Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Group Sex

 Queer and Questioning Men as Pleasure-Seeking Harm-Reduction Experts

Moving forward, particularly in HIV/AIDS prevention, and gay men’s health overall, we must not reduce members of our community to problems that need to be solved and thus rush to establish prevention strategies without any genuine grasp of our desires and sexuality.  -Charles Stephens

Group sex events (GSE) have been a social, albeit mostly secretive, phenomenon throughout history. From ancient Dionysian mystery cults to today’s commercial sex clubs, intense communal sex-capades have attracted segments of the populace. GSE may involve anywhere from five to many lovers in a variety of private and public settings. According to early data drawn from the Vancouver’s 2014 Momentum Health Study, a Canadian Institute of Health Research and National Institute of Health funded longitudinal study of Vancouver gay men’s health, nearly a quarter of gay/bisexual/question (GBQ) men participate in GSE. Of these, 74 percent of participants used anywhere from one to a combination of 12 substances with the intention to disinhibit, prolong and/or enhance pleasure; while the same number of participants of the same study expressed interest in safer sex parties. How do queer and questioning men negotiate seemingly competing needs between sexual pleasure and health?

Few would deny the known risks to GBQ men associated with group sex. Nearly 60 percent of all new HIV diagnoses here in BC are from within this population. Do we know enough about the potential rewards of sexual exploration? More nuanced, culturally sensitive information is needed to provide a richer understanding of what constitutes both “risk and reward” in areas of queer and questioning men’s health.

Resiliency Theory advocates for strength-based HIV programs for men who lust for men. A new study of GSE out of Vancouver in partnership with community organizations including Health Initiative for Men suggests such programs should be internally navigated from within the specific contexts of GSE.  Momentum Health Study data indicates a subculture of intensive sex partying associated with GSE, and importantly reveals evidence of personal harm reduction practices (e.g. always being the top in anal intercourse to reduce HIV transmission). The Momentum study seeks to determine what other indigenous prevention tactics are associated within this subculture. The mixed-methods study will gather more information about who attends GSE, what motivates participant’s risk-taking/reward-making choices, and their harm-reducing and pleasure-amplifying practices. Between 20 and 30 participants, interviewed twice over a three-month period will inform researchers and community practitioners about the cultural characteristics and intrinsic values GSE offer participants. Project participants will ideally recommend potential customized event-level sexual health concepts for implementation.

Researchers also intend to meet with sex party hosts to better understand their needs and strategies for offering higher quality, safer and sounder sexual experiences to their guests. By engaging queer and questioning men in conversations about their chosen sexual practices and culturally explicit erotic spaces, future health strategies may more successfully evolve by both honouring men’s need for sexual adventurism while supporting their efforts for self and communal care. Your thoughts are most welcome.

robert birch

Robert Birch, MA is a doctoral student with the Social Dimensions of Health program at the University of Victoria, a new qualitative researcher with the B.C. Centre for Excellence Momentum Health Study for gay/bi men, and writes for the award winning national HIV/AIDS blog

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

Gay Men, Sex(uality) and Crystal Meth Use

Drugs are people substitutes, people are drug substitutes¹

As a counsellor I prefer the term “drug use” rather than “addiction.” For many, addiction implies “bad behaviour” and can foster stigma and disempowerment for drug using individuals. One of the main characteristics of counselling is acceptance without judgment, especially when talking about sex with drugs. People use drugs for a reason, often to meet unfulfilled needs. Crystal meth was the most used illicit drug in the gay community during the 90s and early 2000s. While I am not an addictions specialist, about half of the gay men I see for therapy have current or past history of crystal meth problems. A common reason for gay men to use crystal meth relates to social and sexual inhibition and lack of connection to people.

Aspects of gay male subculture are dominated by sex. Within any medium size community, gay men can find sex within 10 minutes via phone apps. While such “hook-ups” frequently result in sexual release, they often do not meet their emotional needs. Many gay men struggle and cope with feelings of being different, or may have experienced various forms of abuse, and therefore question if they are lovable. Crystal may temporarily help users feel free of judgment, facilitate emotional connection with others and provide great pleasure with sexual partners.Crystal can also partially fulfill one’s sexual needs or fantasies, (i.e. engaging in “pig sex”), that otherwise might never be explored due to internal and/or external inhibitions. With reflection and support, these men often identify their desire for connectedness as the most important aspect of being high. Many report that without crystal, sex is boring because they are inhibited and cannot emotionally connect.

Crystal meth is not the problem but the symptom: the symptom of being unable to be free and spontaneous and therefore cannot connect with others. Thus, the primary goal of therapy is not to stop crystal use, but rather to assist the person in acquiring the skills needed to have uninhibited, drug-free and meaningful sex while feeling more connected with partners. This approach may require the therapist to be sexually open and sensitive to these topics in order to assist gay men to more intimately explore their sexual feelings and needs. As counsellors we need to lay the foundations of a nurturing therapeutic relationship that refrains from labels and judgments that disempower a person.  It seems with gay men and crystal use that, truly “drugs are people substitutes,” and with support, ideally “people can become drug substitutes.”


Author: Bill Coleman, counsellor

Biography: Most of Bill’s career has been working with criminals, primarily sexual criminals. He also works in the area of sexual health. Much of his work here has been with gay men at BC Centre for Disease Control, and many years in private practice.  He has also written for the LGBT newspaper, Xtra, on gay men and health.

¹  (Blachly, 1970) Seduction: A Conceptual Model in the Drug Dependencies and Other Contagious Ills, Paul H. Blachly, M.D., 1970, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois.

**Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC