When James Wharton quit the army after a decade to retreat to a job in the City and a cosy home in Windsor with his husband and their two dogs, it seemed he’d found his happily ever after. He could have hardly predicted that a year later his marriage would have broken down, he’d be living in central London and be addicted to a combination of hookups and drugs known as chemsex.
It’s this unexpected journey that lead Wharton – who has previously written about being among the first openly gay men in the British army – to pen Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld.
Chemsex is a term used to describe a scene among men who have sex with men which is fuelled by substances including crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB. These lower a person’s inhibitions and heighten their libido in a combination described on dating apps as “HnH” or high and horny. Parties – commonly known as chillouts – often start on a Friday and bleed into weekdays for those who don’t make it into work. Generally relaxed affairs, they see anyone from lawyers to teachers gather at homes and hotels, before moving on to a party that better suits their mood and high. In 2015, Wharton was hooked on the potent combination of drugs, feeling wanted and a sense of belonging to a point that he remembers little of the year.
It was the year that chemsex began to gain mainstream attention, when the British Medical Journal warned that parties were causing a spike in causes of HIV, while a separate study at Imperial College London found the number of deaths caused GHB spiked by 119 per cent in London between 2014 and 2015. One person was dying every 12 days from GHB in the capital.
We spoke to Wharton about why he chose to write about his experiences, what attracts people to chemsex, and why he hopes to prove to others that they can seek support and help if they need it.
Chemsex has been in the mainstream news for a few years now. Why did you choose to write about chemsex now?
It was the right time for me. People have been going on about it for two or three years and I just didn’t feel part of that discussion or want to be part of it until very recently. I also think the community across the board knows about chemsex and is aware of it going on but there isn’t enough communication and discussion about it. I hope the book does spark that conversation.
Were you worried at all writing so candidly about taking drugs?
Yeah. I was worried about the people I love and what their reaction might be. I’ve written a book before and you’ve got to put your heart out there. If you’re going to talk about something personal and put opinions out there and express your views on certain things you can’t then try to hide from certain aspects of your personal experience. I was at the early part of this process worried but as the program has moved forward I’ve become more settled in myself and happy.
How did people respond when they realised you were working on the book? Did people distance themselves from you?
It was different for different groups of people. Friends who I know who take drugs and are involved were a bit concerned. There were a number of people texting me asking ‘I’m definitely not in the book, am I?’ Nobody had an adverse response to the idea of the book. Lots of people have asked for more information about chemsex, which I think is very positive. Others have expressed their support. On the whole, I’ve been pleased with the feedback people have given. That extends to friends to professional from Dr Christian Jessen who said kinds things and David Stuart who manages a chemsex support clinic at 56 Dean Street in London. We’ll see what my friends and family think.
Do you hope that the book with make people change their behaviour?
I want it to inspire some level of thought and dialogue and communication. I don’t need to change someone’s behaviour. It’s not a ‘read this if you want to stop’ but if you want more information. Read this if you want to find out you’re not alone. People will only seek help if they want it.
Do you think that chemsex is painted in a black and white way, and as wholly bad? Is it more of a grey area in terms of how badly it affects people?
It’s a very complex area and it is in only painted in a black and white way. But sometimes it’s only possibly to paint a snippet of the culture. And it’s so firmly spread in the gay community. And I think it’s a part of our culture as a whole. I think chemsex culture is gay culture in 2017. And the reason for that is the incredible journey that we’ve been on to get where we are. A lot of people arae carrying a lot of grief and trauma. I’d say that most teenagers coming into the community have had to deal with trauma because they’ve had to hide who they are for so many years. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, sitting down with your parents and saying you’re gay is not easy. And then life happens. Marriages break down. This book I hope paints this picture in more than black and white and I want to pick out the complexity of what the culture is.
In the book, you describe how you wrote an article against chemsex culture and sauna culture and how you were against drugs. Then your life changed dramatically. Do you think there is division between people who see themselves as above chemsex, and those who are a part of it?
