Chemsex vs sober sex – The sexual functioning lowdown

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Although our sexual expression, preferences and confidence are dictated by biology, a lifetime’s experience and a (very) heavy dose of sociocultural messages, sexual experiences are influenced in the moment by the interplay between three key factors;

  • our psychological arousal (i.e. how comfortable we feel, whether what is happening turns us on or off)
  • our physical experience (i.e. pleasure/pain)
  • the presence or absence of distraction/negative thoughts (i.e. how much we are able to be in the moment rather than in our own evaluations of what’s happening).

These factors (inextricably linked with, and influenced by, our biology, history and culture) interact with each other in a complex way, leading to an experience of either a positive or negative sexual encounter, which in turn makes us more or less likely to choose to repeat a similar encounter in the future. This affects both our choices around our sexual expression, but also has a knock-on effect on our desire and sexual functioning.

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Research tells us that when we are sexually aroused, our attention becomes more focused (Barlow, 2002). This is like the mental equivalent of a page of text with something written in CAPITALS AND BOLD. You notice it over and above all the other text on the page and pay more attention to its message.

The consequences of this depends on what we are attending to. If that increase in focus is on something we evaluate to be positive sexually (for example, a thought we are having about how hot it is), this reinforces the arousal loop (interaction between our brains and our bodies) and builds on our physical pleasure and psychological arousal.

This has been speculated to be an important aspect of sexual functioning and allows us to ‘tune out’ of all other distractions to maintain arousal and desire.  However, if this increase in attentional focus happens to correspond with a negative thought, this can lead to a break in this feedback loop, decrease sexual arousal and pleasure, and potentially lead to a negative sexual experience.

Everyone is vulnerable to this process happening from time to time and men who have sex with men are vulnerable to the same negative thoughts during sex as everyone else (‘They don’t look like they are enjoying this’/’What if I don’t stay hard/come?’/’Did I leave the oven on?’) as well as being culturally disproportionately affected by others ‘What if I get/transmit HIV?’ ‘My body is not as good as theirs’/’They’re bigger than me’.

Drug and alcohol use are widely known to remove inhibition and can have the effect of building confidence and reducing negative thoughts or worries during sex. Drugs such as G/Meth/Meph of course have the unique properties of doing this without reducing sexual desire, hence their facilitation of being in the moment without limiting the rest of the sexual encounter at times. This piece is not focused on the socio-cultural aspects of the shift in sex/apps/drugs on the gay scene over the last 10 years, but it would also be inaccurate for us to paint a picture that chemsex is just about facilitating sexual experience when we know it serves many other functions in our community.

But let’s look deeper at the psychosexual aspects of chems for a minute. Chris* has been on the chems scene for a while and has been enjoying the altered physical experience that chems allowed him (i.e. no pain and more intense sensations), as well as the increase in psychological arousal from the combination of novelty of experience (always a new venue, with new partners that he finds very attractive) as well as the impact of intense visual stimulation (from watching what is going on around him). He was also benefitting from the disinhibition that chems allowed, as he found that he was not distracted by thoughts around his body. Instead he felt sexy, powerful and attractive (his attentional focus).

It’s not surprising that this experience would lead to a positive evaluation of chemsex for Chris and motivate him to maintain or increase his chems use as an aspect of his sexual expression. Chris has been happy with how things are. He feels in control of his drug use, his boundaries and his sexual health. The only problem Chris reports is how to find a boyfriend. He’s recently decided he’d like more than sex and he feels that even knowing where to meet guys away from sex parties and apps is difficult. He also feels that the last few years of having sex in this way have impacted on his sense of how dating happens. He feels so out of practice that he wonders whether it’s even acceptable to wait to have sex until he’s got to know someone first. This is a problem for Chris he knows that an aspect of sober sex that makes a difference to his psychological arousal is how comfortable he feels with that person and this takes him a few weeks or months. Only time will tell how this catch 22 plays out for him moving forward.

Vince* had a different experience. Something that started off like it had for Chris, started to become more appealing and take up more time and money than he had planned. He found himself in situations that he would later regret and felt often like he was going through the motions when at chemsex parties.

He started to notice that his psychological arousal was reduced by some of the things he saw whilst having sex (people looking worse for wear/not in control) or his conditions for good sex not being met (having the feeling that the guys he was with would not want him outside of this setting). He found that although the physical stimulation felt good, after some time he started to feel less and less, and was using Viagra to help (he then became sure he needed Viagra to stay hard so became psychologically dependant on it but that’s another story). He was distracted by thoughts of all of this, as well as the fact he knew he would need to attend his local Clinic for PEP as he’d felt he should have BB sex like everyone else was.

Vince and his regular boyfriend Oli had also played together with others and chems a lot, and had stopped having sex without chems as they felt it just didn’t compare. How could it when compared to sex on chems it didn’t last very long, involved no novelty, and they were both left feeling conscious and awkward about it? Plus they were often too tired after long weekends of partying. For Vince the experience of not being completely in the moment quickly and easily due to the effects of G, led to an influx of distracting negative thoughts during sober sex with Oli that effected his arousal and ultimately his desire. He and Oli stopped having sex and he felt Chemsex was the only way forward for his sex life.

Understanding our relationship with chems to our physical and psychological sexual experience is a vital part of working out what’s OK for us moving forward in our preferred sex lives.

It’s a different experience to feel in control, be able to dip in and out of chems, stay safe and still enjoy the (sometimes very different) experience of sober sex, to feeling like Vince where sober sex starts to feel like an unattractive impossibility, and chemsex becomes more frequent with less reward and more negative health and life consequences.

If you need support with your chems use visit your local sexual health clinic who can help you with staying safe or setting your own limits. Services such as London Friend offer excellent support.

For help with getting your sex life back on track without chems (for couples or individuals) stay tuned for our upcoming online workshop, or make an appointment with one of our team.

Sober Sex is different, but with some investment it can be as hot as you make it/want it to be.

Dr Karen Gurney, Clinical Psychologist & Psychosexologis- The Havelock Clinic

*fictional guys, representing common experience

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