“It’s Time for Me to Leave the Darkroom, and I Can Finally See That”: Developing a Methodological Orientation Towards Traces, Absences and Submerged Narratives

Inside a nightclub in 2021. Photograph: the author.
Alex Frankovitch considers potential ways for researchers to understand the operation of trauma, drug use and sex in queer nightlife spaces.
[Ed. note: This article is part of a dossier on New Directions in Queer Nightlife.]

This essay intervenes into ongoing debates regarding empirical investigation of bodily experiences like sex, drug use and clubbing by reflecting on the process of returning to empirical data I excluded from my doctoral thesis. My thesis explored the ethical dimensions of sex involving drugs, and the excluded data is a research participant’s story an experience of “chemsex” at a sex-on-premises nightclub in a UK city. I am returning to this story now with the intention of building on work I began in my thesis to develop a methodological orientation towards traces, absences, and submerged narratives in this and other research participants’ accounts of their sex-on-drug experiences.1Lisa Blackman, “Researching Affect and Embodied Hauntologies: Exploring an Analytics of Experimentation,” in Affective Methodologies, ed. Britta Timm Knudsen and Carsten Stage (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 25–44, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137483195_2. I am particularly interested in accounting for the operation of past sexual trauma in the playing out of queer sexual encounters involving drugs, including those occurring in nightlife contexts. Because of this interest, I follow the participant’s story with discussion of wider discourses on connections among trauma, drugs and queerness (especially transness) to contextualise my own engagement with these connections. I also reflect on the essay’s contribution to a growing body of critical chemsex literature seeking to move beyond a risk/pleasure dichotomy in making sense of chemsex experiences and their significance for queer possibilities and sexual futures.2Kristian Møller and Jamie Hakim, “Critical Chemsex Studies: Interrogating Cultures of Sexualized Drug Use Beyond the Risk Paradigm,” Sexualities 26, nos. 5–6 (June 20, 2021): 547–55, https://doi.org/10.1177/13634607211026223.

Sen’s Story

Sen – the participant’s pseudonym – was white, non-binary, and queer. At the time of the research, they were 28 years old. Below is Sen’s account of an experience of chemsex in a nightclub ‘darkroom’ (a dedicated space in the venue for partygoers to have sex), which they described to me during an interview. Sen recalled they were at the nightclub for around 11 hours total, after which they attended an “afterparty”, which here refers to a post-nightclub gathering at a private home. Over the course of the event, Sen consumed “acid” (LSD), “pill” (ecstasy/MDMA), “G” (GHB/GBL), “speed” (amphetamines), Viagra, ketamine, and mephedrone. They generally use the word “fucked” to describe their own and others’ high levels of intoxication. I include additional explanation of terminology Sen uses in footnotes. I have anonymised and edited Sen’s description for clarity, while seeking to maintain a closeness to the original to convey its affective dimensions, which are the focus of the following section.

The story in my mind begins when I left two of my friends to put my sunglasses back. I was lowkey horny, so I went to the darkroom. It felt weird, so I left. I tried to find my friends again, couldn’t find my friends, but bumped into someone else. We’ve got a history of making out at raves. He’s cute, but I don’t think we’ll ever have sex. Or maybe we will, who the fuck knows. But it’s always lovely to snog him, it feels safe and validating. So, I sat down with him, and we snogged for a while. And then I was horny obviously, because I was horny before and I’d just had this sexual validation. But that whole party though… I felt like I was at a different party. Partly because of the acid, but also because of who I am. It was so muscle gay. It was like a sex pit.

Anyway, I went to the darkroom again. At that point, I was in a skirt. The first time I went, I was in a sequin dress. I walked in, and someone ‘presented’ me. It was like they saw someone very different, non-masculine entering the space, because everyone else was in black shorts, grabbed me by the hand and was like, oh, should I show you around? And I was on acid having a lovely time, and thought, this is dumb, why not? But it instantly othered me from the space. I think the reason I went to the darkroom is because I’ve had lovely… well, not lovely… I’ve had fine times in the darkroom previously, where it’s been totally fine. Sometimes quite nice, often enjoyable. But something about the drug combo I was on, and maybe the way the darkroom and the crowd has evolved… it felt different in lots of ways. Before, the darkroom was in the corner of the club, so it felt attached to the space. And then it became a little room off the bigger room. So, still attached to the space, but also a definite step towards it being a space where only certain people are involved. Then it moved upstairs, into quite a big and spacious room, but not well equipped. It has beds basically. Which are disgusting, when you’re having sex on them… they literally leave like little rotting pellets of foam, all over you. Like, how much rotting foam is gonna be in someone’s asshole right now?

