Bug Chasing – A HIV Phenomenon

Bug Chaser: A person who seeks to become infected with HIV.
Bug Chasing: Actively engaging in sexual activity with the goal of acquiring HIV.
Gift: HIV.
Gift Giver: A person who gives the gift of HIV to an HIV negative person.

In February 2003, Gregory A Freeman wrote an article on bug chasing for “Rolling Stone” magazine. It was a highly controversial article, and any Googling of the term “bug chasing” will bring up endless results from the piece. So I will not rehash old ground, especially 3-year-old ground. “Carlos”, the gay guy he uses as his interview subject is a self-obsessed, hedonistic guy who truly needs to get a life, as distinct from trying to destroy it, which he seems hell-bent on doing. The article appears, at least to me, to be a bit dodgy, both in its emphasis on the opinions of one extremist, and its ability to distort the statistics of experts. However, it does raise some interesting issues.

For starters, are we to make the assumption that “bug chasing” is going on? I dare say that if it was happening in 2003, it is happening now. If we admit that barebacking is a reality, then we have to admit also for “bug chasing”. In Andrew Barkers article “Bug Chasing” (1), he states that “Not surprisingly, the stigma and fringe quality of bug chasing is something that very few people would admit to doing. Of course, people were saying the same thing about bareback sex a few years ago, and now the term – and the activity itself to a lesser extent – has become a normalised, if not accepted, part of gay culture”.

So, if we accept that it is happening, we have to ask why! Not for one single moment, as a HIV+ man, could I ever condone the practice of bug chasing. However, having said that, when I read these articles I can sort of understand where these people were coming from. I was amongst the first people officially diagnosed with HIV in Sydney back in the early 80s. At that time, I had a HIV- partner, and though our relationship broke up shortly after this, we remained as flat mates further down the track for 10 years. These were the bad years in HIV, when just about everyone in our group of friends was infected, and many died. My flat mate remained negative through all this time, and still is. However, he stated to me on one occasion that he wished he was HIV+, as it would be easier for him to deal with the situation, and he would not always feel so “left-out”. Needless to say, he never turned into a bug chaser, but you can see the thinking behind it. Other underlying causes for people to take up this fetish – and I use the word loosely – are various forms of abuse like drug and alcohol use, poverty, lack of social supports, homophobia, low self-esteem, poor mental health, perceived invincibility and survivor guilt. In his article “Bug Chasing:
Why Some Men Want to Become HIV Positive” (2), Ashley Shaffier says “Those who seek HIV are called “bug chasers” and like most people they want to be involved in something that separates them from the rest of humanity. A few find something special by becoming infected with HIV – Not everyone has the virus, which makes those who are positive different. They are also not alone. “They see those living with HIV as a cohesive group that welcomes its new members and receives vast support” (Freeman). Freeman goes on to say that “The sense of being my brother’s keeper is never discussed in the gay community because we’ve gone to the extreme of saying gay men with HIV can do no wrong. They’re poor victims, and we can’t ever criticise them.” Another reasoning behind bug chasing is that some do it for the thrill of it, getting their kicks from the danger element, the “will I get it this time, or do I get to try again” attitude. “Many people engage in socially acceptable extreme sports for the rush, knowing that they’re risking their lives jumping from planes or free-climbing a rock face. And many do lose their lives. They are heralded by some as adventurous. One could argue that bug chasers are seeking a similar risky thrill” (Barker).

Another reasoning behind bug chasing is safe-sex fatigue some 24 years after AIDS first emerged in American cities. Many who have practiced safe sex for this long a period of time crave to have sex “the old fashioned way”, without the use of condoms, good old skin-to-skin sex. Normal sex is seen as being almost unattainable, something from the past that will never be revisited.

