Opening a new arts festival with a market stall arts installation and a series of events called ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’, as was the case with Portraits of Recovery’s (PORe) first Recoverist Month, is nothing less than bold. The title of this new project commissioned from Harold Offeh takes the name and cover art of the 1990 Salt-N-Pepa sex-positive feminist anthem (as well as its lesser-known AIDS activist B-side) as a starting point for artist research and development during the 2023 Manchester Pride weekend focussing on chemsex subcultures.
Chemsex, a term coined by pioneering sexual health activist David Stuart, is a culture of mainly gay men who combine illegal drugs to come together for heightened and prolonged sexual experiences. Chemsex promises euphoric highs and sexual adventure, but with it can come longer-term health risks including overdosing, sexual assault, and increased HIV transmission. To be safe, the combination use of chemsex drugs GHB/GBL, methamphetamine and mephedrone requires a delicate balance, and the sexual activities of people engaging in this scene can often be unsafe.
I say all this without judgement. I was a chemsex participant and user for several years less than a decade ago. Numerous friends of mine are not aware of this fact. It’s not exactly something I mention in general conversation. Among many things I learned at the August bank holiday opening weekend of PORe’s Recoverist Month is that Manchester attracts many international visitors because of its chemsex parties. This is likely one of the lesser publicly promoted tourist attractions of the northern powerhouse city, but I understand the compulsion and allure of this underground scene. I, and some of my friends, understand the challenges of building intimate sexual relationships once the drugs, thrills and intensity of the experiences are removed.
Harold Offeh and PORe’s founder and Artistic Director Mark Prest first delivered ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’ on a Saturday market stall at Manchester Pride on Community Lane in the Gay Village, themed as a vintage radio show. Offeh invited passers-by to enter the show as a guest or respond to prompts and questions on the topic of sex on chems, intimacy, and consent. Pinning fridge magnet-type words on a large soft felt mock cassette tape, the people who took part also created their own pop music lyrics using words from songs from Harold’s specially created mixtape playlist.
I was in the closed session for people with lived experience of chemsex on the Sunday afternoon, and this same lyric writing and Harold’s mixtape soundtrack was a gentle way to enter discussion about this difficult and uncomfortable subject matter.
Given the sensitive and potentially taboo nature of this project’s focus, it is a credit to founder Artistic Director Mark Prest that ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’ is taking place in Manchester’s council run Art Gallery, with the support of Arts Council England, and the Greater Manchester councils led by Mayor Andy Burnham. The main public panel discussion event on Sunday was a packed room of queers in Manchester Art Gallery, demonstrating the clear need for all of us being ready to discuss the issue.
Harold chaired an impassioned and knowledgeable panel: Duncan Craig OBE, founder and CEO of We Are Survivors, drag artist and sexual health academic Cheddar Gorgeous and Josh Wharton, Services Operational Lead at George House Trust. Cheddar Gorgeous (AKA Dr Michael Atkins) had been commissioned to write the groundbreaking Sex, Chems, HIV and Consent report last year, framing the nuanced discussion that took place at the ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’ Sunday panel event. Being non-judgemental and focussing on harm reduction was the focus of these individuals and organisations, and from the questions, applause and one-to-one discussions being had afterwards, it was clear that attendees were on the same page.
As Cheddar Gorgeous said, when we talk about sex, we either make a joke or do it for the purpose of arousal. It’s rare, in our society, that we openly discuss topics as important as consent and preferences without feeling shameful. It’s no wonder then that a closed-door subculture has arisen from the liminal spaces and places that technology, drugs, and vulnerability provide. The reality check of these events is that chemsex claims lives and costs sanity for many gay men. As Mark noted on Sunday, people who overcome their chemsex addiction often refer to themselves as survivors rather than being in recovery.
We Are Survivors’ Duncan Craig pointed out, ‘Art can help us talk about difficult things.’ As artists we invent, we pioneer, we go into places that others dare not yet to tread. Harold Offeh spoke in the closed session about the openness he had to investigating this world that he knows of but does not know personally. The ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’ weekend effectively demonstrated the sensitivity, thought and care that the artist and PORe has already put into years of planning this project. In delving into this unexplored twilight world, Harold outlined three themes: Intimacy, Desire, and Consent. Nuance and humanity are key to this exploration.
Several artist friends feel angry that the Arts Council is now focussing on arts and health. Their fears of a government take-over are real causes for alarm, and I stand with them on this. There should always be access for people from all walks of life to make arts for art’s sake. However, being witness to ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’, this also shows the very real power and integrity of high-quality arts that crosses disciplines and explores acute health issues. ‘Let’s Talk About Chemsex’ is and will be by and for those of us who have lived at the fringes of society. Art is the best way to navigate the challenging hidden.
This Harold Offeh project, and PORe’s Recoverist Month programme are ones to watch and get yourself along too, this September, and beyond. This is important stuff. Do not miss it.
It’s possible to take part in Harold’s project. If you have been affected by chemsex issues, you can call this number and leave a message.
You can read more about this year long Harold Greater Manchester project here
PORe’s Recoverist month runs throughout September, and half the events are already sold out. I’d urge you to beg to be on the waiting list. You can find out about the upcoming events in September here.
Thanks to Mark and Nell of PORe for the photos and help editing this blog.