Toronto
6 min

Sex for two days straight

Exploring the enduring appeal - and some of the risks - of ecstasy

“The first time I ever did E, five years ago, I was coming out,” says Marsha, a 26-year-old bisexual who works in Toronto for a corporate communications company.



“The E certainly helped me explore that. It was given to me by what turned out to be my first girlfriend. So that whole summer that became our drug of choice, our recreational lubrication. We would have sex for two days straight. Since then, it’s always been heavily tied, for me, to sex.”



Like Marsha, large numbers of gay men and some lesbians and bisexuals have embraced the drug ecstasy – thanks in part to the global rave-wave and mushrooming gay circuit-style clubs and events. These one-time underground and marginal cultural trends mingle freely, creating a mix of sex, sexuality and style that can’t be narrowly defined as gay or straight.



Even if you’ve never taken it, E has had an enormous cultural and social impact. Although it’s now over in some circles, ecstasy is still influential because it’s shaped the popularity of drugs that followed. There’s an ecstasy rebound, too, as mental and physical health problems related to the drug are beginning to emerge. Why has ecstasy been so important for so many people?



Gay author Allan Hollinghurst, a 1994 Booker Prize nominee, positions ecstasy as a major catalyst in his new novel The Spell. A little E transforms the life of a middle-aged, somewhat square gay man, disrupting and expanding his sense of himself. Hollinghurst also describes a range of drug-taking gay British clubbers, including a troubled and chronic multiple drug user. The Spell mirrors the enormous impact of ecstasy on British gay male life this past decade.



Of course, drug use has always been an important part of the gay male dance scene. During the 1960s and ’70s, bars and dance clubs were linked to identity because they allowed for a visible and public expression of sexual desire.



Cocaine, marijuana, and popper use became common during the disco era. New York and San Francisco set the gay standards for pleasure and sophistication. Cocaine’s symbolic importance was demonstrated by the giant coke spoon hanging from the ceiling of Studio 54, New York’s hedonistic and influential nightclub.



Initially, AIDS almost eliminated the allure of sexual abandon, dancing and frequent drug use that typified the disco era. At a time when no information about HIV transmission existed, fear motivated many men to radically change or stop their night lives. As more information emerged and heavy partying and drug use were no longer the main suspects as the cause of AIDS, many men eventually reconnected with urban dance and party scenes. Ecstasy wasn’t new in 1990, but its appeal began to grow among the young.



The recession of the early 1990s sent New York fashion editors scrambling to book cheaper shoots in Miami’s South Beach district. This, combined with the late-’80s restoration of the area’s art deco hotels, turned South Beach into a party hot spot. Many gay men and some lesbians joined the international stampede to SoBe, mixing with rich Europeans who had frequent exposure to that continent’s ecstasy-flavoured rave scene.



This combination of styles and sensibilities developed in many cities as news of E, circuit parties, techno, house, jungle and raves spread along global information highways. Around the same time, safer sex campaigns were helping the recovery of gay nightlife. Dancing while high on ecstasy became an emotional release for some gay men enduring the devastating impact of AIDS.



Ecstasy is also a sexual dis-inhibitor, especially for inexperienced younger gay men who grew up during the anxious age of AIDS. A mix of survivor guilt, anxiety, ecstasy excitement and bottled-up sexual desire exploded in gay clubs, backrooms and bedrooms. Going out seemed fun again when dance scenes were suddenly friendlier and sexier. Ecstasy transformed fear, anger and despair into nights of temporary joy.



The influence of this era – the extremely muscular male body image and the fashion and music styles associated with circuit scene – is still profound. According to Xtra’s Cocktail Confessions columnist, Daniel Paquette: “Clubs are designed to enhance a drug-related experience. In London [England], temperature, smells and vibrations are some of the elements that are controlled and manipulated to heighten someone’s trip. Of course, this manipulation includes the way music is produced, how DJs mix, and the usual lights and lasers.”



And the drug and partying preferences of this hardcore minority establishes similar trends for a larger portion of the entire gay male population.



Choosing ecstasy is often about a desire for bliss on demand. “To go to a large party with lots of people who are pretty much feeling very happy and very high – I just want something for myself that would ensure that I’m going to enjoy it,” says Steve, a gay 33-year-old Torontonian working in financial services.



Many people also have a personal stake in ecstasy because of their initial experiences with the drug. Coming out, major life changes and formative sexual experiences are typical associations.



