Meaningful connection, James Wharton suggests at one point in his latest book, is in part a motivator for chemsex. The quest for connection is also what makes the difference between a book that touches you, grips you, and fully engages you, and one that does not. Something for the Weekend is Wharton’s second book, chronicling his chemsex use, following on from the success of 2013’s Out in the Army, chronicling his time as a gay soldier. In both cases, I struggled to get a connection with the author. Out in the Army was in part promoted by his connection during his army days with Prince Harry, and this latest book is seen – in the words of the Attitude magazine quote on the front a cover – as ‘a terrifying peek into the dark underbelly of gay pride’. Peek it is. A fuller look it isn’t.
Wharton has achieved a lot, and pumping out two high-profile books is no small matter, but you always get the sense he’s holding back, telling you a fraction of the story, editing and editing. That’s inevitable perhaps given the nature of these stories. The trick therefore is to avoid the reader constantly thinking it. Moreover, and it’s much clearer in this book, is the sense that Wharton is not trying to figure out who he is and what he wants, but rather he’s constantly seeming to try and work out what he should be doing, what he should be about. A being in search of meaning. It’s like being a paying spectator at a therapy session.
The book therefore feels a performance for many of its pages. The moments of real strength come when Wharton suggests he still engages in chemsex, and particularly, when he acknowledges that some people manage chemsex and have it as part of their life. This element of the chemsex phenomenon is rarely spoken about, much as it isn’t with many other drugs. The obvious exception to this being alcohol. A substance with many victims and alcoholics whose lives often collapse amidst the quest for booze. Somehow, our culture manages to cope, crudely accepting a few alcoholic casualties so long as we can join long quest for discounted Prosecco. Maybe that’s fucked up and cynical, but is it any more fucked up and cynical than prohibition?
A particularly powerful – albeit obviously calculated to be – powerful moment is when he reveals that he was the basis for an article by his friend, Attitude editor, Matt Cain. Cain’s article on someone who was raped during a chemsex session (also note once again the source of the quote on the front of the book). He reveals that he went under on G, and awoke to find a fat Turkish guy who a friend had invited over off Grindr (unknown to Wharton). The new guest had been busily fucking Wharton while he was unconscious, and Wharton awoke to find the man beside him. As in a later section, the fatness/attractiveness of the person seems to be a key element. Almost suggesting that if he’d been fucked by a hot guy on G, he wouldn’t have minded.
Attractiveness and consent, both as connected issues and as separate issues are not much discussed in this book but they seem rather critical to a discussion of chemsex, particularly within the context of modern gay culture. What are the consensual norms of the chemsex space and how are these arrived at and understood? When horny and demanding to be fucked by anyone and everyone, is that sad and tragic or a liberation of desire? A form of pure desire beyond the constructed norms of society?
The book focuses more on the chems than the sex – no lurid details of Wharton’s sex life to be found here – and like so many other gay chemsex publications do, it worships at the alter we’ve come to know as David Stuart of 55 Dean Street. Maybe Stuart is magnificent but I’m always dubious of people hailed with mythical god-like qualities. They usually end up drinking the Kool-Aid. He undoubtedly does some important work but I’d be more comfortable if we dialled back on the Sainthood process just a tad.
Overall this is an important book and specifically, an important contribution to the discussion around chemsex but it also has many limitations. At the end, more than anything about the contents, I found myself almost screaming at Wharton to figure out the life that was right for him and not the life he thought he should have. He notes at one point the controversy surrounding his previous remarks that saunas should be closed down and indicates he was a ‘dick’ for thinking that, the implication is – as a married gay man – he was reflecting the values he thought he should be presenting. Now, he thinks that was a stupid thing to say as a guy who has engaged in chemsex. Yet what he really thinks, I haven’t a clue. Nor, I suspect does Wharton.
Perhaps, after all, he was successful in forging a connection with this reader. I just hope he now steps away from the media for a time to reflect on what matters to him, and not the presentation of himself he thinks he owes us. Meanwhile, the chemsex debate goes on.