Anyway, I went back to the darkroom, only now I was wearing a skirt. There were other cis gays in skirts. Or like, party theys, in skirts.3Sen uses the term “party theys” to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to people who were assigned male at birth and use “he/they” pronouns. I think that’s why I got changed, so I was more in line with everyone else. I didn’t feel weird in a skirt, but I did still feel othered, because of the other ways I mark myself as visibly queer. Which I am really happy with. However, I wasn’t getting interacted with. Also, I’d just had half a pill.

So, I was sitting on a bed, and there was someone fucked next to me. But I assume everyone is fucked on G at that club, because everyone is. Especially if you’re participating in this sleazy, anonymous sex scenario. Lying there, shoes off, trousers off… that’s what you’re coming for, a chemsex scenario, realistically. A chemsex scenario endorsed and provided for by a club that does no welfare and no looking after people.4Sen explains that the club night “does no welfare”, meaning they do not employ a team of individuals responsible for ensuring the welfare of party attendees. Welfare teams (sometimes referred to as “care teams” or “awareness teams”) are usually responsible for monitoring dancefloors/darkrooms/chill spaces to ensure party attendees are as safe as possible from sex/drug-related harms. See Safe Only Limited for an example of a UK-based organisation that provides this kind of service.

So, I was sitting on the side of the bed, and this person is fucked next to me. Another boy comes over, because the person next to me was a typical muscle gay you find in these spaces, which obviously is what attracted this new boy over, in my like, jaded estimation. But he ended up talking to both of us, because I was sitting right there. Then he left, and for whatever reason… I don’t know. I guess that fucked gay now knows who I am. And now sees me. Because I have a name now, the other boy asked our names. Then we obviously end up hooking up. We start kissing, we start fucking. It’s all kind of fine. Then he needs a break for something. Obviously, that’s totally fine. The sex was fine. Not great. Not the most worthwhile for me in any respect. But because in the darkroom there’s no lube, no condoms, no paper towels, it’s completely like… bareback.5“Bareback” refers to anal sex without the use of a condom. And I know we’re very far with PrEP and everything, and I don’t think we have to go back to safe sex mandates.6PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medicine people who are at risk of HIV can take to prevent transmission. But if there is safeguarding to be done, the safeguarding is to provide the things to have sex.

So, we start having sex, and he needs a break. I obviously am like… hard, so I’m interacting with other people, because the only thing maybe required for consent in a gay darkroom is a hard dick? Not sure. This is also why it’s hard for me to interact with people in these spaces. Because for me, I need a tiny bit of connection and intimacy before my dick is hard, realistically. And I probably had taken some Viagra at this point, and so an erection wasn’t a problem. But for me, an erection only happens if there’s some sort of intimacy. I think it was only possible with this guy because I knew his name. Because we had chatted literally for three minutes beforehand. But anyway, we had the sex. And then like… he needed a break. And obviously I’m actively trying to check in with him that he’s ok a lot during this. Because that’s what you do. Or at least that’s what I do, and I think people should do.

So, we take a break, and I get involved with somebody else. And I look back over, and he’s passed out on G. So, I break off from what I’m doing, and I wake him up, and I’m like babe, you’re asleep. You probably need to leave the darkroom. You’re asleep on G in the darkroom, you need to leave. He says yeah, yeah, looks at his phone, does some shuffling to get himself together, but doesn’t really get himself together. I’m obviously also on drugs, and so I get involved with something else. And I look back, and he’s asleep again. I have no idea about time because I’m on acid, but this whole incident probably took like an hour ish.

For the second time, I wake him up. I say babes, your asleep, you need to leave the darkroom. I’m not judging you, I just think you need to be in a different space because it’s not safe.7Sen says it isn’t ‘safe’ for the man to be asleep on G in the darkroom, meaning they understand the man to be at risk of sexual assault/rape from others in the darkroom while in this state. And again, the same thing happens. I get involved in something else, I look back over, and he’s asleep. I wake him up again. And then I have this moment of … I’m done now. I’m not interested in the things that are happening. The people I want to fuck are not interested in fucking me, blah blah blah. It’s time for me to leave the darkroom, and I can finally see that. I go to leave, I look behind me, and I see him asleep, in the centre of those horrible foam mats. There are 10 guys fucking around him, nobody is doing anything. Clearly this is a normalised thing, right? Because if no one is doing anything, they don’t care. This person will be fine, because it’s happened before, and it will happen again.

