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Steroids: discuss. Patrick Cash looks at the issue of gay men and the body beautiful…

Should you look up a definition of steroids online or in a dictionary you may obtain an explanation akin to ‘synthetic fat-soluble organic compounds having as a basis 17 carbon atoms arranged in four rings and including the sterols and bile acids’, which doesn’t clarify matters to those without science degrees as to what exactly they are. But the key words that the layman needs to know about most steroids – that is naturally-occurring steroids – is that they are ‘organic compounds’, found in bodies as sex hormones such as testosterone or fat cells like cholesterol, and also present in plants, fungi and other living organisms. These steroids help and, indeed, are actively required by the body for its everyday functions.

But the steroids that you’ve probably heard mentioned most around the gay scene and that get the most press as mythical ‘body-building’ faeries flitting around the biceps and veins, are anabolic or ergogenic steroids. Illegal in the UK unless prescribed by a doctor for medical use, drugs such as these are not naturally produced and are instead synthesised in laboratories to mimic the effects of certain steroid-types, in particular testosterone. Once injected they are designed to increase protein build-up within cells, a prime cause of muscle increase, hence why there is a black market thriving in the body beautiful-obsessed gay scene for their sale and use.

Yet, even though obsessive young – and older – men with body image anxiety and insecurity issues may lust after these drugs like the magic beans that made Jack’s beanstalk, their very abilities are still questioned in actual terms of physical performance. ‘However, in spite of their tremendous popularity, their effectiveness is controversial. The research literature is divided on whether anabolic steroids enhance physical performance’, writes T. D. Fahey in his report Anabolic-androgenic steroids: mechanism of action and effects on performance. Even if anabolics make your muscles look bigger, your actual athletic prowess may not improve whatsoever; it’s a completely hollow aesthetic goal.

‘But wait’, some gay steroid users may cry in ‘roid-induced rage, ‘of course it’s not a hollow goal – if my pectorals look big, beefy and pumped in the club on a Saturday night then I’m gonna get more sex than anyone else in the whole wide world ever, how’s that for hollow goals?’ Apart from the startlingly obvious, all that glorious but ultimately meaningless sex may quickly become an embarrassment rather than an asset as impressionable boy after naïve lad finds that your performance can suffer here, too. Impotence and decrease of sex drive is a big factor resulting from anabolic steroid abuse; one guy I knew in Soho told me he hadn’t had an erection through the whole of his cycle. Also, famously, testicular astrophy is a regular risk, which in plain language means your balls shrink. That’s going to be mighty impressive when you get him back to yours, with your two tiny peanuts nestled between your huge muscular thighs.

“Impotence and decrease of sex drive is a big factor resulting from steroid abuse.”

When anabolic steroids were first introduced into the gay scene it was actually for worthy medical causes, where doctors in the 1980s prescribed them to HIV+ patients to help complement gym regimes and combat AIDS related weight loss. Yet their ability to improve the lives of the terminally ill were swiftly warped by the needs of feeding vanity into purporting muscle culture, often by healthy gay friends of these very patients. Now, ironically, a large risk of sharing needles for steroid injection with your fellow gay gym users is infection of the HIV virus even without sex. Also, when anabolics were used to treat HIV+ patients they were done so under professional medical supervision, HIV+ men abusing illegal steroids run much larger risks of more harmful side-effects.

Why is the use of steroids prevalent amongst a certain cross-section of the gay community? Surely those who are big fans of the gym and large muscles can gain their results from a regular regime, and protein-rich diet? With the particularly narcissistic solely living off flavourless chicken breasts and protein shakes? Well, surprisingly enough, the gay scene is particularly susceptible to such mental health anxieties as body image, leading the BBC News to explicitly report in 2004 that ‘it’s not just athletes who use steroids to build up their bodies. The muscle culture among gay men is leading many to quietly exploit the drugs while ignoring the potential side-effects.’ And the muscle culture is so extreme because, on some parts, of a distorting psychological effect named body dysmorphia.

Body dysmorphia is most commonly associated with sufferers of anorexia where the afflicted who look in the mirror still see themselves as overweight, however dangerously thin they may be becoming. However, it can work the other way too, and therefore gay men who have worked out for two hours a day in the gym every evening may still look at themselves at the end of that workout and feel small or inferior in relation to their idealised image. Of course the more they work out, the more that idealised image drifts ever further away, just beyond the tantalising grip of their fingertips. Once the body dysmorphia becomes acute they start turning to other avenues to get even bigger; enter the anabolics to glorious applause from stage left.

