Words by Nick Ashton-Hart - @nashtonhart

When you have sex, are your eyes open or closed most of the time?

Do you look in your partners’ eyes as you climax? Do you smile at people you meet almost reflexively, especially when they’re sexually appealing? Do you sometimes leave a sexual experience feeling empty and sad, and other times happy and warm and not know quite why?

These aren’t comfortable questions. If you answer them honestly you may not be comfortable with the answers, either. The answers are a window on how willing you are to lower your barriers to another person in intimate settings. LGBTQ+ people ‘come out’ as young adults into a world without a roadmap, often without easy access to peers older than us we can ask for help as we try to assemble the life path we are looking for. These are not problems the heterosexual world has in the same way; they have a map, a socially promoted default one, anyway (find a member of the opposite sex, get married, settle down, have kids, etc.). We don’t. 

Taking recreational drugs (including drinking more than a little) in settings where sexual negotiations take place removes your inhibitions, but only as long as you’re under the influence. It’s easy to start to do this routinely, especially if that’s considered normal in the mainstream gay club/scene. But the insecurities are still there, and you’re just masking them.

As a wiser man than me said at a recovery meeting the other day, when you use drugs as part of sex on a regular basis you start substituting real communication with physical acts. The first time I had sex after I got sober was a rude awakening. I was terribly shy and uncomfortable. I couldn’t connect at all despite being with someone I had spectacular chemsex with. It was like being struck on the head with a brick. I had believed that I had spectacularly intimate sex all the time, that all my inhibitions had gone out the window, that I was

completely comfortable with my sexual nature and I could do anything with anyone and have this amazing connection effortlessly. It was a crushing blow to my already shattered self-esteem when I realised all the sex I had thought was so mind-blowingly great was an illusion. All I’d really been having is the equivalent of anonymous casual encounters all the time (which is not a judgement about anonymous casual sex, if you’re wondering). 

This lightning bolt led me to a lot of anger and self-loathing. How could I have been so deluded? Was I condemned to spend the rest of my life having sex that was a shadow of what I had when I was high? That was like looking into an abyss: a Hobbesian choice between dying of addiction or living a shadow of my former sexual self.

It took years to undo the damage I had done by cheating, that is taking drugs and drinking to feel comfortable around men (in any context), instead of doing the real work to get comfortable with myself and other people so I could taking emotional risks. I delayed by years learning the basics of how to make healthy connections with others thanks to the siren song of drug-fuelled sex, insecurity, and ego.

In the years since I have seen many men stop using drugs and face the same dilemmas. I’ve also found the struggle to learn how to be intimate is far from unique to addicts: I know of no gay man who hasn’t had to face down the demons of low self-esteem and the difficulty that creates in being intimate with other men - clothes on or off. The difference seems to be a matter of degree.Those of us who become chemsex-afflicted addicts start digging the insecurity and intimacy-deficit hole deeper while the rest mostly are working to fill the hole in and get out of it.

What I’ve learnt is that there’s no free ride. If you want to be intimate with other people, even when you don’t know them well, even when you’ve just met them, you have to learn to communicate and take risks with your mind and your heart, and then, and only then, your body will follow. You have to be willing to ask others for help (something I still struggle with at times). Otherwise in your intimate relationships the magic will wane, the grass will be greener somewhere else and off you’ll go. Your friendships will not be as meaningful, and many won’t last as long as they might either. Taking emotional risks means you will get hurt. People will let you down. Your heart will get broken. I’ve learnt this is the price of admission to a life with deep connections and great love. Today I wouldn’t trade all the difficulty, any of the scars, for anything: it has taught me how to live a life beyond anything I could have hoped for when I first looked into the emotional abyss of my early sober days. 

Back to those early questions: if any of your answers made you a bit uncomfortable, try a few things. Smile spontaneously at least once each day at a stranger whom you would otherwise have looked away from. Say hello to another person you find attractive or just for no particular reason, and last but definitely not least, the next time you’re having sex open your eyes just a little more of the time and look at your partner a little more than you did the one before (or the time before). I don’t know about you, but the first time I had an orgasm sober looking into the eyes of my partner was better than anything I ever felt when I was high.

It might all make you a bit uncomfortable but keep it up. I think you’ll find the results will amaze you.