So, I wake him up for the fourth time. I’m like babe, you’re asleep, on G. And he says, oh, did I fall asleep while we were having sex? Clearly, he has no memory of the sex that we had, or anything about that. I get him dressed, help him find his phone, because even though I’m on all these fucking drugs, I’m still able to locate this random person’s phone. I watch him until he’s fully dressed. It takes a little bit of cajoling to help him get his shoes, blah blah blah. And then I’m like, alright babes, let’s go find a drink or something. And we walk out together, nearly to the door. I turn around because I’m distracted by something, I turn back, and he’s gone. And I mean… selfishly, if I was to rewrite this, the best way this could have happened… I don’t lose him. We walk out, we get a can of coke, we sit outside, have a cigarette… and have a little bit of a debrief. I’m able to do some aftercare, because he clearly needs it. I was so traumatised by it. Because not have I not been able to help this person, I’ve also not been able to like… conceptualise it, rationalise it, or talk about it to anyone, because I would have to reveal someone is on G, and the club is so actively prohibitory about G.8Sen describes the club night as being “actively prohibitory” about GHB, meaning its organisers were very vocal about attendees who chose to consume GHB being “selfish” and “putting the party at risk”, despite being more accepting/accommodating of other illicit drug use (e.g., MDMA, ketamine, cocaine, etc.)

I have a lot of feels. The main feels are sort of fire-starty flames of vengeance. I want to burn the party to the ground. Which, I actively will not do, because that would be terrible for me in every way possible. Saying this publicly, putting people on blast on social media, and then watching the fire burn. That’s a really immature way of dealing with it. Some people need to, and that’s fine, but I’m too emotionally intelligent to be able to do that to somebody, and to be able to deal with the consequences of that myself.

I also feel weird consent issues around this. Because I didn’t consent to have sex with this person who was on so much G. Knowing that would have changed my interaction with the sex. But also… I did have sex with someone who was on that much G. And I didn’t know. And I didn’t give them the G. I wasn’t involved with the dosing of the G. So, there’s no implication with me and their drug taking in that way, because that’s the non-consensual part in my experience. But also, because he was so on G, his consent is really raised for me in my mind. And so, I feel equally like I have been sexually assaulted, and that I have done sexual assault to somebody. Even though I was actively checking in, he was enthusiastically engaged in the sex.

Gay male sex is so like… shady with consent. So questionable, that’s why I don’t know how to get involved in it, that’s what I’m reflecting on now… going to afterparties and being involved in these sex scenarios, I don’t know how to deal with it, because I don’t understand the etiquette in some ways. I’m not just going up to somebody and grabbing their ass. I mean, I might… but I probably won’t because I think it’s a bit gross. And sometimes it’s sleazy and hot… There’s this weird consent duplicity in my mind, that I don’t understand, and I find hard to rationalise. But I think I’ve talked about it quite well here, to be honest.

I think this experience for me could push me into… if I was more good… not good, but if I was more lawful or whatever, I would think this would be an easy way for me to like… now think about being be a welfare person at parties.9Here Sen is referring to the lawful/chaotic good/evil character alignment meme. But I’m not. I don’t need to do that emotional labour when I’ve just been this traumatised by the situation, I feel that’s completely wrong.

Discussion

As stated earlier, I made the decision to exclude Sen’s story from my thesis. This was in part because I lacked conceptual/methodological tools to generate insights into Sen’s experience that could contribute to my wider goal of working towards a sexual ethics of sex on drugs. In hindsight, I believe this was connected to my disciplinary background in sociology and criminology, where I undertook training in qualitative research methods that resulted in some kind of block about (or maybe even a resistance to) analysis that moved much beyond taking data at face value. In other words, I only felt comfortable engaging in analysis of what participants said explicitly, for example during interviews. Examples of what I would have picked out from Sen’s story are 1) the lack of welfare at the party, 2) that Sen’s way of dressing marked them as other to the “typical muscle gays” dominating the darkroom, meaning they felt alienated and undesirable, and 3) that the darkroom was somewhat removed from the main party space, which enhanced a sense of exclusivity/exclusion.