What I would say is that society paints a picture of there being “good gays” and “bad gays”. When we went through the equal marriage debate for a few years you had the societal view that gays should get married and have happy families which was in quite a clash and a direct contradiction to how many gay men have lived and do live their lives. Perhaps the heteronormative view and ideology that was placed on our shoulders as part of that debate wasn’t wholly fair. A few years ago I subscribed to that vision of gay men getting married having a house and kids one day. And I don’t think it’s accurate or representative of the community. I have been through a transformation on what I think a gay person is or should be. The answer should be that a gay person should be whatever they want to be. If they want to get married and have kids great. If they want to live in a single flat and go clubbing every weekend that’s equally great.
Do you hope the book will help people understand what other members of the LGBT community are experiencing?
I think that straight people can learn a lot about gay culture from it too. There are some members of the gay community who don’t like to acknowledge the fact there is a drug problem. We are seven times more likely to use drugs than our straight counterparts. Over half of us have tried drugs in our lives. These facts point to something quite simple: if you’re gay you’re more likely to take drugs. There are some people who deny that happens and look the other way. They will think it’s the ‘bad gays’ doing that. The book is an opportunity to encourage more dialogue among us. If you want to put a line in the sand you can point out that every 12 days a gay man is dying because of chemsex. If we want to address it the key to it is to come together as a community and engage in a non judgmental way and point people to the places where support can be found. Like 56 Dean Street where you’ll find David Stuart. And me: I’m always happy to speak to people.
What surprised you the most about the scene?
In society there are barriers between different cohorts. Generally you have people in high or low paid jobs. There are people who work in the evening or in the day. People don’t generally get the chance to come together and be peers. What I found was that you’d end up at a party with barristers, police officers, public service workers, teachers. It was a culture that didn’t discriminate or put any people within the culture in a higher light. It broke all those standard barriers in real life.
Logistically, how do people manage to continue with their lives? How do they hide that they’re on a comedown on Monday morning, for instance?
A hangover from alcohol can be more severe after a considerable time of drinking than a comedown. But it takes it toll and there are a number of people who are turning up and pushing through. A lot of people recall losing their jobs or interest and spark in working. But we gay men are also really bloody good at masking things. Some people are fantastically brilliant at putting on a mask and going to work. Others aren’t so good.
It sounds really dark. So what’s so great about it? There must be something about it that keeps people coming back. Do you have any fond memories that you’d like to share?
It’s really fun. Chemsex culture is fun. The book is fairly clear that chemsex culture as a thing is dark and we talk about the really dark things like serial killers and a culture of rape that goes untackled every week in this great city because people are too scared to talk about it. The book is dark. But at the source, getting involved and going to parties and seeing 20 strangers all interested in you as person and the gratification of six or seven people expressing that desire to you in a sexual way and then factor in how powerful these drugs. In that very moment it’s a fun situation. The problem is the added on knock on effects that come with that. I believe people find themselves missing things. It could be a long-term partner or intimacy. Then on the weekend you find you have that thing: intimacy, connections, people, camaraderie. You have that in sackloads. And don’t forget you’re also taking a lot of very powerful drugs. That to me sounds like a pretty good short term fix to the lack of having something to focus on in life. And that is what is so real about the culture. There is nothing dark about it in the instance but the knock-on effects are very dark.
As it’s the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality this year, would you like to say anything about that?
I’m quite emotional about the whole thing. Anniversaries go and come all the time. But if you think about the terrible things that have happened to us in the past 50 years: serial killers in London, a bomb in the heart of Soho, the fucking Conservative party in the 1980s, archbishops of the church of England, chemsex, Stephen Port. That’s a lot of a community to deal with. I’m not entirely sure I’m celebrating it. I’m almost thinking God, please let the next 50 years be kinder to us as a people than the last.