Pharmacosex: Reimagining sex, drugs and enhancement
The use of drugs in sexual contexts is receiving closer attention in the media, public health bodies and communities than ever before. However, research to date is most often concerned with the sex-related drug use of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) populations, and particularly men who have sex with men (MSM) engaging in ‘chemsex’. Against a backdrop dominated by public health and medical science perspectives, this article seeks to move beyond prevailing sex on drug discourses characterised by risk and harm, or pleasure. Drawing on an expansive notion of enhancement, we explore intersections between drug consumption and sex via the concept of ‘pharmacosex’: the ways in which wider populations experiment with a range of illicit drugs that modify and enhance their sex lives in the context of broader processes of the pharmaceuticalisation of sexuality.
Drawing on two empirical studies comprising a virtual ethnography and 45 interviews with participants across a range of gender and sexual identities who regularly combine sex and drugs, this article contributes to the growing body of research that attends to the materiality of drug consumption practices in relation to the historical and social contexts from which they emerge.
Our participants reported variegated and complex modes of enhancement in relation to a wide range of psychoactive substances. Participants described enhanced emotional connectedness, bodily sensations, disinhibition and desire, but they also discussed how sex enhances drug experiences. As important but currently neglected in research literature were the therapeutic dimensions of drug-taking reported, which cannot be neatly distinguished from purely hedonic motivations. While enhancement was also experienced by participants in more challenging ways in relation to shame, regret, risk and/or harm, these experiences simultaneously afforded space for the emergence of innovative practices of risk-management, safety and care.
This study exposes the diversity of practices and meanings sex-related drug use hold for participants, but also demonstrates the paucity of biomedical conceptions of sexual enhancement limited to stamina, function and libido, and the need for a more expansive approach. The study also raises questions about the extent to which contemporary discourses of self-improvement have come to ‘inhabit’ sexuality in the twenty-first century, and the role drugs might play in this context. By shifting the gaze from pathology to enhancement and exploring the plurality of practice, we can better understand the motivations for engaging in sex-related drug use, thereby circumventing knee-jerk counterproductive enforcement and policy responses.
Funding: Study 1 was supported by the Wellcome Trust [Grant no: 207938/Z/17/Z].