Whatever the reasoning behind it, it remains a very scary phenomenon. Some of the statements made by “Carlos” in the “Rolling Stone” article send a chill down your spine: “I know what the risks are, and I know that putting myself in this situation is like putting a gun to my head”; “When I have sex, I always like to make it special, a really good time, something nice and memorable in case that is the one that gives it to me”. Carlos feels that living with HIV will be a minor annoyance, that HIV is not such a big deal anymore. “It’s like living with diabetes. You take a few pills and get on with your life”. I think quite a few of us may have something to say about that. I also feel that there is a general lack of empathy for many HIV+ people, and a lack of acknowledgement that many of us were infected in the very early days of the epidemic when very little was known about it. I don’t like to use terminology like “innocently infected”, but for some of us, that is the fact. Given a greater scope of information, and an acknowledgement of just how deadly HIV was going to be would have been a wake-up call to many of us. The playing-down of information in the early days was a bad move, a disservice really, though that cannot be used as an excuse today. Given the amount of available information, and given the anecdotal stories of those who survived to now, one has to wonder how they come to the conclusion that bug chasing is a good thing.

Even the language itself is scary, the use of words like “gift”, “gift giver”, “bug chaser”, “conversion (from negative to positive)”,and “bug juice”. Doug Hitzel, a former bug chaser who is now HIV+ says, in Freeman’s article “Bug chasing sounds like a group of kindergartners running around chasing grasshoppers and butterflies…a beautiful thing. And gift giving? What the hell is that? I just wish the terms would put some real context into what’s going on. Why did I want to say that I was deliberately infecting myself? Because saying the word infect sounds bad and gross and germy. I wanted it to be sexualised”.

The internet itself has helped in the spread of bug chasing, with sites dedicated to it and its followers. I have to admit to not being able to find any to aid in my research, though I’m sure they are there, possibly linked into barebacking sites.

Freeman interviewed Dr Bob Cabaj, a public official working in San Francisco in psychiatry. Cabaj admitted that statistics were hard to come by, and he estimated that at least twenty-five percent of all newly infected gay men fall into the bug chasing category. Naturally, “Rolling Stone” took this figure literally, and on-board, and calculated that of the then 40,000 new infections in the United States every year, around 10,000 were attributable to the more liberal definition of bug chasing. This figure caused such a huge furore that Cabaj denied giving Freeman any specific percentages, and he wrote a letter to “Rolling Stone” asking for a clarification to be printed, which then stated that only a “certain percentage” of new HIV infections may be deliberate – but that this figure was “probably more than people wanted to think”. I think common sense would say that the figure wasn’t accurate, despite a lack of actual data on the subject.

Naturally, the religious right then had to get into the picture – no show without Punch – and have their two cents worth. Of course, they didn’t come up with anything original. The Rev. Louis B Sheldon, Chairman of the “Traditional Values Coalition” stated on traditionalvalues.org that “With bug chasing, barebacking and Russian Roulette parties (3) was part of the homosexual lifestyle (sic), it is not surprising that HIV infections are on the rise. And with sexually depraved individuals like Keith Folger and Vince Gaither (4) overseeing how Centre of Disease Control AIDS dollars are being spent, it is unlikely that this epidemic will decline any time soon…”. On altermedia.info David Mullenax informs us that “My wife and I discussed the issue of “bug chasing” at length over freshly brewed coffee and Italian biscotti. Each of us had difficulty in describing exactly how we felt about such insanity and madness…Homosexuality would not be a trendy alternative if it weren’t for a Jewish-controlled media that glamorises and insists that gays are the same as everybody else. To be gay is to be exotic, and thus revered. The many stories of death, some by infection and others by suicide, are never told on MTV…As the media promotes homosexuality as a hip and fashionable lifestyle, the anger is reserved for them….This is why gays should be pitied, and the anger reserved for the alien minority who run the majority of our news and entertainment outlets…Recruitment and outreach programs prey on the weaknesses of many of our young ones…Without (that) mental preparation, the gay lifestyle would be rejected by many vibrant and innocent White (sic) children who have become victims to this scheming…” etc etc, I’m sure you get the message.

A video was made of the phenomenon, called “The Gift”, and has been shown over here at one of the Queer film fests. In it, a young redheaded San Franciscan man tells the tale of how, at 19 he set out to become infected with HIV. “I thought being positive was a positive thing”, he says. “I thought I was just going to have a lot of promiscuous, unsafe sex. I didn’t know I was going to change (to HIV+) so fast. No one told me”.