In my PhD, my approach to analysis was to consider how such “things” came together in what I termed a sex-on-drug event – and Sen’s story above can be understood as an account of a sex-on-drug event – to reduce and/or enhance a participant’s capacities for action.10Lucy Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” in Machine Ethics and Robot Ethics (Routledge, 2020), 361–75, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003074991-32. In the context of Sen’s story, I would have been interested in how this particular event came together to shut down possibilities for alternate futures in which Sen did not feel they had simultaneously sexually assaulted someone and been assaulted.11Alex Frankovitch, “Sex, drugs and (in)capacitated bodies”, Body & Society (forthcoming). However, something that niggled when I engaged in this kind of analysis was a question of how far I could/should go in making claims about the ways things like a lack of welfare staff of where the darkroom is located contributed to someone like Sen engaging in sex that, 1) was traumatising, and 2) sounds a great deal like rape, without completely removing space for Sen’s (conscious and unconscious) contributions to the event’s unfolding.

Something important to note is I had a strong sense from my wider engagement with Sen as a participant was that this experience was not out of the ordinary. They described multiple other sexual encounters involving drugs that had a similar quality, even when the context was very different. Something else to note is my strong sense of discomfort around the story that made me want to bury it and forget about it, which I ultimately did, even while feeling it was dishonest to write a PhD about the ethics of sex on drugs without it.12Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, (London: Routledge, 2010) I am now at a point where I want to take affective responses to participants’ stories seriously, using them as starting points to move further beyond taking data at face value than I have so far.13Britta Timm Knudsen, Affective Methodologies: Developing Cultural Research Strategies for the Study of Affect (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.) What would happen if I interrogated my feelings of discomfort around Sen’s story instead of pushing them both aside? What would happen if I explored my desire to bury the story and forget about it? Why might I be inclined to do so, and what would it achieve?

When I ask these questions, I am thinking in particular about trauma, on an individual, collective, and intergenerational level. Through my PhD, I learned sexual trauma leaves traces, haunts us, and repeats itself14Avgi Saketopoulou, Sexuality Beyond Consent: Risk, Race, Traumatophilia (NYU Press, 2023) I also learned that stories we tell to make sense of our sexualities contain absences and submerged narratives. The impact of trauma on memory is incredibly disconcerting in terms of what is missing or unknown15Lisa Blackman, “Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious,” Body & Society 16, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 163–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034×09354356. And when drugs are added to the trauma and memory mix, things become murkier still.

I say all this because drug use, sex, and trauma are incredibly present in queer nightlife. Those conducting research on queer nightlife must therefore find ways to account for and articulate the ways they operate together. This inevitably requires engagement with dominant medical frameworks that pathologise queerness, pathologise drug use, and pathologise certain ways of having sex – including chemsex – as maladaptive responses to past traumatic experiences16João Florêncio, Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig (Routledge, 2020).17Avgi Saketopoulou and Ann Pellegrini, Gender Without Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2024). While I am excited to return to Sen’s story in this essay, I am also concerned that sharing it could fuel overly reductive and often panic-infused “explanations” of chemsex as responses to “traumatic origin stories”(Florêncio, Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig, 172.)) But at the same time, there is a darkness to Sen’s story, and trauma is present. I feel it every time I read it. But I remain fearful of following these feelings – what if I misrecognise what I believe is being communicated affectively?18Renata Kokanović and Meredith Stone, “Listening to What Cannot Be Said: Broken Narratives and the Lived Body,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 17, no. 1 (September 27, 2017): 20–31, https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022217732871. What are my affective investments in Sen’s experience and chemsex more broadly as someone with proximity to, but without active involvement in, this so-called ‘subculture’?

A further reason to tread carefully through discussions around trauma, queerness, sex, and drugs is when thinking through connections between trauma and transness. This is relevant to Sen’s story, as Sen is non-binary and understands themselves as trans. There are very few places I am comfortable having conversations about trans people with histories of sexual trauma in the face of ‘gender critical’ articulations of transness as predatory or as a pathological trauma response, as if cisness couldn’t possibly operate as either.19Saketopoulou and Pellegrini, Gender Without Identity, 2024. As with chemsex, I am fearful of exploring the nature of connections that are so dangerously overdetermined by “culture war” rhetoric in my academic research and writing, despite living these connections daily.

I want to finish by returning to the title of this essay – the development of a methodological orientation towards traces, absences and submerged narratives – which is inspired by Lisa Blackman’s writing on “embodied hauntologies”:

Embodied hauntologies work with the traces, fragments, fleeting moments, gaps, absences, submerged narratives, and displaced actors and agencies that register affectively – in a profound sense that there is something more to say, that one should look for something more than now (Gordon, 2008). This methodological orientation requires what I will term a distributed or mediated form of perception, which is simultaneously somatic, psychic, technical, and historical, and which can animate, stage and, importantly, allow one to “see” what might usually exceed conventional modes of perception.20Blackman, “Researching Affect and Embodied Hauntologies: Exploring an Analytics of Experimentation,” 2007.

