The ice cream on a wintry day seemed odd. But it was the denial of reality – that he had raised a serial killer who used Grindr and chemsex drugs to overdose young men before covering up his crimes – that rang out, reverberating far beyond that day.
Albert Port’s inability to acknowledge the truth proved symbolic of a much wider, societal denial of what is happening.
Despite the “Grindr killer” headlines, the documentaries, and the creepy mugshot photos, Stephen Port is not a one-off; we just prefer to see him as such.
Much will be written about the BBC’s new drama, Four Lives, which aired this week, about Port, his victims, and the mistakes the Metropolitan Police Service made in its investigations.
These mistakes include the failure to link two of the deaths, despite the bodies being found slumped in the same position in the same graveyard killed by the same drug – and led the coroner to conclude last month that such errors “probably” contributed to three of the deaths.
But whether one considers the drama to be necessary, good TV, or insensitive to the bereaved families, the real danger is its potential to further dissuade victims in similar circumstances from coming forward and to cement the idea that Port is a freakish exception. He isn’t.
He might, so far, have killed the highest number of men within a chemsex setting, but his crimes are simply among the ones that have splashed above sea-level.
Beneath lie crimes of sexual and physical violence, of spiking, stalking, enforced overdoses, livestreaming of abuse, theft, organised crime, and even torture; much of which goes unspoken, is rarely reported, and sometimes even unacknowledged by the victims themselves.
Many within the LGBT community do not want to admit this, or discuss it in public, sometimes from denial but also for fear of worsening prejudice. A much greater proportion of the public aren’t even aware what chemsex is.
Simply put, it’s the combination of certain drugs, particularly GHB (gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, a central nervous system depressant) and crystal methamphetamine, with sex, and mostly undertaken between men. But it’s more than sexualised drug use, it’s an entire scene occurring online, on people’s phones, and in real life.
Hook-up apps and websites enable men to meet. Drug dealers use such apps to sell their wares. And the encounters, which can last hours or even days, largely take place in private homes, so that when crimes occur they escape the attention of the authorities, and involve witnesses unable or unwilling to testify.
Most within the chemsex scene, it should be said, have enjoyable experiences. Stigmatisation of this scene helps no one. The problem for the authorities, community and health organisations is how to balance this with the much starker issue: chemsex settings are a predator’s playground, where few speak out.
Heterosexual men and women are also now at risk, as some rapists take Port’s lead, spiking their victims with GHB, and as the drug proliferates in straight bars and parties. Politicians, meanwhile, are only just beginning to act.
Last March the Home Office pledged to reclassify GHB from a class C to a class B drug, in response to another chemsex crime case: Reynhard Sinaga, the most prolific rapist in British legal history, who had used this illicit anaesthetic to render hundreds of mostly heterosexual men unconscious before abusing them. He filmed them, photographed them, and kept the evidence as trophies.
But Sinaga was found guilty more than three years after Port. Years in which a much deeper understanding of these hidden crimes, the reasons for them and the solutions to them, could have been undertaken.
During that time, I began investigating these uncharted waters. It turned into years of research, hundreds of interviews, and the largest survey ever conducted into this area in conjunction with Channel 4. What emerged was almost unbearably dark, both in scale and severity.
When I began interviewing gay and bisexual men about their experiences within chemsex, a strange pattern began to form. They would say, initially, that they had not been raped or sexually assaulted.
However, later, they would add: “Well I have woken up with someone inside me.” They would not label it as rape, even though that is how the law sees it. They would acknowledge the specifics of non-consensual sexual contact – “he groped me, he forced me, he did things to me without my permission” – but they would not call it sexual assault.
If a group (men) are conditioned not to consider that they could be victims of sexual violence, and if their identity (gay or bisexual) has been used as a stick against them, reducing their self-worth such that they don’t consider their boundaries valid, then what hope is there for reporting of crimes?
This isn’t a tiny minority of those involved in chemsex. In 2019, I worked on a documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches about how GHB was being used to rape, drug, and kill.