In January this year, British editor Mary Wakefield, writing in the Sunday telegraph (5) describes her shock at discovering the underworld of bug chasing among homosexual males. Her investigation was fuelled by the funeral of a young man who recently died after deliberately becoming infected with HIV. The young man had invited his HIV+ boyfriend to live with him, and though being aware of the dangers of HIV, soon developed the disease and brain cancer. His HIV+ friend had also infected a previous partner and that man had died not long ago. After reading the article in “Rolling Stone”, Wakefield stated that “I remember being skeptical at the time – it seemed too creepy. After tens of millions have died of AIDS worldwide, after billions spent on medications, how could anyone seek it out?” This in turn led her to seek out the bug chasing underground on the internet. She observed “…there was a darker side, the romanticising of AIDS itself. Google led me underground, to gay clubbers with ‘HIV Neg’ tattooed on their biceps as an invitation to others to infect them, to online chats about HIV-spreading sex parties, talk of ‘conceiving’ the virus like a pregnancy and the intense intimacy of infecting a partner. “It offers a kind of permanent partnership, a connection outside time” stated the editor of a gay newspaper.”

So, it would seem that we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that bug chasing doesn’t happen. I would like to think it was not widely practiced in Australia, but if time has proved anything, if it is happening on the gay/HIV scene in America, it is happening here. This article was prompted by an article I received last week from queerplanet.com.au, by Charlie Parker. He states in his article “Bug Parties” that “The Russian Roulette bug party. This is where a group of gay men have ‘no condoms allowed’, unprotected sex and no one’s HIV status is revealed. This type of party is treated like a game by the participants. The guy who becomes infected is the winner.”

I felt that if he thought it still relevant, then perhaps we needed to revisit the subject, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, then in twelve months time or so, it will suddenly raise it’s ugly head again, possibly due to someone being infected this way, or someone dying, then with people saying “Oh, I always knew that was going on”.

Perhaps I should leave the last word to Carlos. As sad and pathetic as he appears, you can’t help but hope he wakes up to himself. When asked what would he do if he found out he was HIV+, he says he would move on to become a gift giver. “If I know that he’s negative and I’m fucking him, it sort of gets me off. I’m murdering him in a sense, killing him slowly, and that’s sort of, as sick as it sounds, exciting to me.”

I have goose bumps crawling up my arms.

Tim Alderman
Copyright 2007

References

1 Living + Magazine, November/December 2002
2 AssociatedContent.com
3 AUTHOR’S NOTE parties specifically intended to assist people get infected with HIV
4 AUTHOR’S NOTE San Francisco AIDS activists
5 15/1/2006

FOOTNOTEs:

  • CNN interview on Bug Chasing movie, July 2007 https://youtu.be/Bo_n0IPsC7g
  • Article in Sydney Morning Herald April 21, 2007 ‘HIV chasing’ a trend in gay communityApril 21, 2007 – 6:09AMA Melbourne man who fantasised about contracting HIV before actually being infected by the virus has spoken of a gay subculture in which infection is seen as “desirable”.The 20-year-old man, who does not want to be named, told Fairfax newspapers both complacency about the virus and the wish to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man he was in love with led him to become infected.”I wasn’t actively seeking it, but maybe there were parts of me, dark corners, that wanted it, that were thinking, ‘Let’s just do it and get it over and done with and then it won’t be an issue’,” he said.The young professional is the first to speak out about “bug chasing”, a behaviour in the gay community in which men seek to become infected with HIV.The phenomenon was highlighted at the recent committal hearing for Melbourne man Michael Neal. Mr Neal was accused of deliberately spreading the virus.A HIV-positive man said in court that “bug chasing” was “a big thing out there” and that he had been pursued on the internet by a man wanting the bug.”I just kept reminding him that it was not glamorous,” a witness told the court.Dawn Wilcock, of Positive Women Victoria, a support group for HIV-positive women, said the reaction showed a need for Melbourne’s gay community leaders to stop dismissing claims of the subculture as an urban myth.”There’s a lot of defensive and protective behaviour going on that is not addressing the potential repercussions of this,” Ms Wilcock said.”It’s a real problem. We know that 75 per cent of Victorian women infected with HIV are contracting the virus from long-term male partners, so the health campaigns targeting gay men need to target others in the community who would never publicly identify themselves as being gay, too.”The HIV-positive man said some men going to group-sex parties with HIV-positive men might want to “join the club” and have unprotected sex more freely.”I have had an extremely intoxicated person claim that he wanted it once,” he said. “I fobbed him off and he never came asking for it again.”
  • © 2007 AAPArticle in The Age 21 July 2007 “Gay subculture in ‘bug chase’ sees HIV as desirable Julia Medew and Karen Kissane

