3 min

Promoters, club owners need to push safe sex

Study says drugs play a part in HIV risk

“When I’m high, I am not even coherent enough probably to mention a condom. I mean, when you’re high on certain drugs, you don’t think. You don’t take that 30 seconds to pull that out and put it on,” says one of the men interviewed in a new study on HIV and party drugs.

The relationship between party drug use and high-risk sex might seem like a no-brainier – go dancing, get high, lose your inhibitions, get naked and fuck raw – but according to the study led by the AIDS Committee Of Toronto (ACT), there is a lot more to it than that. And it’s not just the men themselves who need to take responsibility for safe sex.

“We found that drugs are part of a very complex set of factors related to high-risk sex,” says Winston Husbands, project leader for the study Party Drugs In Toronto’s Gay Dance Club Scene: Issues For HIV Prevention For Gay Men.

Researchers interviewed 74 gay men from diverse ethno-cultural backgrounds who all reported using party drugs – ecstasy, ketamine, GHB, crystal meth and cocaine – at bars, dance clubs and after-hours venues in Toronto. They found that while drug use in the club scene “may impede their ability to practice or insist on safer sex,” many of the participants had “a generally weak or inconsistent commitment to practising safer sex” to begin with.

“Despite expressing a general interest in safer sex, participants who have unprotected anal sex when high on drugs reported that they used condoms inconsistently even in the absence of drugs.”

So instead of looking for direct causal relationships, the study tries to build a picture of the gay dance club experience in Toronto, and how HIV prevention campaigns can be better tailored to protect those clubbers who are most likely to contract and spread the disease.

Eight out of 10 of the men surveyed who engaged in high-risk sex said that sex was a “major consideration” in their clubbing.

“I actually made a conscious decision at the beginning of this year that I would try to release my inner slut… or to get in touch with my inner slut and then I would try and take advantage of those opportunities when they came along,” one participant told researchers.

Issues of community, race and body image all emerged as factors in this weaker commitment to safer sex.

“Gay and bisexual men who participate in the gay dance scene experience a sense of community that is facilitated to some extent by using drugs,” states the report.

But even as they participate in this heightened sense of community, clubbers may find themselves pushed to the periphery, where their race, body image or socio-economic status leaves them struggling to fit into a perceived dominant ideal.

“[Racial minorities tend to] construct the gay dance club scene as ‘white’, which refers not just to the fact that white men are a numerical majority but also to the dominant interpretations of beauty, attraction and desirability that are consistent with ‘white’ or European norms.”

Researchers found that Asian and Caribbean men, who are more likely to come from homophobic family situations, get a double dose of alienation; one gay, one ethnic.

“Among some men, the quest for inclusion may predispose them to adopt behaviours that they consider to be integral to the clubbing experience, but which may increase their risk of HIV infection.”

New prevention campaigns need to acknowledge and build on this sense of community, says Husbands.

“Traditionally, HIV prevention has tended to focus on individuals, ‘You should protect yourself,'” says Husbands. “There is some merit in that, but we think that it is important to develop prevention as a community enterprise.”

Among the 11 recommendations generated from the study, researchers also suggest that club owners and promoters need to start taking a keener interest in the health of the communities they serve.

“These people have a vested interested in making sure that the men who patronize their environments have an enjoyable but safe experience,” says Husbands.

Researchers also suggest that prevention campaigns need to adopt the vernacular of the scene.

“To be credible and attract clubbers’ attention, HIV prevention campaigns should draw on and reflect the centrality of music, dancing and the sexualized atmosphere where necessary or possible.”

The full study can be picked up at ACT (399 Church St) and other AIDS service organizations across Toronto.