UNSW’s Centre for Social Research in Health (CSRH) has been involved in a unique study which researched the use of crystal methamphetamine by gay and bisexual men.

The crystalline form of methamphetamine is a commonly used illicit substance associated with sexual activity among gay and bisexual men in Australia. It is also known as ‘crystal’, ‘ice’, ‘Tina’ and ‘meth’.

“We are interested in how using crystal during sex can be enjoyable but also how it can be harmful. And we are interested in documenting the ways men manage these harms and protect themselves,” Dr Kerryn Drysdale, Research Fellow at the CSRH, said.

The Crystal, Pleasures and Sex between Men project examined gay and bisexual men’s crystal use in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. The study took a social practice approach to examining gay men’s crystal use.

“We drew on the concept of sex-based sociality – a unique pattern of social relations within the gay community where sex and drug taking can be part of building belonging and connectedness,” Dr Drysdale said. “We drew on this concept to develop more nuanced and relevant understandings about the ways crystal is used, the pleasures and risks associated with its use, and the everyday strategies men may employ to reduce these risks.”

The research project was conducted between 2017 and 2019. It involved 88 interviews with gay and bisexual men and 35 key informants working in the health policy, sexual health, harm reduction and blood borne virus prevention fields. It was run by CSRH in partnership with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University; ACON (AIDS Council of NSW); Thorne Harbour Health; South Australia Mobilisation + Empowerment for Sexual Health; and WA AIDS Council.

“We hope this research can improve our understanding about how gay and bisexual men experience crystal, especially in relation to sex, and how services can better meet their needs,” Dr Drysdale said. “We aim to identify feasible and acceptable harm reduction strategies, including HIV and hepatitis C prevention strategies, for gay and bisexual men who use crystal in sexual contexts.”

In response to the research findings, researchers and community health organisations have collaborated to produce a series of podcasts about the personal use of crystal. The Crystal Clear: Negotiating pleasures and risk podcasts were identified as an appropriate way to disseminate the research to reach people who may be concerned about their own or others’ crystal use. The podcasts do not endorse substance use.

“These podcasts are designed to provide information and resources in a non-judgemental way and to avoid sensationalising the issue or inducing panic,” Dr Drysdale said. “We have taken data from this research and asked men who use crystal, those people who support them and health workers to comment. In this way we draw on the strengths of community, health services and research to focus attention on the issues most relevant to these audiences.”

The Crystal, Pleasures and Sex between Men project was supported by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and WA Health. CSRH and ARCSHS also received funding from the Australian government Department of Health.

Diane Nazaroff