelings of isolation and loneliness, of feeling unattractive within the community – and felt unable to talk about anything because of the stigma and judgement associated with drug use and sex.
Esthappen echoes, “It might also mean working towards creating offline spaces safe for these forms of sexual experimentation and practice – beginning with even private conversations about one’s desires,” they said. “And reject the dominance of digital platforms to seek sexual connections.”
Perhaps it is in examination of the cracks in these queer walls that one can lay bricks to heal what drives gay men to high fun in the first place — the entanglements of being othered in a communal room of one’s own.