I had to take a timeout from reporting this story and catch my breath at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, so consider this your trigger warning.
I was interviewing UK photographer Matt Spike about his recently exhibited series on “chemsex” (i.e., hedonistic, multi-day gay orgies at which participants inject a trio of disinhibiting party drugs — crystal meth, mephedrone and GHB), when I stumbled on a photo that shook my 5-year sobriety to its core: “Here’s someone in a sling being administered an injection of crystal meth moments before getting fisted up to the elbow,” Spike explained.
Granted, I’d never been fisted, but I did fall in love with a drug addict in 2011. He was straight, so we never had sex. But he regularly injected me with cocaine which, from the dopamine’s perspective, was the next best thing. (And from the drug addict’s perspective, was the best thing.) As I learned then and as I’m wistfully reminded of now, being injected with drugs can be a sexual act in itself. Which is why people have come to fetishize it — and why Matt Spike wanted to capture it.
A self-described “fetish photographer,” Spike says he’s drawn to leather mostly because of the submissive/dominant relationship, but had grown tired of taking ho hum BDSM sexy portraits. “I questioned whether there was a link between fetish photography and political activism,” he says. “Something a bit more heavyweight than just getting off on the images. I looked around and realized a lot of people were injecting crystal meth around me. I consulted a friend of mine who runs a gay men’s health clinic in London who said, ‘You’re messing with a dangerous subject, but no one else is doing it so you should.’”
It’s risky because chemsex significantly raises HIV and hepatitis C risks, since slamming party drugs with shared needles = disinhibition and unprotected sex. As a result, the “party and play culture” has destroyed gay scenes in cities around the world, Spike explains. And how exactly it does so is multi-layered:
- Psychological: “It literally makes people crazy by inducing panic attacks.”
- Physical: “I’ve seen guys who were super grizzly muscle bears whittled down to nothing.”
- Emotional: “A total break from reality which creates a false sense of intimacy. And then an abrupt realization, often followed by severe paranoia and depression.”
“GHB will make a nun horny,” an attendee explained at Spike’s exhibition in London. What will it do to already hyper-horny gay men? Drive them tap into deep, primal, male sexual desires, Spike says, and actually reprogram the brain to hunt for risky sex (or be hunted, as the case may be), like strung out monkeys.
Nine black and white photos in the chemsex series were taken over the course of a year. In a way, Spike says, they are separate pieces of work, compiled in an album intended for people to better understand how gay and bi men are injecting chemicals to distort their sex lives.
Combined, the photos explore the entirety of the chemsex roller coaster — the passion, loneliness, confusion and despair — while simultaneously exploring fetishes around thick ‘healthy’ veins (which Spike calls “vein porn”) and cruising Grindr for days before hastily corralling fragments of a shattered psyche.
“You have to have a 360-degree view of the subject,” Spike says, matter-of-factly, “so you can understand a crisis and why people get into it in the first place. I asked Spike to talk me through how he obtained this panoramic, pornographic view of arguably the most unsafe sex party in the world.
This is the starting image of the series and the first chemsex shot I ever took. It’s kind of the “idealized state,” a moment of genuine intimacy before the mania sets in. Kissing and touching are heightened when you’re sober. Strangely, these two had never met before and got along well. We got the needles out and they started to play and I brought a smoke machine into the room. The guy on the right is looking at the guy on the left as a mentor of sorts, administering the drug. It’s that magical starting stage where everything is beautiful. It’s a sexual fantasy — a dream.
Like with AIDS, whenever there’s a gay health crisis, people tend to only focus on what failures gay men are because they indulge in dangerous practices. (Ergo, it’s all their fault.) So a shot like this is important because ultimately what people are looking for is some form of intimacy. This is what they imagine will happen before taking the drug; it’s what they seek and what they want — a form of ramped-up intimacy. But it’s ultimately not the image they are left with.
Once the drug is in your system you become only focused on yourself: When can I get my next fix? How can I maintain my high? You get greedy and very selfish. I used a low depth of field and zoomed in on the needle going in. I think the clenched fist, slightly out of focus up front, is quite telling.
This is vein porn. During the administering of crystal meth, the rest of the body gets forgotten and all the focus is directed exclusively to the veins in the arm. Heavy crystal meth users like looking at really thick veins. They’ll see someone with veins that stick out and think whoa, that’s a good one for administering a drug. They actually fetishize the vein itself and get really turned on just by looking at an armful of veins.
You might expect there to be a bit of frenzy and anticipation As a matter of fact, these guys were not very worked up about doing the drugs. As I was shooting them, it really seemed like a normal fact of life. Sure, they got high afterwards. There wasn’t anything particularly special about it. They were happy to be photographed, so long as their faces weren’t in there so Google couldn’t determine which faces were in the photos.
This is my favorite shot in the series, not just because his dick is out. He’s wearing a band with “ESCORT” on it and a dollar sign around his neck, which speaks to the role of prostitution in chemsex and represents how people hire others and watch them do drugs. I like guys who wear their queerness on their sleeve. He’s owning his identity, and very well. I think he’s very hot. It’s a shame I had to cut his face off.
This image is parody and not to be taken too seriously. He’s going to jack himself up to a car battery. It’s tongue in cheek, but it fits in with chemsex because there’s pretty crazy behavior that exists during a chemsex party. This speaks to the disinhibiting behavior which is often on display, and the risks you’re willing to take. I used to work as an escort. Guys would hire me to progressively over time make their nipples huge. I would take guys over the course of 2 or 3 years from having tiny baby nipples to having real pig tits.
He has just crushed his phone and given up (for now.) This world is chemically created and therefore not real, which can be devastating. This photo speaks to the disingenuity of that world and the frustration that comes with being messed around by Grindr dates who don’t show. People put real-world expectations situations that aren’t real, which ultimately leads to disappointment; if you’re really high and tense you become capable of doing anything, including crushing a phone in your hand.
This is one of the guys from the first “idealized state” photo. By this point, he’s coming down and we see him in four stages.
- On the left, he is manically checking his phone.
- In the back, he’s holding his head in horror, realizing what he’s done and that he’s probably going to have a very unpleasant week.
- At the same time, he’s horny, so on the right he’s sitting back and holding his junk.
- Frontally, it’s the true self coming to terms with what all these states of mind are, oscillating through various stages of madness.
You can easily experience these four states of immersion during chemsex, which leads to psychosis and extended obsession with cumming. This one probably relates most closely to my own personal experience of using crystal meth. During the come down period, I go through all four of those moods. I can sit in a chair and look at a wall for two hours and it will pass by like it’s five minutes. I’ll become engrossed in my phone in what feels like ten minutes but it’s actually six hours. I’ve once stood in the corner of a room and watched the room shrink with a sense of claustrophobia. I’ve also, after being under the influence of drugs for a few days straight, looked at my phone and seen 41 missed calls from my mother.
And yet, all the while, I’ve continued to inject more and masturbated for two days while doing a bit of obsessive cleaning. (My personal trainer, who is now clean, decided to get clean when his boyfriend caught him trying to clean his carpet with a spoon. When the boyfriend asked him why he was using a spoon, his response was “Well, what else am I going to clean the carpet with?!”)