Hornet Exclusive: Chemsex Among French Gay Men Is Prevalent Despite Negative Effects on Their Sex Lives
In the first wide-scale study of its kind in France, nearly 4,000 Hornet users answered our survey about gay men and chemsex (that is, the consumption of meth or other drugs before prolonged, often condomless sex). We presented the survey’s results during a recent Conversation event in Paris about gay health organized by the Hornet France team.
Among the results of our chemsex survey, nearly 25% of our gay French male respondents had engaged in chemsex in the last year, and 30% of those between the ages of 36–45. Of those who have had chemsex in the last year, 29% engage in it several times per month, and 7% of these gay Frenchmen said they have chemsex several times each week.
Drugs of choice include GHB, cathinones (bath salts), ecstasy, ketamine, marijuana and cocaine.
A fairly high percentage of those respondents who engage in chemsex (between 20%–30%) rate the impact of chemsex on their overall health as problematic to out-of-control. A majority of chemsex users (59%) claim it has no effect on their professional lives.
The results of our chemsex survey
Let us first state that the Hornet users who responded to our survey aren’t necessarily a representative sample of France’s gay community at large. We received 3,736 answers to our survey, which was sent to users via their Hornet inbox.
Among all the respondents, 965 — around 25% of the total responses — answered ‘yes’ to the question “Have you engaged in chemsex in the last 12 months?”
About 30% of respondents between ages 36–45 had recently participated in chemsex. Younger guys were less likely to have participated in chemsex; only 20% of respondents between ages 18–24 said they’d recently had chemsex.
Among those who had recently participated in chemsex, 70% are HIV-negative, 21% are HIV-positive and 8% don’t know their status. Of those who hadn’t recently participated, 82% are HIV-negative and only 6% are HIV-positive.
A majority of the people who have recently had chemsex (66%) say they are single.
Among people who have engaged in chemsex, all ages are represented: 24% of the recent chemsex participants are between 18–24 years old, 36% are between 25–35 years old, 29% are between 36–49 years old and 10% are over 50.
When asked about the reasons that led them to chemsex, respondents answered equally: “To improve my sex-life,” “Because my partners were already doing it” or “Because I went to a party where chemsex was happening” (around 27% each).
Our respondents engaged in chemsex with one or several partners they already knew (61%), with unknown partners (49%), with their boyfriend (24%), during chemsex parties (23%) and alone with porn (16%).
To those who might wonder if watching porn can be considered sex, Fred Bladou of Aides — the largest anti-HIV non-governmental organization in France — said during our Conversation event, “A study found that image stimulation was like having sex with another person, because it activates the same areas in the brain. Chemsex has also changed the fact that people don’t need to have a sexual relationship with someone else to have sex.”
A majority of respondents who have had chemsex in the last 12 months said they mainly engage in chemsex several times a year (31%), followed by several times a month (29%). A smaller number experiment with chemsex once a month (18%).
About 7% of these gay French men said they have chemsex several times a week.
“Yes, 7% is a small number”, says Stephan Vernhes, who is in charge of the chemsex program at the Spot Beaumarchais in Paris. “But it’s already a good thing that people are willing to declare that they do chemsex this often — which is a sign that things tend to be out of control — and those who have sex with chemicals several times a month are at risk of sliding out of control, too.”
When asked “What drug do you use during chemsex sessions?” 48% said they were using G (the common term for GHB or GBL, a euphoric sedative), 46% used cathinones (a new class of highly addictive synthetic drugs), followed by ecstasy (38%) and ketamine (16%). Respondents also declared that they use marijuana or cocaine (33%).
Younger respondents have slightly different behaviors. For those between ages 18–24, ecstasy or MDMA are the most preferred drug (43%), even more so than G, and others like cocaine, marijuana and poppers. Use of cathinones by younger respondents was below 30%.
About 61% of respondents declared they commonly smoke or inhale their chemsex drugs, 27% say they ingest them and 8% inject them.
We wondered whether respondents also used drugs usually associated with chemsex outside of sex. One-third of the respondents who recently engaged in chemsex said yes, though their use changes depending on age. Younger guys between 18–24 are more likely to do drugs outside of sex (47%) while only 20% of older ones are are likely to do so.
How chemsex affects the lives of its participants
We asked our Hornet users whether chemsex had an impact on their sexual, emotional, social or professional lives, and whether it had an impact on their overall health. Their answers were placed on a scale of ‘0’ for no impact at all to ’10’ for having a major impact on health due to out-of-control drug use.
On each of the items, between 20% to 30% of respondents rated the impact on their overall health as problematic to out-of-control (basically a 5 to 10 rating). The strongest impact they observed was on their sex lives. Around 32% of all respondents who engage in chemsex experience very problematic drug use. That number goes up to 50% for guys who participate in chemsex several times a week.
Moreover, 50% of respondents ticked the ‘0’ box for their emotional and social lives and 59% picked ‘0’ for the effect on their professional lives.
Vernhes reacted to those figures. “We often hear about de-socialization, isolation,” he says, “but we seldom hear the paradox that chemsex is supposed to improve your sex life but in the end, it’s your sex life that suffers the most.”
Approximately 82% of the respondents who engage in chemsex have not seen any professional in the health sector regarding their chemsex habits. This number goes down to 66% for the more frequent users, that is, those who engage in chemsex several times a weeks.
Vernhes comments, “People talk a lot about the guys who are in deep trouble, but it seems that the majority of users are in control. Those in great difficulty are a minority that seems to grow, but still a minority.”
Stigma doesn’t seem to affect many guys engaging in chemsex. Around 80% of chemsex dabblers responded “No, not really” or “No, not at all” to the question “Have you felt stigma because of your chemsex habits?”
“Almost one in four people who engage in chemsex know someone who died after a [chemsex scenario],” found Gay Star News, a British gay website that conducted a similar survey in Britain. We uncovered nearly the same percentages in France. About 43% of the people who engage in chemsex know one or several people who have difficulty controlling the drug; 18% know one or several people who have overdosed after a PNP scenario.
Bladou of Aides warns us to be cautious. “With the social platforms, everyone knows someone in trouble,” he says. It’s less true for respondents who don’t engage in chemsex. Only 15% of non-chemsex users say that they know someone in difficulty and only 5% of them know someone who overdosed because of chemsex.