The link been methamphetamine’s infiltration within the gay community and increased HIV infections among us is a key cause for the growing concern about this problem. Yet this troubling linkage is the direct result of gay men using the drug to enhance sexual encounters and lessen the difficulties many face in managing self-esteem issues as they try to fuck and make connections with other gay men.
Among gay men who use meth, there is a subset who choose to administer the drug intravenously. These injection drug users are known as slammers and they slam meth as opposed to snorting, smoking, or “booty bumping,” the practice of inserting it into the rectum where it is absorbed by the porous mucosal lining.
These slammers are the queer mavericks among meth addicts, willing to engage in the most taboo activity within drug-taking culture, needle use, and giving it a special homo spin.
According to a recent study led by Dr. Perry Halkitis at the Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, and Prevention Studies at New York University, the number of gay men who slam represents only seven percent of meth users in our community. While almost three quarters of meth users snort the drug, and half smoke it, these slammers may have something important to teach us about gay meth users in general and high risk, highly sexual users in particular.
What’s crystal clear, so to speak, is that the slammers are a special breed among us, who push the envelope of what is acceptable among gay men and who may help us understand the outer limits of behavior that symbolizes tensions that all of us share.
All the slammers I spoke to—though I am a therapist, none of these men were my patients—talked about the intensity of the high when they inject meth.
“The rush is immediate and extremely powerful,” one user I’ll call Oswaldo said. “The immediate sensation was a rush of warmth and tingliness and feeling like I wanted to melt my body into another person.”
The slammers all strongly associated meth use and sex and the experience of powerful connection with other users.
Doug shot up the very first time he used meth. He’s a self-proclaimed “druggie” who had lots of experience with many different drugs. He wasn’t freaked out by needles, as many people are; he was already HIV-positive; and he was clear that shooting up meth was attractive to him to the extent that it accentuated “the secret, private bond that one doesn’t have in other areas of life.”
Doug already saw himself as an outsider. Shooting up meth confirmed and extended this sense of being an outlaw, a member of a secret society.
“Once you know somebody else does it, you know they’re in the same headspace as you,” he said.
Doug compares injecting meth to being the kind of person who might have their whole back covered in tattoos, being a rebel who really pushes the boundaries and finds commonality with others like themselves. For him, it’s all about the connection made with the person you’re doing it with.
Oswaldo agreed: “There’s definitely a bond or a sense of togetherness that comes from knowing we both like the same thing and have both experienced the intensity of slamming.”
In fact, this sense of a powerful connection to like-minded fellow users sharing the intensity of the experience was the single most resonant commonality among the slammers I spoke with. One went so far as to say that in his opinion “the prevalence of injecting meth is in direct relation to where gay culture is at.”
What he meant by this is that in gay male culture it’s very common to have intense feelings of being an outsider combined with difficulty accessing intimacy. Shooting meth confirms the uniqueness of the loner mystique while providing instant access to intense intimacy both within the ritual of shooting up and the inhibition-less sex that follows.
The bonding between slammers is the flip side of the stigma toward injecting drugs. And while few of the users I spoke to had any experience with heroin, or even saw it in their circles, all of them felt that other gay male meth users looked down on those who inject.
In fact, this two-tiered society of slammers and other meth users parallels the two-tiered society of gay men, the HIV-negative and the HIV-positive, another version of the outsider dynamic.
Colin, who recently stopped using when he left New York City, and who remains HIV-negative despite more than five years shooting up meth, talked about the darker side of slamming, detailing stories of meth paranoia that while not exclusive to the injection experience clarify the costs of sustaining use.
“I have met people who seem perfectly normal,” he said, “and then you realize that they have been thinking that there is no roof on their apartment for six months and they come to think of this ‘fact’ not as a huge problem but more like it’s a new form of reality, as in: ‘Come in, how are you? By the way, I must apologize for the complete lack of ceiling.’”
All the slammers agreed that, as Doug put it, “People use drugs until they can’t, until things fall apart.”
None of them felt that any public health campaigns or warnings had any impact on their use, or used messages that spoke to their experience as slammers. Oswaldo stopped using when he thought he was having a heart attack when shooting up, describing “the sheer terror I felt when I almost passed out. I didn’t want to die like that.”
All of them paid a heavy price for their use in one way or another, losing jobs, friends, apartments, savings, and more.
“For all the brouhaha about how great it feels,” Oswaldo said, “ultimately one is paying with one’s life. Tragically, slamming sets the bar for sexual/sensual pleasure very, very high and one feels like there’s no other pleasure, drug induced or not, that is worth pursuing. In my time in recovery, I’ve noticed that slammers have a far greater relapse rate.
The relearning of other forms of pleasure is also harder. The flashback effect of euphoric recall is scary when it happens.”
“People do drugs because they are bored and lonely,” said Doug. Slamming meth “fulfills a specific cultural need” for closeness and intimacy. In order to help people not to slam meth, he said, “our community needs to help people meet those needs.”