Drugs before sex more common in UK than in Europe or US – study

UK citizens are more likely than Europeans or those living in the US to have taken drugs such as MDMA and cocaine before sex during the last year, according to a new study.

Researchers used data from the Global Drug Survey of roughly 22,000 people to find that 64% (4,719) of people surveyed from the UK had had sex having drunk alcohol, compared with 60% (1,296) from Europe and 55% (2064) from the US.

Of those who took part in the study, the number who combined sex and cocaine was 13% from the UK (936) compared to 8% from Europe. Similarly, a higher number said they had had sex after MDMA, with 20% of those who participated in the survey from the UK saying they had done so against 15% from the US and Europe.

The study’s lead author, Dr Will Lawn, noted that because the study was self-selecting, the proportion in the overall population was likely to be lower.

The drugs most commonly used during sex across all countries were alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine, while GHB – which has been linked to chemsex parties, where participants take drugs with the specific aim of having sex afterwards – and MDMA were viewed as having the most significant effect on sexual experience.

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The findings were put together by academics at the University College London and the Global Drug Survey team and published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. They drew from a survey where people responded to online questions about which drugs they used when having sex, as well as how drugs affected their sexual experience.

“To my knowledge no one has ever investigated country-related difference in how drugs are combined with sex, and this shows the UK may well be at greater risk of chemsex-related harm than other countries, something our country has to be mindful of,” said Dr Lawn. The British Medical Journal has called chemsex a “public health timebomb” because of the associated prevalence of risky sex.

Lawn also noted that some drugs would be more popular in certain countries, leading to differences. “For a drug like mephedrone, there was a strong difference between the UK and the Eurozone because [the drug] was particularly popular in the UK but not so much other parts of the world,” he said.

He said cannabis was more commonly used in the US in general and this correlated with a higher number of people using it during sex. Cannabis was the only drug in which the UK did not top the US and other countries, with 49% of people from the states combining it with sex compared with 36% in the UK.

Lawn said that “differences between groups did emerge” in the study. Men who identified as homosexual were roughly 1.6 times more likely than heterosexual men to take drugs with the intention of enhancing their sexual experiences. They confirmed that GHB/GBL, mephedrone and methamphetamine are more commonly combined with sex by homosexual men than heterosexual men.

Lawn said: “In summary, the overall message is that men and women of homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual orientation all use drugs with sex. We should not isolate that behaviour as something only men who have sex with men do, which is the stereotypical chemsex image. However, harm reduction messages about certain drugs should still be targeted at specific drugs to specific groups, given that the combination of sex with GHB/GBL, mephedrone and methamphetamine is more popular among gay men.”

Professor Adam Winstock, the founder and director of the Global Drug Survey and a senior author, said: “Our study is by far the largest to date to investigate the relationships between sex and drugs. Previous studies have rarely compared men and women, and people of different sexual orientations.

“Furthermore, by appreciating how different drugs affect sex we can tailor our harm reduction messages. These pragmatic messages can save lives.”