The idea that there is something more to say about the operation of trauma in Sen’s story and experiences resonates strongly. I feel this to be true, but do not yet know how to talk about it, or if it is even possible to “talk” about it in a conventional sense. Clearly, I require a methodological orientation that allows me to see and say – in whatever modes these might take – what I have not yet been able. I hope to have given some indication of why this is important work for those researching, working in, and/or participating in queer nightlife through the above discussion of queerness, sex, drugs, and trauma. Queer nightlife is a space in which many find emotional and physical connection, queer belonging, and some degree of safety – albeit in ambivalent ways.21Kemi Adeyemi, Kareem Khubchandani, and Ramon H. Rivera-Servera (eds.), Queer Nightlife (University of Michigan Press, 2021.) But Sen’s story also conveys disconnection, exclusion, and a kind of dysphoria in which the playing out of one’s trauma, pain and victimhood can take precedence over others.

Notes

Notes
1 Lisa Blackman, “Researching Affect and Embodied Hauntologies: Exploring an Analytics of Experimentation,” in Affective Methodologies, ed. Britta Timm Knudsen and Carsten Stage (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 25–44, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137483195_2.
2 Kristian Møller and Jamie Hakim, “Critical Chemsex Studies: Interrogating Cultures of Sexualized Drug Use Beyond the Risk Paradigm,” Sexualities 26, nos. 5–6 (June 20, 2021): 547–55, https://doi.org/10.1177/13634607211026223.
3 Sen uses the term “party theys” to refer (somewhat derogatorily) to people who were assigned male at birth and use “he/they” pronouns.
4 Sen explains that the club night “does no welfare”, meaning they do not employ a team of individuals responsible for ensuring the welfare of party attendees. Welfare teams (sometimes referred to as “care teams” or “awareness teams”) are usually responsible for monitoring dancefloors/darkrooms/chill spaces to ensure party attendees are as safe as possible from sex/drug-related harms. See Safe Only Limited for an example of a UK-based organisation that provides this kind of service.
5 “Bareback” refers to anal sex without the use of a condom.
6 PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a medicine people who are at risk of HIV can take to prevent transmission.
7 Sen says it isn’t ‘safe’ for the man to be asleep on G in the darkroom, meaning they understand the man to be at risk of sexual assault/rape from others in the darkroom while in this state.
8 Sen describes the club night as being “actively prohibitory” about GHB, meaning its organisers were very vocal about attendees who chose to consume GHB being “selfish” and “putting the party at risk”, despite being more accepting/accommodating of other illicit drug use (e.g., MDMA, ketamine, cocaine, etc.
9 Here Sen is referring to the lawful/chaotic good/evil character alignment meme.
10 Lucy Suchman, “Agencies in Technology Design: Feminist Reconfigurations,” in Machine Ethics and Robot Ethics (Routledge, 2020), 361–75, https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003074991-32.
11 Alex Frankovitch, “Sex, drugs and (in)capacitated bodies”, Body & Society (forthcoming).
12 Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, (London: Routledge, 2010
13 Britta Timm Knudsen, Affective Methodologies: Developing Cultural Research Strategies for the Study of Affect (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
14 Avgi Saketopoulou, Sexuality Beyond Consent: Risk, Race, Traumatophilia (NYU Press, 2023
15 Lisa Blackman, “Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious,” Body & Society 16, no. 1 (March 1, 2010): 163–92, https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034×09354356.
16 João Florêncio, Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig (Routledge, 2020).
17 Avgi Saketopoulou and Ann Pellegrini, Gender Without Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2024).
18 Renata Kokanović and Meredith Stone, “Listening to What Cannot Be Said: Broken Narratives and the Lived Body,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 17, no. 1 (September 27, 2017): 20–31, https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022217732871.
19 Saketopoulou and Pellegrini, Gender Without Identity, 2024.
20 Blackman, “Researching Affect and Embodied Hauntologies: Exploring an Analytics of Experimentation,” 2007.
21 Kemi Adeyemi, Kareem Khubchandani, and Ramon H. Rivera-Servera (eds.), Queer Nightlife (University of Michigan Press, 2021
Frankovitch, Alex. “It’s Time for Me to Leave the Darkroom, and I Can Finally See That”: Developing a Methodological Orientation Towards Traces, Absences and Submerged Narratives." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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