Steve started taking ecstasy again after a 10-year break. “I guess at the time, it was because I’d made so many changes in my life. I’d taken so many risks at that point personally, that it’s like, why not try it? And it worked out very well. You know, the summer was coming up, there’d be a big party, a big DJ. At that point I was celebrating my life, so it really turned on the celebration even more.”



Adds Marsha: “I do appreciate the fact that I can pay $25 or $30, and in an hour I am beautiful. I am friends with everyone in the club, there’s nothing wrong. It’s all about being in the moment and nothing else matters. There’s no tension, there’s no edge, there’s nothing. I appreciate having access to that.”



Many gay men and lesbians are also part of the sexually mixed rave scene. Kim Stanford is the coordinator and a community outreach worker at the Toronto Raver Information Project (TRIP), a progressive peer education initiative. Stanford’s connection to the music, culture and fashions of Toronto rave culture, helps her recruit peer volunteers to educate and inform their friends and acquaintances. “[TRIP] has a double focus,” she says, “sexual health and safer drug use.”



I asked Stanford if the Toronto rave community generally lives up to its reputation for making everyone feel accepted, regardless of their sexuality. “Yes, I think that’s probably right,” she says. “Given that [ecstasy] is so heart-based, it probably has something to do with the drug, and it probably has something to do with the rave community.”



Part of ecstasy’s seductive promise is rooted in the belief that it’s relatively harmless. “I’ve had some people look at me and say, something that feels this good can’t possibly be bad,” Stanford says.



This reputation continues to lure thousands and helps to explain E’s influence and longevity. It also makes ecstasy a major health issue.



Dr George Ricaurte, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, recently published disturbing findings related to ecstasy. His study compared brain scans of heavy users (who used E between 70 and 400 times over the course of a few years) with control subjects who had never used the drug. All participants were screened to ensure that they had not used other drugs, like marijuana and cocaine, immediately before the study.



The heavy users showed a significant decrease in the brain cells responsible for reabsorbing serotonin, a chemical messenger related to mood, appetite, pain perception, sex drive and memory. Similar studies of the brain’s ability to recover from the damage caused by heavy ecstasy use are inconclusive, but studies with baboons show that brain damage remained for a year after the animals were given the drug.



However, getting to the root of health issues related to E is complicated by the fact that many users combine it with other drugs like special K, GHB, cocaine or crystal meth. This mixing is one strategy for dealing with the body’s quick tolerance to E. “One of the particular recipes that was suggested, was to start off with a small amount of crystal meth, to give you lots of energy,” Steve says. “And then, at a certain point, take the E and then add to it with special K. You’re building up your energy, then staging it. You get up, then you slowly come down – which I think works very well.”



Substance abuse counsellors and other researchers also describe a range of problems associated with ecstasy. According to Christopher Hadden, a therapist who works with gay and bisexual men at Toronto’s Centre For Addiction And Mental Health, “Ecstasy can contribute to severe and recurrent episodes of depression and mood disorders in some users. If you have had problems with depression, ecstasy can be a very risky drug. Frequent users also report hearing voices and anxiety attacks.”



As well, frequent users can’t take Prozac or other serotonin-related anti-depressants because of the damage caused by ecstasy.



“Some of the things I’ve been wondering about is the stuff about E possibly causing anxiety and depression,” says TRIP’s Stanford. “There have been teenagers who I’ve worked with who have gotten really depressed and have had anxiety attacks, and they’ve used E for a couple years. Which makes me wonder if there’s some truth to this.



“And then I think, well, they’ve had some really hard circumstances in their life. Maybe they’re anxious and depressed because of those things. It’s like which comes first, the chicken or the egg? So, it’s hard for me to identify that one kid’s in trouble. I can look at some kids’ lives and say they got dealt a shitty hand.”



Her statement reflects the current debate within the scientific community about the difficulties related to research on ecstasy. Considering the limited understanding of ecstasy’s long term impact, taking the drug often makes you a lab rat in a risky and unsupervised global experiment. Similar unknown risks surround the emerging large scale recreational use of special K, GHB and crystal meth.



And yet it’s possible that ecstasy may prove to be relatively harmless when taken only occasionally. I asked Stanford to suggest a helpful harm reduction message. She said, “Try and limit your E use to, I don’t know for sure, but maybe once every six to eight weeks.”