Chemsex, digital writing, and changes in sexual practice in 21st century Taiwan 

Written by Poyao Huang 黃柏堯  

Image credit: drugs by Konstantin Lazorkin/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC 2.0

For a long time, Taiwan’s progress toward LGBTQ+ equality has been seen as the beacon  of  and  in  Asia. The achievement of the same-sex marriage bills in 2017, for example, marked Taiwan as the 21st country in the world and the first in Asia that legalizes family rights for same-sex couples. Non-profit organizations and social movements continuously promote greater legal equality. In each year’s Pride month, we have seen more liberal claims about full inclusion for LGBTQ+ people. The rise of the pink economy since the 2010s (i.e., purchases and consumptions made by and centred on LGBTQ communities) has brought more artistic projects and LGBTQ stories to the mainstream. Whereas those narratives have inspired queer youth to embrace the island’s diversity and democracy, much less attention has been paid to gay men’s drug consumption. Almost parallel to the development of Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ history is a chapter on gay men’s lived experiences with drugs—a taboo chapter that many tend to ignore. In Taiwan, it is reported that young drug users are the most vulnerable population affected by HIV/AIDS and drug abuse as we see increasing numbers of young people getting involved with drugs and HIV. Drug use among bisexual and gay men is often understood in the illegal vs recreational debate. In other circumstances, the issue of drug use is associated with health concerns (HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases), thus becoming a moral threat to social well-being. Negative social perceptions toward those who take drugs for non-medical purposes lead to the marginalization of the minorities (drug users) within the minorities (LGBTQ+ communities), preventing us from better understanding how to offer healthcare and social support to those in need of attention. While sexualized drug use (i.e., using drugs while having sex) is a common scenario not only for gay Taiwanese communities, in this entry, I intend to provide some throwbacks of young gay Taiwanese men’s drug history in the 2000s. I want to show how gay men’s sexual practices with drugs at the time were connected to their identities and how the rise informed this subculture of digital writing in the late 1990s when increasing queer projects began to gain social recognition. Finally, I discuss some of the recent developments in healthcare and HIV outreach. I use chemsex—a term widely addressed in drug studies and HIV/AIDS in the Western context—to describe gay men’s sexualized drug use while adding Taiwanese variations.  

Chemsex and E-Flower in the 2000s 

Before chemsex became intricately linked to today’s crystal meth and GHB, sexualized drug use among gay Taiwanese men in the late 1990s and 2000s was associated with ecstasy (i.e., MDMA or called E or Molly in the Western context), which is a specific drug rooted in the history in rave parties. Rave culture and E often refer to the subculture that first evolved from the European context and later expanded into the world. The term rave was connected to gay culture insofar as to signify progressive ideas such as peace, love, unity, tolerance, happiness. In Taiwan, these notions were incorporated by some members of the gay community in the late 1990s who utilized drugs as a means to express themselves and established their social networks. While drug access of E was and still is illegal, drugs are connected to some members’ sexual identities concerning the meaning of anti-oppression and against law enforcement.  

In the early days of the 2000s, before smartphones dominated our communities’ social life, many gay men participated in rave and circuit parties, using drugs as a medium to live up their gay lives. Some queer works exemplify how drugs and sexualities become the means of resistance against the heterosexual hegemony. For example, published in 2005 by a major press, E-Flower (搖頭花:一對同志愛侶的E-Trip) is one of the most discussed novels that explored the relationship between drug consumption and queer identities. Based on the blog writings of a gay Taiwanese couple, E-Flower tells stories of how two young men navigated gay drug scenes while experimenting with their bodies, pleasure, and sexualities along the way. From their first encounter with E to the later departure from their partnership, the two authors, D and d, explored their relationship with techno music, gay dance parties, and Taipei’s rapid-changing gay social scenes. Their e-journey described how this urban, middle-class Taipei couple incorporated drugs into socio-sexual practices to combat stigmas against being gay at the time. Their stories also reflected Taiwan’s social changes in which parts of urban gay life were connected to party scenes.  

In many aspects, E-Flower is a brilliant coming-of-age queer project that challenges not only heterosexuals but also homonormative views on sexual subjects. On the one hand, it revealed how in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when the liberal ideas of gay identities awakened in the civic society—certain gay Taiwanese men utilized drugs to redefine their sexual autonomy. On the other, it advocated that many gay men, like the two authors, were merely ordinary yet brave people who refused to be constrained by social standards. While E-Flower, along with other projects, rarely mentioned how those gay men accessed drugs, it was through consumption—i.e., individuals’ capacities to consume drugs, the rise of the urban gay social networks, and the increasing acceptance of gay men’s appearance in the media—that some people’s sexual beings can be reaffirmed in light of peace, love, unity, and respect. Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, we further see many impressive queer works. E.g., Male Bay (男灣, a novel by Kentingboy) and Fragile in Love (沿海岸線徵友, a film by Mikey Chen). Those projects highlighted the intersection between drug consumption and gay identities, offering an alternative approach to understanding Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ culture.  

Note that this trend of queer youth culture was created based on particular material conditions: the Internet. Many projects first appeared online in the late 1900s as erotic writings on bulletin boards (BBS) or blogs. Those writers were not necessarily trained in professional settings, and their writings were by no means polished, to begin with. However, they were a very tailored, reader-specific genre that first reflected on forbidden queer sexual lives online at the beginning of the 2000s and gradually found their way in print, in the marketplace in the mid-2000s Taiwan.  

