A few months ago I had the pleasure of speaking at a Meth and Sex Addiction public forum in Palm Springs, CA. The three-person panel—myself, David Fawcett, and Terry Gatewood—spoke to an attentive and participatory audience of around 100 addicts and clinicians about the fusion of meth use and sexual behaviors. One issue that the audience brought up, and an issue that David, Terry, and I are all seeing in the addicts we treat, is the role that sexualized video chat rooms are playing in “chemsex” addiction. Numerous people shared their stories with us both during and after the event, including a former Navy officer who’d just written a letter detailing his video and chemsex experience as part of his 9th step amends. With his permission, I am sharing excerpts of that letter here, hoping it will provide clinicians with insight into this disturbing and deeply addictive trend.
The first point this individual makes in his amends letter is that he thought throughout most of his crystal meth use that he was first and foremost a meth addict. It was only when he found a new sponsor, after yet another nasty relapse, that he explored the sexualized video chat component of his behavior. The addict writes:
During one of our first meetings, my new sponsor and I talked about my pattern of substance abuse. I explained how I used, when I used, and with whom I used. While I shared, we began to discover that the way I used suggested that Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior might be my primary problem. Ninety percent of the time I used crystal meth I was online in front of the computer, in my bedroom, by myself. In the few rare circumstances where I used meth with others, in person, it was a result of connections that I’d made through my online behavior. When my sponsor asked if I ever used meth by myself just to get high, without being online, I said no. The idea just doesn’t appeal to me. Through this discovery, I now believe that my primary addiction is Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior. Unless I get a handle on this behavior, I’ll have no chance to stay clean from meth.
This statement mirrors the stories we heard from multiple participants at the chemsex forum in Palm Springs. These individuals hardly ever used in the physical presence of other people, and they hardly ever had in-person sex with other people. What they liked was the sense of safety and anonymity the internet provides coupled with the sense of bonding that chemsex chat rooms provide. Thanks to the buffer of the internet, they did not have to become emotionally or physically vulnerable as they might in a different setting. At the same time, because everyone in these chat rooms was there to use meth and masturbate, there was a sense of bonding and being part of something intimate.
In his amends letter, the addict also discusses how he never used drugs until after he retired from the Navy, and says that when he started, it was only in conjunction with his online sexual behaviors.
After the Navy, I spent a significant amount of time online. I progressed from merely exploring websites and pornography, to finding online software that enabled me to chat on a web camera with individuals and groups of people. ICUII, one of these software tools, had a chat area for gay men. In this area, I found other men that I’d chat with about my fetishes, and eventually, I’d sniff poppers and masturbate with them on camera. This seemed innocent and safely anonymous to me, since each of us used a handle/nickname, and the likelihood that we’d ever meet in person was extremely remote.
One evening, I went into a chat room in the gay area of ICUII. I believe that the chat room was called “music listeners” or something like that. I was surprised to find that there were men using crystal meth in the room. I left the room immediately and went back into other rooms in the gay area of ICUII. About an hour later, however, I went back to that chat room. I was intrigued by the visuals as the men heated up the meth in their pipes and blew huge clouds of meth vapor. I started a dialog with several of these men, and eventually masturbated with them. I knew that I shouldn’t get involved with crystal meth because I’d heard the horror stories, but I also started fantasizing about blowing clouds with these men.
Rather quickly, the addict found a way to move from video chat chemsex fantasy to video chat chemsex reality.
Back on ICUII, I saw one man regularly smoking crystal meth and developed a rapport with him. I eventually invited him from Oakland, California to San Diego to “teach” me to smoke crystal meth. I paid for his plane flight, and he paid for the drugs. He came to San Diego in September 2008, and we used together for several days—mainly in front of the web camera, either on my desktop computer or on his laptop. We took a road trip to Palm Springs while he visited, and we used crystal meth heavily while we were there, also engaging in anonymous sex with several men.
The surprising thing to me was that from the first time I smoked meth, the attraction didn’t seem to be the “high” I got from the smoking, but the compulsion to always smoke more and blow bigger and better clouds. Seeing this compulsion, and knowing where it would likely lead, I decided that I would not use again after my visitor left. With meth on my brain, I knew that it would complicate life and be a distraction from the focus I’d developed in my career.
It wasn’t long, however, before the addict decided once again to experiment. He met someone local in a chemsex video chatroom and arranged to purchase some meth from him.
That same night, he brought the crystal meth to me. He had me smoke some with him before money changed hands to make sure I wasn’t trying to entrap him. We also had unprotected sex. After he left, I was very excited that I had my own crystal meth and could use by myself in front of the computer with all my ICUII friends. It was Sunday evening, and I started smoking meth on ICUII. The next thing I knew it was Monday morning, and time for me to shower and get to work. I had not slept. I reluctantly stopped smoking, put away my pipe, showered, and went to work. I knew I had a problem.
The disease took off quickly after that.
I often didn’t sleep before a full day’s work, and I often cussed myself out, loudly, in the car on the way to work. A number of times, I was late to work, and began to lie and make excuses for why I was late. Several times I’d call in sick and spend the whole workday smoking meth. I took a few couple-week breaks, but always went back to smoking. The holidays in 2008 were a blur. I’d always been engaged with my family, celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas with them, and loved the family environment, but that year it was very challenging. I was late to my family gatherings for both Thanksgiving and Christmas because I had difficulty putting down my meth pipe long enough to get in my car and drive to my parents’ house.
Eventually, the addict went into treatment for crystal meth addiction and got sober, but he struggled to stay sober despite regular attendance and participation in CMA meetings. The problem, of course, was that nobody ever asked him about the relationship between his online sexual behaviors and his drug use. Because that was never uncovered, it was never addressed, so he never had much of a chance to get and stay sober. He was only focusing on healing from half of his addiction, and the secondary half at that.
The good news is this story has a happy ending. This addict found a sponsor who was tuned in to the connection between sexual behavior, in particular online sexual behavior, and drug use, and was willing to explore this with the addict. Today, the addict is nine months sober, has a great new job, and participates in the local gay men’s choir as a healthy way of socializing and making friends.
But this man is lucky. The horror stories about sexualized video chat and drug abuse are horrendous and growing. More than one individual at the Palm Springs forum spoke about predators frequenting these rooms and recruiting vulnerable individuals to Satanist groups, violent racist groups, and street gangs—all of which are venues where drug use and (often violent) sexual behaviors go hand in hand. Many of these addicts end up in prison or dead from an overdose, suicide, or murder. What initially seemed like a bit of harmless sexual fun online led these men to the worst possible places, with the worst possible consequences.
So, what is the lesson? The lesson, in my mind, is that if/when a client comes to us complaining about a substance abuse problem, we need to inquire about more than just drinking and drugging. We also need to find out what the client is doing sexually, both online and real world, because sex and substance abuse may well be related. In some cases, compulsive sexual behavior may be the driving portion of the addiction, requiring as much or maybe even more focus than the substance abuse issue. As therapists, if we fail to ask the right questions, including questions about sexual behaviors, no matter how uncomfortable that might feel to us or the client, and if we fail to follow up on the responses as appropriate, we are doing a great disservice to both the treatment community and our clients.