Ice parties among young men who have sex with men in Thailand: Pleasures, secrecy and risks.
Guadamuz TE, Boonmongkon
BACKGROUND: Crystal methamphetamine (ice) has become the substance of choice among young men who have sex with men (YMSM) in urban Thailand. Yet, there is scarce data on this phenomenon, partly due to the difficulty in accessing men who will disclose and openly discuss the social contexts, meanings and risks surrounding ice practice. We present an ethnography of ice parties, critically discussing the in-depth social meanings of ice; the sexual socialities and the secrecy surrounding its use; the transactions between older and younger men; and the role of the Internet and mobile technology.
METHODS: Forty repeated narrative interviews (life stories), ten focus group discussions, as well as systematic online and offline observations were conducted over a three-year period. Purposive sampling was used to recruit study participants in a variety of online and offline spaces and through working closely with local Thai community-based organizations serving MSM. To be eligible, participants had to be between 18 and 29 years, able to converse in Thai, had used ice, and had anal sex with another man in the past 6 months. We also strived for sample variability with respects to socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., age, educational attainment and living situation). Data analysis was conducted in Thai by two researchers using the constant comparative method based on grounded theory.
RESULTS: On surface, participants described ice parties as exclusive, in trend, luxurious, fun and pleasurable-a kind of modern camaraderie among beautiful men. In reality, however, this group phenomenon was a social hierarchy containing several important players with relational power to one another, to the ice itself and to the physical space where ice was being consumed. These players included ice suppliers, party hosts, party guests and “icetenders.” The paper also discusses the sociality of secrecy that surrounds ice parties as well as the power relations between older relatively rich men who provide ice and the younger men who crave for the chemical, pointing to the risks associated with engagement at ice parties, including instances of rape, violence and unsafe sex. For some participants, ice use was part of their “everyday life,” or even believed to be a “rites of passage.” For others, it involved sexual silence in cases where they were forced to have (unprotected) sex with certain persons or engage in high-risk activities against their will.
CONCLUSIONS: Ice parties, where high-risk practices were common, power and agency quickly became relational and negotiable. This paper illuminated the secret sociality of ice so that public health efforts will be better equipped with understanding and reaching out to young men who may be at heightened risk for HIV, STI, violence and other health concerns. Ice parties can, for example, be seen as opportunities for harm-reduction strategies whereby young men are not judged for the activities they engage, but are instead respected and approached in a contextualized, non-judgmental way. Finally, icetenders and party hosts may be individuals where public health practitioners can target and include in the development of novel harm-reduction programs.
KEYWORDS: Crystal methamphetamine; Men who have sex with men; Secrecy; Sexual transactions; Thailand