The news that Brits are the greatest practitioners of sex on drugs in the western world may have come as a surprise to you – but only if you’ve never paid attention to the amorous preamble which takes place in our pubs, clubs and private dinner parties on a Friday night.
In an extensive Guardian survey five years ago, 9% of those surveyed admitted to taking drugs to improve their sex life. Now, 22,000 people have voluntarily informed the Global Drug Survey of their occasional to habitual predilections for combining alcohol, cocaine, MDMA and a raft of other substances with sexual activity.
Historically, we Brits have always been pretty furtive about the scale of our sex and drugs coupling. Sure, we know about the louche opium eaters of the 1800s, the cocaine-laced rampages of the “dining-out girls” of the 1920s, and the LSD-fuelled sexual experiments of the 1960s. But the casual frequency with which ordinary people routinely share a bottle of wine before going to bed, indulge in a couple of lines to stoke the excitement at a suburban house party, or wend their way through a festival, magnetically wrapped about one another in that way only MDMA can produce, is roundly ignored.
Instead, we are piqued by tabloid tales of Love Island contestants dabbling in “cocaine binges”, or the rising casualties of the chemsex epidemic among young gay men. In fact, Brits combining sex and drugs has been as much of a taboo as the general population’s propensity for BDSM – with as many as one in five under 40s professing an interest.
And that’s what makes the study, the largest of its kind to date, so important. Traditionally it has been marginalised groups, in particular gay and bisexual men, that have been written off as the British bacchanalians. This is reflected in the public health messaging that has been directed almost exclusively at them over the past decade as the so-called chemsex crisis has unfolded.
The truth, as ever, is far closer to home. Despite anxieties about their behaviour, LGBT people of all genders are some of the most underserved people when it comes to sexual, physical and mental health services. Meanwhile, heterosexual men and women account for just under half of all new incidences of HIV.
A study looking at alcohol consumption, drug use and condom use among STD clinic patients found that intervention strategies which encouraged the drinking of water, carrying of condoms and identifying – and avoiding – so-called high-risk environments could actually reduce the risk of infection. For all the mental and social liberation gained from intoxication, there are tangible and recorded health risks. In fact, “the public health issues are so wide-ranging”, says Dr Sarah Welsh, co-founder of Hanx condoms, that our all-too-common habits are “fast becoming a burden on sexual health services across the UK”.
Just like the recent clamour about the middle-class consumers who are fuelling the demand for cocaine, the Global Drug Survey has the power to force the establishment to abandon its stale narrative – and publicly acknowledge who really takes drugs in Britain today. What’s more, with sexual health services already so poorly funded after a swathe of government cuts, it will take a significant reversal of policy to reattribute funds. But whether it’s the cliche of the meth-rattled sex worker obliterating the sensations of being intimate with strangers, or the young gay man fuelling a night of sexual excess, it’s time we accepted that people of all orientations, from all walks of life often enjoy an altered state of mind and body when they’re sexual.
And what of it? Does this survey mean that we Brits have a serious sex and drugs problem? When it comes to judging the relative harm of our habits, it’s the why, not the what, how or when that truly informs the verdict. And it should be evident – for some people, combining drugs with sex fosters connection – whether that’s occurring between partners who would struggle to open up about their feelings or desires otherwise, or between atomised individuals in increasingly fractured communities. As Dr Alex Dymock, co-researcher of the Wellcome Trust Seed Award Pharmacosexuality project, puts it, “It’s really important we look at local contextual factors to understand why people seek out these experiences, and often we learn that those reasons have very little to do with either sex or drugs.”
Yes, by all means we should use the survey to better inform public health policy where the harm being done to our physical and mental wellbeing is tangible. But just as importantly, we should use it to delve into the needs and longings of the national psyche. Behind the stark splash “Brits have the most sex on drugs”, there’s a kaleidoscope of cultural stories waiting to be told. Therein lie the real revelations about Britain’s altered state.
• Nichi Hodgson is a sex and relationships author and broadcaster