In a sense, the Taiwanese queer men’s chemsex culture was initiated in the late 1990s and found its way to the public in the 2000s. In the 2000s, those projects embodied the blossom of queer people’s digital writing, increasing numbers of social movements, and marked the social tolerance for Taiwan’s alternative LGBTQ+ and drug culture. Those visual products—in the form of novels, films, and theatre performances— focused more on love, relationships, identities, family, and life struggles and less on the mysterious process of getting drugs (although the Internet, friend circles, and party venues were mentioned as the places where drugs were coming from). By not framing drug use solely regarding HIV/AIDS and sexual health concerns, they offer the public a less stigmatized picture of drug use and queer identities. In addition, they symbolically legitimize gay men’s appearances (in a cultural perception sense) and normalize minorities’ sexual identification at the time, allowing people to read Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ culture through dance and parties.  

Chemsex in the 2010s  

In the 2010s, as the social acceptance of the LGTBQ+ communities improved, gay Taiwanese men’s chemsex practice and sexual minorities’ identifications have become more ambivalent. With the global drug scene changes, sexualized drug use shifted from E to meth. When this trend arrived in Taiwan in the early 2010s, blog writing gradually faded out from public attention due to the popularity of personal devices such as smartphones and digital cameras. Lengthy text-heavy writing about gay sex was no longer the market’s favourite. We then all witnessed that short-text, image-based tweets, viral-worthy videos, and memes became the new formulae for garnering public attention. Moreover, social applications such as Grindr and Hornet have also shaped how individuals establish personal and socio-sexual relationships. The real-time, image-based, and geo-locative interactions highlight a shift in social lives. 

Meanwhile, the creation of queer works related to drug use faced new challenges: many gay men who engage in chemsex become digital nomads who are forced to move from platform to platform. Although they have attempted to create encrypted texts to communicate with each other, the platform surveillance and law enforcement have entrapped gay men, making the digital world a more unstable space.  

Aside from the changes in digital-material conditions, there has been harsh criticism within the gay community, claiming that those on crystal meth (or ICE), not E, were irresponsible, reckless groups of people. After a decade of e-journey, people still have sex while getting high. They nevertheless faced quite various kinds of social reality and LGBTQ+ culture.  

When Chemsex Meets HIV Service  

In the second decade of the 21st century, Taiwan’s progress toward LGBTQ+ equality received more attention than ever before. But relatively little attention has been paid to Taiwan’s leading role in HIV/AIDS work and sexual health services, especially the implementation of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP, a medicine that prevents at-risk individuals from sexually contracting HIV). In 2016, Taiwan became the first East Asia country to roll out PrEP. Since then, the novel HIV prevention medicine and other treatment options have gradually been adopted by the community as means to enhance the quality of life of people living with HIV. However, rather than complementing each other, the concurrent development of the same-sex marriage bills and the sexual health service of PrEP nevertheless led to unbalance and, in some cases, conflicting discussions that skewed the attention away from the legitimacy of PrEP to the family rights bills from 2016 and 2017.  

For instance, the conservative evangelical groups in Taiwan coined PrEP as a “hookup pill” (約砲丸), a similar phrase about slut-shaming that resonated with “Truvada whores” that first appeared in the United States in 2012. By adding the extra stigma to those who use biomedical prevention tools to protect themselves from HIV, the conservative groups attempted to downgrade the legitimacy of sexual health services as a form of rights. During my doctoral fieldwork from 2016 to 2017, I found out that many advocates and gay communities hesitated to endorse PrEP, let alone voice their support for a discussion of greater sexual health rights. There seemed to be an implicit conflict between LGBTQ+ human rights claims and their consumption of drugs/medicine.  

The example mentioned above reveals an ongoing tension regarding what it means to be good/bad gay and, by extension, how we can think about health services that can better fit the needs and wants of the LGBTQ+ community. To circle back to drug consumption and chemsex, while the discussion regarding sexual safety practices and new drug norms remains unsettled, we have seen several community-based efforts and collaborations that provide a more caring environment for people suffering from harm related to drug use. Those efforts include HIV-focused NGOs, community members’ online outreach and their writings on gay sex. The site Oxfxck 煙嗨牛莖學園, for instance, provides helpful information on harm reduction while engaging gay erotics as an essential component of their website. Their non-judgemental approaches reconcile the debate between risk and pleasure by offering community members culturally grounded sexual health services.  

Although we have not yet had queer writings like E-Trip that reflect on the shifting gay drug culture in the 2020s, we want to acknowledge communal support built on the existing health service and the Internet to deliver intimate digital outreach. More discussions on the socio-cultural impacts of the consumption of crystal meth will enhance our understanding of sexual minorities’ lives in Taiwan.  

Poyao Huang 黃柏堯  is an assistant professor in the Institute of Health Behaviors and Community Sciences, College of Public Health, National Taiwan University.  His research focuses on the contemporary gay man’s sexual health and embodied engagement with medicine in the inter-Asian context. 

This article was published as part of a special issue on Youth Culture.

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