GAY sex-on-premises venues and saunas are popular places for gay men to hook up, often anonymously.
They have also emerged as popular venues for chemsex (or ‘party and play’) hook ups for guys using drugs like ice.
Jimmy* is a former ice user in Melbourne who often visits saunas.
“I always just assume most of the guys are high on shard,” Jimmy, says with a laugh.
“I’m pretty certain they are.”
Gay and bi people are statistically more likely to use recreational drugs, and are four times more likely to use ice and other amphetamines.
So what’s the appeal of ice for casual sex at venues?
“It gives you self-confidence and lowers your inhibitions. A lot of gay men tend to be shy and inhibited,” Jimmy says.
“It’s like Grindr in real life – guys are looking right at you, and you can’t just avoid them when you’ve paid the same money as them to be there.
“You’re all at a sex venue for the same thing, so you can’t be shy. People normally use alcohol for confidence in other settings, but at saunas being drunk can make you come off as sloppy. Shard makes you alert… still altered, but less sloppy than a drunk person. Not to mention it also makes you able to fuck for like eight hours. It makes things more fun and exciting and you can keep going and going.”
Adam* from Brisbane is in his thirties and visits saunas regularly. He’s never used ice but has hooked up with guys who are into it.
“I’m not good at telling when other people are high,” he says.
“But I’ve realised a few times that a guy has been on ice, usually when they take ages to finish or they can’t stay hard. It can be a bit frustrating, really.
“The only slightly scary experience I have had was with a guy who was really obviously messed up and kept snapping his jaw, that was a bit disconcerting.”
Lowered inhibitions can make hooking up feel less stressful, but it can also lead to poor judgement and risky behaviour like unprotected sex. If you’re having bareback hookups, or if you worry that you might forget condoms, there’s good news: pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is another way to protect yourself from HIV. PrEP is a daily antiviral pill that reduces the risk of transmission by up to 99 per cent.
Anthony from the Gold Coast says he uses PrEP so he doesn’t have to worry as much about neglecting condoms in the heat of the moment during chemsex sessions.
“I have a lot of fun,” he says.
“I’ve found an HIV prevention strategy that works for me… when I don’t make the best decisions.”
Injecting ice can also be a route of transmission for blood-borne viruses like HIV and Hep C, if equipment is shared. For guys who are HIV positive, ice may even increase the progression of HIV by promoting viral replication.
Kent Burgess is the Director of Services at the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), which works with saunas towards harm reduction for guys who use drugs at the venues. VAC also runs the Re-Wired Group, a program for queer men who want to change their ice habits.
“Guys who are HIV positive need to be particularly aware that their meds can interact with meth, making it hit faster and harder,” says Kent.
Guys who are into chemsex sometimes also mix drugs. Being on ice can make it more difficult to stay hard, but using Viagra with ice can be risky because both affect blood pressure. The same goes for poppers, which drops blood pressure and can be a dangerous combination with other drugs.
Drinking alcohol is also a risky combination: doing meth and drinking can make it harder to tell how intoxicated you are, while increasing the chance of stress on the heart.
There have even been deaths associated with chemsex.
While chemsex is popular at saunas, the venues often have strict rules against drug use and intoxication on premises. Many advertise a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on drugs and alcohol.
Deeje Hancock, who runs the Number 29 club in Brisbane, allows alcohol and takes a harm reduction approach to drugs. While he says there is more alcohol than drug use at the venue, some patrons are certainly using ice and other drugs.
Number 29 has a policy of no drugs and no intoxication, but provides sharps bins for safe disposal of needles. He says he has occasionally found needles and drugs hidden in the club, and has cautioned guys who have been visibly high.
“Once guys have been taken aside about drug use, we don’t have a problem again. They either clean up their act or they don’t come back,” Deeje says.
Jimmy agrees that staff at venues are aware of patrons using ice, but believes they often don’t care.
On one occasion at a Melbourne sauna, he tried to get help for a guy who appeared dangerously altered.
“He was either very drunk or on too much gear,” he says.
“The staff weren’t fazed and did nothing much at all. They only respond when they absolutely have to.”
Deeje thinks ice is a part of the community and there’s a swing towards acceptance of getting on the pipe – even though other drugs are more popular in Number 29.
“Mostly we see guys on Friday or Saturday nights who are too off their guts to get in the front door, so there’s not so much of it inside,” he says.
Staff at Number 29 have had to call an ambulance for guys who have overindulged in drugs on the rare occassion.
Kent from VAC agrees that staff are aware of the issue of drugs in their venues, and should know how to handle problems, including providing details for community health services, or calling an ambulance if needed.
So how can you stay safe if you do plan on using ice for encounters at a sauna?
If you’re worried things might get out of hand and you could forget about condoms, consider talking to your doctor about PrEP.
If you inject ice, be sure to use your own equipment and not share needles or any other supplies.
Using your own drugs and not allowing someone else to inject you can help you remain aware of how much you’ve had.
“Plan your drug use,” Kent says.
“Taking a trusted friend with you to a venue can be safer than going by yourself if you’re going to be high. Plan how much you’re going to use and perhaps only take that amount with you.
“Plan what time you’re going to leave the venue. It’s all about planning ahead to stay safe.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.