Imagine the following scenario: you have a magical carpet, and one Saturday night, you fly around Copenhagen. Whenever you hear music and voices coming from apartments or houses, you stop and sneak a peek through the windows. Perhaps you’ll come across a bunch of metalheads slamming whiskey, headbanging and making out. Maybe you’ll see a group of consultants who’ve stuck together since university, drinking red wine and smoking a few homegrown joints. You could see a couple of friends swiping through a gay hook-up app, discussing which cutie to invite over for a drug-infused orgy. Or perhaps you see a group of polyamorous couples kicking back with homegrown psychedelic mushrooms and giving each other back massages.
All of these people have met and connected because of similar lifestyles, hobbies or identities. All of them use one or several substances to relax, transcend, or connect. And last but not least, all of them enjoy pleasure, in many different shapes and forms. That’s because seeking pleasure is a basic human drive, and can be a crucial part of giving our lives meaning.
I’ve spent the last 15 years flying this carpet around the world and have encountered a multitude of sub, mainstream and high end cultures; I’ve witnessed how these different groups and social segments explore pleasure. Half chameleon, half amature anthropologist, one of my biggest passions is trying to understand the relationships humans create with each other and how communities are built. Having spent most of my life in the realm of sex education, I fee safe to call myself a pleasure activist. With this piece, I aim to include safe and consensual drug use within that activism.
Pleasure is Political
I believe that judging un-regulated types of pleasures — like recreational drugs — creates more harm for the user than benefits. When we only focus on the negative aspects of drug use, we neglect the potential for good that these substances can bring into people’s lives and exacerbate stigma. We also remove people’s agency to pursue pleasure, personal exploration and community. When drug use becomes abuse, dependence or addiction, it becomes a social and/or medical problem — and should be treated accordingly. But criminalising, demonising or judging drug users or the drug itself does not solve those problems — and provides no sustainable frameworks for looking at drug use.
One of the key issues is that pleasure is political. This isn’t just limited to drug use. Some American states that lean conservative still outlaw dildos and sex toys. The UK restricts female* pleasure practices from being depicted in porn. Sweden — and other countries following suit, like France and Canada — criminalises sex workers’ clients. Many countries regulate the time slots in which one can purchase alcohol. But over the last couple of years, parts of the USA and Canada legalised marijuana. These are just a few examples of how the things and experiences we might seek for pleasure are regulated on an ever-changing political agenda. With that in mind, political standpoints on pleasure may be fluid — but facts and evidence aren’t. Based on the empirically-validated, positive results we’ve seen from countries which have legalised drugs altogether, I too believe in the legalisation of drugs.
Moreover, we should remember that all of us exist on a spectrum of pleasure intensity — from straight edge to chemsex, from feeling proud about not using stimulants to indulging in pure hedonism. Many of us have tried combining alcohol and sex. Lots of us have gotten down and dirty after sharing a joint. And many have made out with new ‘best friends’ on the dancefloor while rolling on mdma. These examples fall into the middle parts of the spectrum, which is where many of us move around. That makes it easy to judge those on the outer edges. But this judgment is creating more of a divide — fostering fear and even hatred towards certain communities that use recreational drugs. We have to understand that drug use always has a context and remember the humanity of those moments where pleasure trumps all.
Sex, drugs and stigma
Sex and drugs do not exist in a vacuum. We use them contextually, and sometimes, they shape and are shaped by the stigmas we experience — especially if we’re marginalised.
A particular thing happens when you feel on the queer side of life. I’m not exclusively referring to queer as in gender or sexual identity, but using it in a broader context. Queer aslo includes the freaks, the geeks and non-conforming peeps. The people who grew up feeling out of touch with their peers and didn’t quite fit into the norm. It’s human nature to find community and belonging with groups of people that look like ourselves and come from the same socio-economic background, identify with the same sexual orientation, and share the same tastes in art or culture. A tribe or a community will have its own set of social rules or codes of conduct. Its own colours, jargon and history shared between its members. Feeling ‘othered’ from the norm in society can make it harder to find your tribe — but when you do, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
People who come from sexual minorities might have a more outspoken sexuality, because what doesn’t fit a norm has to be re-defined and discussed. Some of these communities might have a stronger emphasis on sex positivity stemming from the added articulation of sexual identities, preferences and pratices discussed between its members.
Studies have shown that some psychedelic drugs have helped some queer people reduce gender dysphoria, which has enabled gender expression in or transformed their sexual relationships. Certain drug experiences can help transcend a person beyond the realm of gender and into a space where gender is more fluid, wholesome or simply less relevant. And though heightened experiences like this are short-lived, the memory of them can live on in our cells for some time — and our minds for longer. Once you’ve seen or felt a different you, it can be easier to believe it and start to embody it.
Unfortunately, many minority groups — such as people of colour, queer people, trans people, intersex people, sex workers, and migrants — experience an ‘othering’ and stigmatisation that can lead to a more harmful relationship with sex and drugs. The othering intensifies when people experience multiples of stigmas on top of each other. It can be a catch 22; you need your community because of stigma — but you experience stigma because you’re in that community. Our policies’ and legislative systems’ inability to meet communities without stigmatising them is one of the things that leads to addictive and destructive behaviour around substance use.
If we want to eradicate the negative aspects of drug use, we have to fight for more just systems. We need to demand that our governments and fellow citizens provide better social care, education, fair pay, health and equal opportunities for all people instead of targeting the pleasures that make the very unjust system more bearable. Targeting the drug itself is too easy. Drugs become scapegoats — when really, the uncomfortable truth is that the system is broken.
Pleasure as agency
Though queer communities might be more outspoken about sex and sexuality, that doesn’t mean they are the only onces experimenting with sex and drugs as a pleasure cocktail. Seniors have vibrant sex lives, lots of asexuals also enjoy intimacy and sometimes cis women will partake in gay male orgies. For many people, sexuality can have its moments of fluidity and drugs can be a spontaneous adventure — within or outside of that framework.
Sex and drugs are both ways for us to create and build connections to individuals, groups and movements. (Just think of the pivotal roles they played in countercultures of the 60s and still do today within the multitudes of subcultures in music, art and culture!) It’s essential to human wellbeing that we feel seen, heard and accepted by one or more of the groups that we belong to. Mirroring ourselves with those around us helps us bond and interpret how other people are feeling — in both good and bad ways. Listening to people who have coped with similar experiences or who come from similar backgrounds can enforce positive narratives about overcoming injustice and struggles in life.
Drug use is many different things; pleasure, escape, healing, destruction and much more. Most importantly, we need to understand the wider context that explains why people use drugs. We have to look at factors outside of the individual — but also give the individual agency to seek pleasure, connection, escape or the meaning of life. Drugs will always exist in societies around the world, and people will always use them to seek pleasure or escape. There should be enough space for us to talk about all of these experiences while we do our best to meet each other with empathy and respect.