Crystal has nothing to do with the vast majority of instances of unprotected sex, which happen for much more mundane reasons like momentary lapses and mistaken assumptions around HIV status.
In fact, it is surprising how many negative gay men believe all of their partners are HIV-negative and say they have never or rarely had sex with positive partners.
Just as surprising is how many positive men continue to believe that negative men are clued into their extremely subtle attempts to negotiate safe unprotected sex.
Among those gay men who do report using it, crystal is associated with unsafe sex in a number of different studies, both here and overseas. The drug may also be getting more popular: about 16 percent of Sydney gay men reported having used it recently in 2005, up from 8 percent in 2000, but down from the 20 percent of gay men surveyed in 2004.
There is no evidence, however, to say that crystal causes unsafe sex. Such evidence would be very difficult to get because the only way you can scientifically prove this is by doing a randomised controlled trial. And no-one is going to let us do that (thank goodness).
Australian researchers have been very careful to avoid the conclusion that crystal causes unsafe sex -“ with good reason, because if scientists were to say that, they would be reinforcing the belief that this is what the drug does, and this would affect both how the drug is used and what happens when people take it.
As sociologists have shown, psychoactive drugs, and the types of pleasures and experiences you get out of them, are a learned practice affected by group experience, cultural narratives and social encoding.
This includes what we hear from scientists and journalists, who provide some of the most powerful cultural narratives around today. When scientists claim crystal causes unsafe sex (which strictly speaking they can’t), they are in fact contributing to that virtuality.
Methamphetamine has been used in a variety of ways throughout history and in different cultures, many of which do not even lead to sex, let alone non-condom use.
Some gay men say crystal makes them feel fabulous and uninhibited. Others say (and I tend to agree) that it is not that much more interesting than a very strong cup of coffee (apologies to coffee enthusiasts).
Drugs are part of our culture and they ought to inspire cultural evaluation. One of the best contributions to the crystal debate I know appears on the inside cover of DJ Seymour Butz’s second Sauna Sessions CD, where he claims that crystal makes people unable to distinguish between music and cheese.
Some gay men report using crystal to enhance sex and be sexually adventurous. They say that crystal helps them lose their inhibitions.
It’s a bit of a shame that people have to use what is a very toxic, habit-forming drug to be sexually adventurous. But people do all sorts of things to enable new experiences.
Why do people need to use this drug to be sexually adventurous? Because there is a lot of stigma and shame around pleasurable practices that many gay men desire -“ like getting fucked, having sex with different partners, casual sex, and so on.
Incidentally, none of these activities necessarily leads to HIV transmission. We need to separate out conservative morality from HIV safety here.
We live in an increasingly conservative moral climate where any sort of sex outside the couple form is constructed by some as immoral. Perhaps some gay men use crystal to suspend this shame and release themselves from the pressure of these social mores.
For example, one of the most common things that users report is increased confidence. This doesn’t sound like being out of it to me. Similarly, it is much easier to say I was on drugs to excuse oneself from socially marginalised pleasures than to say I like to do these things.
But allowing people to feel good about what they want to do and think clearly about how to protect themselves while they are doing it is exactly what we need to do if we’re at all interested in HIV prevention.
So for me the question becomes, how do we challenge these forces of social inhibition so that people can distinguish between moral risk (which may actually be okay) and HIV risk (which is not)?
How do we challenge these forces of social inhibition so that people can make realistic, informed choices about the sort of sex they want, and can have honest and open communication about it, in a way that doesn’t compromise people in terms of their physical health or HIV transmission?
It’s the forces of social inhibition, not artificial instances of personal disinhibition, we really need to tackle here. I reckon you can have great, adventurous sex without putting yourself at risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV (whether you’re on drugs or not).
There are lots of reasons not to use crystal over and apart from unsafe sex -“ its toxicity, its more-ishness, the fact that it makes you lose your sense of humour. It has gotten a lot of people into serious emotional and financial trouble.
But there are also a lot of reasons not to get too excited about it.
Crystal is a monster we’ve constructed to displace our fears but also our desires around unprotected sex and sexual experimentation.
Kane Race lectures in Health, Sexuality & Culture at the National Centre in HIV Social Research, UNSW. His book, Pleasure Consuming Medicine, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2007.