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CRITICAL CHEMSEX STUDIES
Appetite, euphoria, and the inevitability of coming down
Do you remember the first time you fucked on drugs? I was 18, on ecstasy, clit throbbing with the sweaty shame of transgression. In Singapore, where I grew up, dealing drugs is punishable by death, but my boyfriend still managed to score sometimes through the emo kids who hung out in the basements of dingy malls. My earliest memories of sex are a scintillating stew of chemical highs, government paranoia, and Catholic guilt—in some ways, the taboo has never lifted.
But you know how it goes: pills hit, pupils wobble, and suddenly the only thing that matters is filling the void with flesh.
I recently wrote an essay for the iconic sex rag Cosmopolitan about my journey of self-realization through club sluthood. (It’s not out yet! I’ll share when it’s up.) “Dancefloor hookups are often ephemeral exercises in seduction, blank bodies boiled down to tongues, nails, teeth,” I wrote. What I failed to mention is how many—if not all—of these hookups were attenuated by the electric élan of stimulants, which fueled my party girl days in New York. My editor also nixed the stuff I slipped in about all-night fuck-a-thons with a doe-eyed nympho who bragged about modeling for Calvin Klein by day while buying meth on Skid Row by night. It’s OK, I get it. Not the best fit for Cosmo.
Untangling the ways that drugs can modulate pleasure, dampen culturally-conditioned sexual anxiety, and foster a kind of dark intimacy is still such a touchy topic, unless you’re talking about couples doing MDMA to improve their marriages, or whatever. So when a stranger reached out on Instagram asking if I’d like to fly to New York this week to co-moderate a discussion on chemsex in conjunction with the Whitney Museum’s World Aids Day exhibition, I was obviously intrigued.
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Chemsex is a term that comes from the gay community to describe the practice of taking substances like meth, GHB/GBL, and synthetic cathinones like 3-MMC while engaging in casual, and often group, sex. If you’ve ever cruised on hookup apps like Grindr, terms like “Party and Play,” or “PnP” pop up pretty often as code for people looking to engage in this kind of thing.
While the combination of drugs and sex is nothing new, PnP parties are a relatively new cultural phenomenon that emerged in historical conjunction with the rise of online dating apps and HIV antiretroviral drugs, as well as the closures of gay clubs and bars where chemically-enhanced hookups could traditionally take place.
Most of the public health discourse around chemsex frames the practice in a paradigm of risk and harm reduction. This makes sense; I have quite a few friends whose drug addictions are intertwined with chemsex, and have difficulties reimagining sex without stims. But a field of academic study called critical chemsex studies has emerged that aims to center the practice in pleasure, intimacy and queer identity. As the writer Kane Race puts it in his book Pleasure Consuming Drugs, “If drugs are seen as an attempt to escape from a normative or hostile social order, what would it take to engage more fully with the texture of these escapes? What possibilities of care, what new pleasures, what ethics, what multiplicities emerge?”
Here I am going to admit that destigmatizing chemsex is a super edgy topic!!! And that as a bisexual (or whatever) woman, I am not the traditional demographic that gets to discuss the practice in these expansive and exploratory terms. But, like many of the critical chemsex scholars, I am hoping that the existing framework can be adapted for women, trans, and non-binary people who are under-represented in the current discourse. Ether way, I’m hoping it’ll just be a chance for us to talk about sex on (and off) drugs in a non-judgy context.
If you’d like to join us in person or over Zoom, the discussion is happening this Thursday afternoon in New York (details below). It is hosted by The Infernal Grove—an artist-run group that meets every so often to pursue “an unsystematic structural analysis of drug use, addiction, and recovery (not necessarily in that order).” The talk will be co-moderated by Mikiki—a queer artist, sexual health worker, and drag performer whose video work is showing at the Whitney—as well as experimental filmmaker Devon Narine-Singh, and Infernal Grove founders Emily and Cooper. I expect it to be a small group with intimate, freaky vibes.
The readings we will be discussing are linked below, but you don’t have to read them to join us—just come as you are. I would love to see some of you so please let me know if you’re pumping through!!!
APPETITE, EUPHORIA & THE INEVITABILITY OF COMING DOWN: A STUDY GROUP
Thursday Dec 1,
19 E 31st St, New York, NY
Dance Studio 2, 2nd Floor
Kane Race, (pdf), “Exceptional Sex: How Drugs Have Come to Mediate Sex in Gay Discourse”, from Pleasure Consuming Medicine , 2009.
Amia Srinivasan, (pdf), “Watching Porn with my Students”, The Right to Sex, 2021.