By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson

Are gay men, as some would have it, ‘the biggest suicide cult in history’ or are we just having a good time? It’s well known that we have sex with more people than our heterosexual brothers. We’re also more likely to take drugs and drink to excess – and are much more likely to prance around in nightclubs with our tits to the wind. Is this indicative of great pain or of joy?

Often we are told that the reason that gay men take drugs, abuse alcohol or have lots of random hook-ups is because we don’t really like ourselves; that the casual homophobia we have been subjected to in our childhood has been internalised, and so we seek to escape by losing ourselves in sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I think that’s part of the story but I’m not convinced it’s the whole one.

Alongside the hetero-sexism, or worse, that we encounter as children, we also hear traditional fairy stories with princes seeking adventures, battling dragons and slashing their way through enchanted forests, whilst the princesses sleep or keep house for dwarves until they are rescued. We grow up subjected to soaps and sitcoms which tell us that women are looking for a life partner but men are just looking for sex, keen to keep sowing their seed as widely, and for as long, as possible.

So in our gay world, where we have all been raised with the idea that, as men, our goal is to have as much sex with as many people as we possibly can, is it any wonder that so many of us do? With our social and sexual lives intertwined with a commercial gay scene, which commonly uses the prospect of sex to entice us off our sofas, shagging around can become a hard habit to kick. And the drinking and the drug taking, for many, is just the natural accompaniment to our lives of child-free adventuring.

So, is it because we’re gay, or is it because we’re men? If social pressures didn’t oblige heterosexual men to settle down and have kids, wouldn’t they be doing the same thing? And if our rampant sex lives and drug taking were simply a reaction to homophobia in our nurture, wouldn’t lesbians be more promiscuous?

I’m not arguing that this is a simple causal relationship; I think all of us are a bit more complex than that. Whatever the reasons why gay men fall into certain behaviour patterns, there is nothing pre-ordained about it. Lots of us happily settle into long-term monogamous relationships. Lots of us manage to get through life without snorting an army-size helping of Columbia’s finest. Heterosexuals and lesbians are perfectly capable of being sleep-around junkies (although they are less likely to be). 

For some of us, sex with another man (or a whole group of men, if that’s your bag) is an affirmation of our sexual identity. For others, an endless succession of sexual partners is a futile attempt to fill a void in our lives. The behaviour may appear the same, but the causes of that behaviour can be very different. Similarly, some gay men use drugs to escape, because they feel unable to cope with their lives. But we should not lose sight of the main reason that many gay men take drugs – because, just like our heterosexual brothers and sisters filling the clubs in Ibiza or Ayia Napa, we think they’re fun.

We’re on a hiding to nothing if we try to consider the health needs of gay men as if we are all part of one homogenous community. We’re not. We don’t all think the same way. We don’t all have the same struggles, the same values or the same desires. For some people hedonism will only be a short phase, for others it may be a life-choice. 

And I’m not saying this because I think these choices are neutral. Drugs and alcohol aren’t good for you. They can damage your kidneys, liver, increase your risk of heart attacks and seriously mess with your head. The more men you have sex with, the greater the likelihood of you picking up an STI, including but not limited to HIV. Sex and drugs and alcohol combined lead to people making decisions around sexual safety that they wouldn’t do when sober. Lives are lost or ruined because of the poor choices that some of us make.

I believe that we need to increase our efforts to help men make healthy choices, to end the miseries caused by meth addiction and the ongoing toll that HIV has taken on our community. But if we believe that these are the behaviours that we need to address, as a community, to improve the health of our community, then let us consider all of the reasons why they might be so common.

Tackling the hurt and damage that some gay men feel as they come to terms with their sexuality, even if it were simple to do, may not be enough. As tolerance and equality become more deeply embedded within our culture we may find that society’s historic disapproval of our lives and lifestyles is inadequate as an excuse for our sometimes reckless, but often joy-filled, behaviour.

Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM