Is Crystal Uncool? Gay Men’s Love Affair With Tina May Be O-Vah
As anyone who went clubbing or to one of those multi-party Circuit weekends in the late '90s or early '00s knows, Miss Tina (as crystal methamphetamine is known among its gay users) was an essential part of staying awake and having sex--plenty of sex, much of it unsafe.
But how much is tina use ebbing among the affluent gay men who were at the forefront of the epidemic--and, not incidentally, have been at the forefront of efforts to stop its rampant use? Anecdotal evidence points to programs that began with activist Peter Staley's bus and telephone-kiosk ads in New York City's Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen neighborhoods as making tina uncool (or at least less cool). But how effective have they been?
For those who track crystal meth usage among gay and bisexual men, once again, knowledge is power. But a lack of coordinated information as well reluctance on the part of state and federal funders to acknowledge the link between drug use and sexuality often hinders or dilutes their efforts.
Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Health at New York University, is a prominent researcher into gay men's lives. His upcoming book, "Methamphetamine Addiction: Biological Foundations, Psychological Factors, and Social Consequences," will be released by the American Psychological Association Press on April 15.
All of the data that comes to Halkitis and other who are studying meth usage among urban gay men comes from other sources than national surveys. A lack of reliable data has complicated any tracking of what is generally acknowledged as an epidemic.
As it is, researchers attempting to identify emerging trends in order to create more effective prevention and treatment programs must cull their data from a patchwork of unrelated regional studies. A comprehensive national snapshot could easily be provided, says Halkitis, if the federal government would include a sexual orientation item to the National Drug Survey , which happens annually.
Whatever Halkitis can cull from recent surveys among New York City's (mostly white, and mostly professional) gay men is that meth use is trending downward among young men and Caucusions. That's the good news. The bad news is that, as tina use has become less acceptable among those populations, it has been trending upward sharply among gay urban African-American men.
Project Desire), a study completed in the summer of 2008, looked at meth use among 540 18- to 29-year-olds from throughout New York City (the five boroughs--that is, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island in addition to Manhattan). Still in the midst of crunching data, Halkitis notes that 70 percent of those surveyed were African-American--a demographic which, overall, has seen a sharp increase in use.
Among younger African-Americans, there's almost no meth use, Halkitis says: "It's not a drug gay men are using when they're young."
Reflecting anecdotal evidence from party producers and bar owners, getting drunk on alcohol (remember that?) and Ecstasy have become the inebriants of choice among the young, according to Halkitis. He emphasizes, however, that Project Desire's demographics represent "a potential entry point before they start using meth."
The challenge is to to target this specific age group and start intervening before they start using, he adds: "The window of opportunity to effect change closes by the time people are in their thirties, and it's too late."
Shocking Ads Get Results--to a Point
Halkitis traces the recent downward trend to the fact that young men are not beginning to use. Halkitis doesn't stint in his praise of social marketing campaigns like Staley's, which showed men during Pride weekend with a crack pipe in front of a home computer and other chilling images. Such campaigns can be effective, Halkhitis, "if done the right way."
Campaigns using ghoulish imagery, however, only "induces fear and panic, creating anxiety that can lead to the onset of drug use," Halkitis cautions. Accurate information that raises awareness, he adds, is more successful and has a more lasting effect than fear-inducing ads.
"There have been some positive developments in the last couple of years, in terms of an overall decrease in meth use," says Bill Stackhouse, PhD & Director of the Institute for Gay Men's Health. But some things continue to concern him.
An overall statistical decrease in usage--as well as men who are going into both formal and twelve-step recovery programs (such as AA, Narcotics Anonymous and Crystal Meth Anonymous) is significant, Stackhouse worries that those who seek help are largely residents of large urban areas.
Like Halkitis (whose research and statistical analysis he often uses in his own work), Stackhouse is an enthusiastic proponent of social marketing. But only when it's done effectively.
GMHC has received effective support from the New York City Department of Public Health for a number of years, in order to produce campaigns that stress prevention and meth's relation to sexual behavior. Stackhouse's next campaign, slated to debut this summer, involves the launching of a crystal meth website, with some social marketing used to promote it.
The site will focus on users or people who are contemplating use, their family and friends, professionals and policymakers. It will be a fully active website where people post personal experience and testimonials; it will also provide links to referrals and services.
Project Hope, a 2006-2007 study involving meth use among black gay men, confirmed anecdotal evidence that the drug was making significant inroads among a population that previously was relatively unscathed by meth abuse. Tina had been perceived as a drug for "Chelsea boys." No more.
Halkitis notes that the study indicated meth is a drug that's infiltrated the African American community. Compared to Ecstasy or even cocaine, meth delivers a huge effect at a low cost. "An African American man who is already experiencing stigma for being black, gay, and poor turns to this drug to cope," Halkitis says.
In the early stages of studies on the problem, there was much speculation that black men wouldn't be using this drug. But recent upswings and studies like Project Hope definitively prove that they have taken to tina in a big way.
"In the last six months, we've been hearing a lot of anecdotal evident that there is increasing use among men of color," Stackhouse says. "We've been hearing that particularly in Brooklyn the price is low."