The team and I conducted a survey of 2,700 gay and bi men who use the drug. More than a quarter, 28 per cent, said they had been raped or sexually assaulted while under its influence – a third of which were younger than 25 – and 82 per cent knew someone else who’d been attacked on it. Nearly a fifth, 18 per cent, said they’d been deliberately put unconscious.
As well as spiking women’s drinks with GHB for the same purposes, heterosexual criminals are also seizing the opportunity provided by chemsex situations to rob, abuse, and murder.
In 2020, Joel Osei, 25, and his girlfriend Diana Cristea, 19, were found guilty of killing a gay man, Adrian Murphy, 43, from south London, by meeting him through Grindr and drugging him with scopolamine, an old anaesthetic nicknamed “devil’s breath”. It was part of a spree of drugging and theft they had committed against gay men whom they had met on the dating app.
The case echoed a previous spree committed in 2018 by another couple, this time a same-sex one. Gerald Matovu – who had been Stephen Port’s drug dealer – and Brandon Dunbar hooked up with a dozen men and drugged them with GHB to rob them. One of their victims, Eric Michels, 54, died during the encounter. Matovu was jailed for life for his murder.
The horror should have come as no surprise to police. In April 2016, Stefano Brizzi, high on crystal meth, murdered PC Gordon Semple, whom he’d invited over to his house for a chemsex hookup, before cooking parts of his body, dissolving other parts in acid, and decapitating him. Brizzi later killed himself in Belmarsh prison.
Dating apps have been accused throughout of providing a platform for dealers, and in 2019 when one London sexual-health adviser, Ignacio Labayen de Inza, spent months setting up profiles to signpost members to support for substance use, Grindr responded by repeatedly blocking his profile – and then ceased engaging with him.
During those months, Labayen de Inza documented dozens of dealers setting up shop on the app and over 2,000 interactions he’d had with guys asking for help.
“This is the biggest tragedy happening in the gay community since the years of Aids,” he told me.
Grindr did not deny there were dealers on there but said the company is “deeply committed to creating a safe online environment for all of our users”, and has “taken steps to address this issue”, which included banning accounts and “providing our users with tools to report suspicious activity”. Grindr also said it works with partners to promote chemsex safety information.
In the past six years, as I’ve interviewed men involved in chemsex, they have repeatedly described situations in which someone fell unconscious on GHB but nobody phoned an ambulance in case the police investigated them for drugs offences.
Many more have described to me refusing to report sexual violence for the same reason. Longer sentences could further dissuade victims.
The Metropolitan Police Service states it would always “prioritise” investigating sexual violence over possible drugs offences of victims but will not rule it out.
Community and health charities are left with the damage. Galop, an LGBT+ anti-abuse charity, and London Friend, an LGBT mental health charity, continue to support victims, while Antidote counsels LGBT addicts. But according to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, much more is needed.
When Home Secretary Priti Patel commissioned the Council to investigate GHB, its recommendations beyond reclassifying GHB included more education, more data, more treatment, and more support.
This, the Home Office said at the time, would be considered in due course. But 10 months on, when asked by i about progress on this matter, a spokesman said it was being discussed and they’ll “respond shortly”.
Beyond Britain, the picture is worse, still. In 2019, a white, wealthy donor to the US Democratic Party, Ed Buck, was arrested after two black gay men were found dead in his West Hollywood home. Last year, he was found guilty on multiple charges including administering the crystal meth that killed them.
But it took officers more than two years from the first death to arrest him, prompting protests from activists and many to question the police’s understanding of chemsex or its victims.
When I first went to LA to investigate, shortly after his arrest, LGBT people of colour repeatedly said the same thing: that there are many other Ed Bucks.
There is some hope, at least, from a pharmacological perspective: researchers at the University of Buffalo last year found the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac could mitigate the effects of GHB, and studies are underway into new treatments for meth.
However, something far more fundamental is needed to counter the social effects and psychological power over users. Talk to enough people who fall into problematic chemsex use or become victims within it, and three underlying issues surface: isolation, alienation, and discrimination.
Until the legal changes for LGBT people are met with deeper, social embrace of sexual and gender minorities, many more will continue to be pulled under, as predators strike. Some of whom will never return.