Lifestyle, Manchester, Review

Sex and Stigma Event at Manchester Met

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By Jacqueline Grima

The subject of sex continued to be discussed at Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester Met) last week at an event entitled ‘Sex and Stigma’. The event was part of the Humanities in Public Festival’s (HiP) spring season.

Two panels of experts at the HiP event looked at the impact of isolation and stigma on LGBTQ and HIV positive communities. The first panel, comprising of speakers such as Substance Lead at London sexual health clinic 56 Dean Street David Stuart and Stuart Tompkins, an LGBT Relationship Counsellor, addressed questions put to them by Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in Criminology Dr Rob Ralphs. Speaking about the chemsex trend, Stuart said, “During counselling sessions, this particular problem was becoming more and more apparent. I’ve seen relationships destroyed by it.”

DSCF0924Chemsex activities usually revolve around the use of three particular drugs: crystal meth, mephedrone, sometimes known as meow meow, and GBL. According to David Stuart, high numbers of gay men have been using drugs in their sexual practices for a long time but it is only recently that chemsex has become an increasingly dangerous activity. He said, “We didn’t see spikes in HIV until those three drugs became popularised.”

However, Lucy Lamb of Manchester’s LGBT Foundation thinks that the type of drugs used during chemsex is expanding. She said, “The definition [of chemsex] is changing all the time and the type of substances they’re using are changing too.”

Lucy also acknowledged that, in seeking support from sexual health clinics like 56 Dean Street, the men are taking a brave step: “Getting help and support is an acknowledgement of what’s going on and an acknowledgement of the difficult life experiences that have led to this point.”

David is adamant that a sexual health clinic is the right place for the men to be treated, despite one of the main issues being drug addiction. He said, “In the drug service, these men might be identified as low risk.” He also commented on how many chemsex enthusiasts fail to identify themselves as being at risk because multi-partner sex, during which issues such as consent and boundaries may not always be clear, has become normalised for them.

DSCF0927The answer, therefore, involves opening a dialogue with the men involved and, rather than lecturing them and asking them to simply stop participating in such practices, encouraging them to talk about their experiences. As Stuart Tompkins commented, “The difficulty is that you’re saying to a gay man ‘This is the best sex you’ve ever had but we want you to stop.’ They’re not going to stop. It’s about reducing the risk.” He added, “It’s a very complicated thing to treat.”

Terri Anderson of Manchester’s ADS Drug Service agreed, saying, “They’re achieving something through the chems that they are not confident of achieving outside of that.”

The second half of the event focussed on the stigma that still surrounds the HIV virus. This panel was chaired by Manchester Met Senior Lecturer in Philosophy Dr Phil Hutchinson, who put questions to a panel that included Sexual Health Consultant Matt Phillips and co-author of the UK Stigma Index, which surveys the experiences of people living with HIV in the UK, Rebecca Mbewe.

This panel agreed that a lot still needs to be done to educate the public about HIV as many people still view it as a ‘gay’ disease, also believing that, if someone has the virus, it is not possible to have relationships or have children. This way of thinking leads to the marginalisation of those diagnosed with the condition. In fact, with the right treatment and support, someone with HIV can live a long and healthy family life.

There were some concerns from the audience, however, that due to the desire to educate the public, there is perhaps undue pressure on someone who has the virus to become involved with activism. Phil Hutchinson agreed, saying, “We shouldn’t expect everyone to be an activist. If someone is diagnosed with the HIV virus, they shouldn’t have to incorporate that into their identity. To demand that of people is morally wrong.”

Other issues discussed including the stigma surrounding the method of contracting the virus and the need for further public campaigns, the last one having been in the 1980s.

To find out about upcoming events in the ‘SEX’ strand, see the Humanities in Public webpage.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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