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Tracking the elusive HIV “Bug Chasers”

by | Sep 10, 2010 | Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, Prevention and Policy | 8 comments

“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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