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Tracking the elusive HIV “Bug Chasers”

“I hate any suggestion that AIDS is a gift. A Mercedes is a gift.”
— Mark S. King, “A Place Like This”

I must admit my belief that bug-chasers are an extremely elusive and exotic form of pervert that aren’t as much seen as talked about. For the mercifully uninformed, “bug chasers” is a term describing, now hold on to your lunch here, people who are on a deliberate hunt to become infected with HIV.

bugchasersThey have other snappy monikers (they are typically gay, after all), such as “gift seekers” and “gift givers.” “Bug parties” were whispered about for a time, a decade or so back, always “a friend of someone I know” having attended some sexual soiree in which a negative partner had unprotected sex with a group of HIV positive partners. And you thought Tupperware parties were retro(virus)!

And now for the truth as I believe it to be: this is all complete bullshit. This is sexual urban legend of the highest degree, fueled not by facts but by a perfectly human search for a fantasy taboo to cross. In other words, for sexed up gay guys who need a jolt of something darkly sick to get their putter fluttering because their meth-fueled fantasies are running on empty. True, there was a flurry of psycho-fantasy about seroconversion years ago, but I was never really buying it.

And now, thanks to a recent conversation with gay activist Tony Valenzuela, I can back up my suspicions with some research findings. Canadian social researcher Barry Adam has done several studies on sexual risk taking, and allow me to share this quote from his study published in the Journal of Sex Research:

“It must be stressed, against the panic icons of barebackers and bug-chasers circulating in the press and in popular discourse, that none of these practices nor the moral reasoning associated with them overtly intend HIV transmission to happen. No one in this study expressed willingness or acceptance of the idea of knowingly infecting a partner. When the premises of individual responsibility are knowingly absent, many express a strong reluctance to allow unprotected sex.”

In that study, at least, his participants were none too willing to put others at deliberate risk of infection. But I wanted something more definitive, so I contacted Mr. Barry and we chatted about his research findings. “The persistence of the bug chasing idea, and the very scarce evidence of its existence, suggests a strong need to invent the category even in the absence of anyone who can clearly embody it,” he told me. “This raises the question of why the bug chasing idea remains so strong, when even if a handful of actual ‘bug chasers’ could be found, they could account for no more than an infinitesimal proportion of the HIV epidemic.”

I like the word “infinitesimal.” It’s kinda like saying “load of crap.”

Dodo_birdBut, as Mr. Adam queries, why does the myth persist? The bug chasing fantasy has a very limited shelf life. You can only live it out… once. And so it exists primarily in dirty little heads or as taboo online chatter for guys who aren’t capable of becoming newly infected any more than your cherry can be popped twice. Consider bug chasing a classic form of sexual Darwinism. The odd breed tends to die off, making bug chasers the, yes, DoDo birds of the early 21th century.

I’ve been in the company of guys whose heads have wandered off in that direction. Those who entertained this notion fell within two categories: poz guys lying about being HIV negative because they were fetishizing the virus, and guys who were negative “the last time they checked,” meaning, they’re not. And no, I’ve never indulged someone’s wish to get “pretend infected,” thank you.

I believe the legend persists because we love a Boogie Man. The idea of people thrusting HIV upon one another somehow is more perversely comforting than the fact that accidents happen, people make mistakes, and life can be arbitrary. People hate uncertainty. They’d rather pathologize those getting infected by creating the bug chasing myth, or pass laws that criminalize HIV non-disclosure, than accept the fact that we’re human and shit happens.

But hey, hold on, because if you’re a pervy guy looking to get injected with an STD you’re still in luck. There’s a dazzling array of diseases to choose from should you be on the viral prowl. Chlamydia, anyone?

(This is a revised version of a posting of mine from April 4, 2010)

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By | 2010-09-14T23:50:33+00:00 September 10th, 2010|Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy|8 Comments


  1. Subversive Librarian September 11, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Interesting post, Mark. And terrific choice of graphics! I suspect that this urban myth is perpetuated as much from outside the gay community, especially from people pushing a homophobic agenda. It’s a handy little tool for those trying to promote fear.

  2. Brian Finch September 14, 2010 at 7:39 am

    I’ll take a dose of chlamydia than any more of anything viral! There’s plenty of syphiliis out there as well. I do have to say, my really screwed up ex, I really think deep down inside he wanted to get it. And he did, fortunately after I was long gone from the scene. But he is not a pyschologically well person.

    Very good topic, and I wasn’t aware of this bit of Canadian Research. Bri

  3. Chandler Bearden September 15, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Amazing article… Thanks for bringing this to the light! I’m a little confused by the concept that one would actually seek to recieve or give this “gift”. I have myself experienced men requesting that I “donate” to their cause on more than one occasion. It continues to baffle me as to why….

  4. Danny D September 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Thanks for the topic… you are right that we hear so much about “bug” chasers but does anyone really want the disease???? I have to say I did not intitially go on the hunt as a chaser but due to my drug addiction at the time it was kinda a relief when I no longer had to fear it. It was a type of self distruction I can’t even imagine today with a clear head. Mine was definitely meth driven at the time. Thanks again! You know I love your posts!

  5. sean mcshee September 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I’ve suspected that some “bug chasers” were really already infected Poz guys eroticizing their disease in some strange internet fantasy scene where they played the negative bug chaser, particularly in the belief that a poz load is really hot and transformative. Alternatively, there is a streak of het-imitative romanticism, particularly in the use of terms such as ‘impregnate’.

    Interestingly bug chasers who want to get infected because then their life would come together have a lot in common with 12 year girls who want to get pregnant because then their life would come together. Both think an event which, realistically, would be a colossal stressor (among other things) would make their life easier. The media equally obsesses about both groups. If a similar phenomena occurs in two different groups, it probably originates outside of either. I agree it is more useful to examine it as a fantasy of the general public rather than the actual fantasy of a given individual. At the same time, fantasies that are widely reported tend to produce real world enactments.

  6. Sarah October 5, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I’d just like to add that one of my close friends that I’ve known for the last 6 years was someone who used any dirty needles available to him & had unprotected sex for some time trying to get himself infected. Aside from that, a couple of people in my circle of “friends” have unprotected sex with and offer their dirty needles to others knowing that they very well could be passing along diseases/infections.

  7. Trampas Graham October 24, 2010 at 9:12 am

    Just as the post above me indicates, I too have had several disturbing interactions with people who have expressed their desire to be infected. Many of these people were sober, and not on drugs, as your article suggests. I do not agree with the study you cite in your article, because I have helped to coordinate studies like this, and I do not know the source of this pool. Were they all guilt ridden addicts in early recovery and desperate for money? That seems to be the norm in many gay oriented studies I’ve either been party to or know of in my community (Ft. Lauderdale). This ‘urban legend’, as you put it, is true, unfortunately. Whether the people who express such desires suffer from PTSD or some other mood disorder remains to be seen, and will never be fully understood as long as our community perpetuates such denial. Sorry to bring the bearer of bad news.

  8. P July 17, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Bugchasing Wiki:
    The bugchasing/giftgiving phenomenon gained press coverage and notoriety after Rolling Stone magazine printed an article in 2003 by a freelance journalist, Gregory Freeman, entitled “Bug Chasers: The men who long to be HIV+”.[5] The article quoted San Francisco health services director Dr. Bob Cabaj as saying that as many as twenty-five percent of new HIV infections a year (about ten thousand people) were from men who had contracted it on purpose.

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