Chesterton's words were never more true than at this moment
It’s a story of what the writer calls “everyday annihilation.” In The Guardian’s measured description, chemsex is “the habit of engaging in weekend-long parties fuelled by sexually disinhibiting drugs, such as crystal meth, GHB, GBL and mephedrone. These parties involve multiple people and are mostly facilitated online.” Some of the men let themselves be infected with the HIV virus, which they call “pozzing up.”
Chemsex, explains a doctor at a London clinic for sexual diseases, “makes you stay awake for three days and makes you do things sexually that you might not have done otherwise, … makes you not care about tomorrow or your sexual health at all because it’s so disinhibiting, and … start using [drugs] to have sex with populations who are at very high risk of HIV and hepatitis C.”
He relates the men’s problems to their childhood experiences of being the only homosexual person they knew. “Intimacy is a skill we learn as children in the ideal family unit. A lot of gay men we are seeing in clinic didn’t experience that,” he explains.
They were performing all the time, being over-straight, overcautious, keeping the secret secret. That’s the opposite of intimacy. Then suddenly they’re all grown up, in a hypersexualised gay world with an app on their phone that helps facilitate very fast sex in a population of people who are more prone to HIV and hepatitis C, and they’re trying to incorporate intimacy into their lives with no frame of reference.
The writer describes the men as men “for whom life itself is a movie of their own editing, captured on endless smartphones, torsos tightened in the bathroom mirror.”
It’s haunting, that description of men who can’t find intimacy, who are always performing in their own movie, and who throw themselves into a degradation that brings them intimacy (of a sort) at such a cost. When I read the story I found myself leaning away from the screen and putting up my hands as if to keep them away. It’s hard to imagine being so alienated and disconnected that you’d do that to feel close to someone.
I felt compassion and revulsion at the same time. I thought, Thank God I’ve never been tempted to do anything this horrible. It was a reaction, but it seemed the proper response. I think it really is.
You may be thinking, as I did, of Jesus’ story about the Pharisee who said something like this and was condemned for it. Pharisaism is only half a thought away for many of us, and only a thought or two away for others. Jesus didn’t like it at all. There’s a difference, however.
The Pharisee stood upon his status as a good man. He said, “Thank God I’m me and not him.” We stand (or should stand) upon our status as redeemed sinners. We say (or should say), “Thank God I haven’t been tempted the way he has, poor man, because if I were I might be right there with him.” The prayer can be extended: “Because I’m not tempted as he has been, I might be of some use to him.”
The trick, I think, isn’t (sorry for the triple negative) not to give thanks that we are not like other men. Giving thanks that you’re not enjoying a drug-fueled three-day orgy that could leave you with a deadly disease can be a simple act of gratitude, because you know how easily you could have been twisted or bent as a child in this or another direction. The trick is to realize that at the same time we have been blessed not to be like them and that we are exactly like them.
The chemsex men look for love in all the wrong places. So do we, but most of us, average, everyday, generic brand sinners that we are, look for it in places not so obviously dangerous and degrading. You can see this in others. The miser thinking only of his money is becoming less human, which is to say degrading himself, annihilating his personality in a small, private orgy of greed. The man of pride plotting to subdue the weak is becoming less human, degrading himself, annihilating his personality in a small, private orgy of self-assertion. We can think of times we have been both of these.
We are not the chemsex men. We are the chemsex men.
One of the great blessings of being Catholic is that the Church helps us give deep thanks, because she helps us see more clearly who we are. Which means: from what we have been saved and to what we are being saved. Sometimes at Mass, though not nearly often enough, I see something of what I’m getting and how very, very far from deserving that gift I am. It’s both like a smack in the head and the light going on in a pitch-black room.
Knowing this makes every day a feast of Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t hurt, though, to begin celebrating the secular feast in the confessional.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMillsWrtng.
For David Mills’ other articles on Thanksgiving, see Thank God for the Things You Never Think About and Thank God for Life, Even When It Feels Like a Gift You Don’t Want.