April 21, 2007
Dance with death
A MELBOURNE man who fantasised about catching HIV before he contracted the virus has spoken out about a gay subculture in which infection is seen as desirable.The young professional, who does not want to be named, told The Age a combination of complacency about the virus and the wish to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive man he loved led him to become infected.”I wasn’t actively seeking it, but maybe there were parts of me, dark corners, that wanted it, that were thinking, ‘Let’s just do it and get it over and done with and then it won’t be an issue’,” said the man, who is his 20s.He is the first to speak publicly about taking part in behaviour that is known in the gay community as “bug chasing” — seeking to become infected with HIV. The phenomenon was described by witnesses at the recent committal hearing for Melbourne man Michael Neal, who was accused of deliberately spreading the virus.One HIV-positive man told the hearing “bug chasing” was “a big thing out there” and that he had been pursued on the internet by a man who wanted to catch the virus from him.”I just kept reminding him that it was not glamorous,” the witness told the court.Dawn Wilcock, the director of Positive Women Victoria, a support and lobby group for HIV-positive women, said yesterday that such accounts confirmed the need for leaders of Melbourne’s gay community to stop dismissing claims of the subculture as an urban myth.”There’s a lot of defensive and protective behaviour going on that is not addressing the potential repercussions of this,” Ms Wilcock said.Her organisation was extremely concerned about other kinds of HIV recklessness, including the behaviour of heterosexual men who have sex with other men and do not tell the women in their lives. Such men do not think of themselves as gay or even as bisexual.”It’s a real problem. We know that 75 per cent of Victorian women infected with HIV are contracting the virus from long-term male partners, so the health campaigns targeting gay men need to target others in the community who would never publicly identify themselves as being gay, too,” she said.The HIV-positive man said that some negative men who attended group-sex parties with positive men might want to “join the club” so they could have unprotected sex more freely. His own intermittent desire to catch the virus was more about wanting intimacy with his partner than a “tribal membership or a rites of passage sort of thing”.life for HIV-positive people was now reasonably good, and that contracting the virus “wouldn’t be as catastrophic as it might have been 10 years ago”.While it was difficult to tell how many men who fantasised about the virus actually tried to get it, he said, some men certainly advertised for it on the internet and asked for it during sexual encounters.”I have had an extremely intoxicated person claim that he wanted it once,” he said. “I fobbed him off and he never came asking for it again.”Many gay community leaders and spokespeople for HIV and AIDS lobby groups last month dismissed claims of “bug chasing” and “conversion parties” — group-sex parties where positive men have unprotected sex with negative men to give them the virus — after the concepts were aired during Neal’s court case.Mike Kennedy, the executive director of the Victorian AIDS Council — the peak body representing gay men living with HIV and AIDS — this week again told The Age it was an urban myth.”You will find one of everything you look for,” Mr Kennedy said. “But the notion that this is a big scene, absolutely not. The language of ‘gift givers’, ‘bug chasers’ and ‘conversion parties’ — it’s something that’s come off the internet.”An HIV worker who did not want to be named said there was a party line offered to the outside world on the issue of reckless HIV behaviour in Melbourne’s gay community.”The party line is that it’s not happening — ‘What? Us?’ ” the worker said.The worker agreed with Ms Wilcock that heterosexual men who had illicit sex with gays were the conduit for the virus into the wider community. The worker said that when such men were diagnosed with the virus, they rarely started using condoms with their long-term female partners, “because she’s going to say, ‘What’s this?’ “Ms Wilcock said that gay male organisations were not doing enough to confront this and the “bug-chasing” issue

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