Obviously both body image anxiety and the more concerning dysmorphia can originate from the overwhelming imagery one may be surrounded by, and nowhere is quite as prevalent with this constant barrage of topless Greek gods as London’s gay scene. But it’s a question of keeping one’s head above the waves, and realising that, as with anything, there are different levels of physical attraction. As Duncan Stephenson, Head of External Affairs at the Central YMCA says in its research into steroid use: “we think part of the problem is the relentless pressure from media and advertisers on the body beautiful – and we need to stop equating this ‘ideal’ as the ultimate goal for many. It is certainly not something that should be associated with health, fitness or gym culture – it is purely a short term exercise in vanity.”

“The gay scene is particularly susceptible to such mental health anxieties as body image.”

And, finally the gory details, what are the harmful side-effects associated with anabolic steroids? As previously mentioned, impotence and testes-diminishment are big dangers, and even potentially permanent defects should you overuse, with the GMFA stating ‘steroids can also cause you to lose your sex drive, or cause problems getting a hard on. This effect should disappear once you stop using steroids and your hormone levels return to normal. However, over use of steroids can make it much harder for your hormone levels to go back to normal.’ Alongside these you can expect insomnia, short temper – you’re injecting yourself with a synthesis of aggression-inducing testosterone after all – indigestion, high blood pressure, acne, bad breath and, in extreme cases, liver and kidney problems. All this for another inch on your biceps? Really?

I usually strive to keep my articles as unbiased and fair as possible, but this feature has fallen largely into one camp because there simply isn’t a valid counterpoint. All the evidence points to an angle that if you are going to put yourself onto a steroids cycle then you are doing your body harm, some of which could eventually be permanent and you have nothing else to blame than appeasing that most redundant of the sins: vanity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to feel good in your looks and take care of your body, but that shouldn’t be anything that regular exercise and a healthy diet can’t achieve. Ultimately you have to worry about someone who turns to steroids to achieve their needs; however attractive their body might be, their deluded mindset is going to be the biggest turn-off.

Even if they can get it up.


• DUNCAN STEPHENSON, Head of External Affairs at the Central YMCA, shares some research conducted by the institution into steroids abuse 

“Aside from the side-effects, steroids are not a long-term solution to achieve the body beautiful – once you stop taking them the effects wear off, but the damage that is done to your body remains for the long haul. We’d also just ask people to reflect on why they would consider taking steroids. You might think there’s nothing wrong with wanting to bulk up – but you can achieve decent levels of muscularity through regular exercise. And actually if your body type and genetics don’t enable you to achieve that muscular ideal, so what? Why is there just one ideal?

“The gay scene is so diverse, and there are plenty of different body shapes and sizes which are healthy, sexually attractive and beautiful. We can start by broadening out the body types we associate with gym culture and health and fitness and perhaps making those environments culturally unacceptable for steroid abusers.”


• TRISHA WHITE, Fitness Manager at Central YMCA, offers her top tips for building up without resorting to the ‘roids.

• When you first start training for muscle growth, start with your big (compound) muscle groups: chest, back & legs

• Aim to do between 2 and 3 exercises on each muscle group with a high resistance, low rep range (6–8 reps) – aim to reach fatigue on each set, but make sure you rest between sets

• A variety of exercises is key, so try and split your routines

• Stick to quality reps over quantity and allow a full range of movement & good technique to reduce the risk of injury

• Allow at least 24 hours rest time between sessions for each muscle group to repair and grow

• Eat a balanced diet, including protein for muscle repair (strength training include 1.4 – 1.8 grams protein per kg body weight)

• You don’t need to use protein supplements, it is possible to obtain enough protein from a healthy balanced diet: chicken, fish, and meats are good sources, as are nuts, seeds, eggs, soya, tofu, Quorn, beans, pulses and cheese for vegetarians.

• If you’re worried about any of the issues in this article you can contact the following helplines/websites:

FRANK: 0800 77 66 00
Drug Scope:

Anxiety UK: 08444 775 774
MIND: 0300 123 3393


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