In recent years, drug use, in particular ‘Chemsex’ – the use of drugs during sex – has gained prevalence among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM) in Singapore. With dating and sex apps such as Grindr, drugs and chemsex have bcome more easily accessible to GBMSM. In the region of Southeast Asia particularly, drugs like crystal meth are most typically used.
In Singapore, conventional narratives of drug users suggest frivolous, self-interested individuals with little regard for the harms caused to families or society at large as a result of their drug use. At the same time, these narratives have justified the state’s punitive ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to drugs, including the use of capital punishment against users and traffickers of drugs.
Dr. Rayner Tan, a researcher at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore, delves into this question. Contrary to more simplistic narratives that we encounter, Tan uncovers a myriad of motivations among GBMSM in Singapore in their turn towards drug use. Crucially, many of these motivations remain connected to the stigma of growing up gay or bisexual in Singapore society. In this context, sexualised drug use serves as a means of coping with underlying stressors and pressures that affect GBMSM.
In several interviews, Tan’s interlocutors described chemsex as a way to deal with the shame brought about by the stigmatisation of gay sex in Singapore. Mental health issues linked to their experiences of homophobia, religious trauma, familial neglect, and sexual violence were also mentioned.
In addition, Tan attributes the fact that GBMSM often engage in more sexual relationships due to the lack of non-sexualised spaces for these men elsewhere in Singapore. Specifically, in the absence of queer-inclusive sexuality education as well as the criminalisation of homosexuality among GBMSM under Section 377A of the penal code, sex in private (including chemsex) has become one of few outlets for GBMSM to express desire, attraction, and sexuality without feelings of shame.
Within the queer male community in Singapore, some respondents talked about HIV-related stigma and racism creating feelings of shame, anxiety and low self-esteem. One said, “[drug use] became the only place where I could be myself.” Many respondents talked about the ease of access to chemsex as a norm within Singapore’s queer male community. The lack of safe, non-sexualised spaces for queer men in Singapore also means that many come to associate their self-worth with their sexual attractiveness.
Beyond sexual shame, Tan’s respondents also underscored the use of chemsex to cope with challenges and stressors relating to work, finances and family — issues not unique to queer men.
The absence of formal support, along with numerous barriers to care, obstructs GBMSM’s access to rehabilitation. This includes the lack of trusted aftercare centres for queer people, as well as the lack of legal protections. Furthermore, GBMSM who have strained relationships with their families, in particular those whose families may not be so accepting of different sexualities, are also deprived of family support needed during rehabilitative efforts.
There are other challenges, however, that many of these GBMSM face which are not unique to their demographic. As Tan explains, Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act continues to create conditions for light users of drugs to become longer-term, more dependent drug users. Specifically, doctors and counselors must report drug users to the authorities. This disincentivises many drug users, gay or otherwise, from seeking access to care and support in the first place.
To address this, Tan suggests:
- We need trauma-informed counselling efforts trained to create safe recovery environments for individuals and offer therapeutic solutions. Peer support programmes, LGBTQ+ specific services, and trauma-focused therapies are essential.
- More advocacy and education promoting literacy around substance use and addiction can go a long way towards destigmatising drug use. That which is illegal is not always immoral.
- Safe spaces should be provided for intracommunal discourse on chemsex. Drug and HIV/STI-prevention interventions can take place at sex-on-premises venues and online apps.
- Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men, should be repealed to encourage uptake of sexual and mental health services.
- Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, and the Singapore Medical Council’s regulations, should be reviewed.
- Anonymised health and addiction recovery services and harm reduction services should be provided to all drug users in Singapore.
Tan’s study shows that chemsex among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men in Singapore is much more complex than is portrayed in mainstream media narratives. Understanding these queer men’s experiences on individual, intracommunal and societal levels helps us grasp the motivations behind their practice of chemsex, which is often a way of coping with trauma, marginalisation and shame.