The recent sentencing of a BC man to life in prison for knowingly spreading HIV to seven of the women he had unprotected sex with made me think of something. While it is in direct opposition to the profane act committed by the aforementioned sex-offender, there is apparently a group of people who actively seek out HIV as a part of their sexual existence. People who actually want AIDS. This peculiar scene is referred to as Bugchasing.
As it is defined, Bugchasing is the desire for and the act of deliberately attempting to become infected with HIV.
When I first heard of the concept my knee-jerk response was “Really?” It was a hard nut to swallow. Naturally, my pondering led to the greater question of “But, why?”
The truth of the matter is that there are an assortment of reasons that people (predominantly gay men) choose to lead this obscenely risky lifestyle. These motivations can be as sympathetic as love for an infected mate or as frustrating as ignorant innocence. There’s also the erotic-fixation/kink factor to consider; picture something akin to David Cronenberg’s Crash.
The first mainstream media attention on the practice came from a Rolling Stone article published in 2003 “Bug Chasers: The men who long to be HIV+”. Initial scepticism of the work’s validity, including sources quoted coming out in full denial of their supposed musings, as well as the topic being of a certain less than desirable variety, led to the general notion that this culture may be more urban myth than anything else. Not that media stopped covering it.
In 2006 the BBC produced a documentary on the subject of Bugchasers attempting to determine whether or not this was a true trend in western civilization. The featured investigator, Ricky Dyer – an HIV-positive man himself – finds that the majority of talk is “pure fantasy”. This notion was echoed by various health and AIDS awareness organizations in the US and the UK at the time, although the concept was not ignored altogether. In the RS article, by Gregory A. Freeman, he notes how the health agencies that he contacted all played down the issue, even encouraging him not to write about it, saying there wasn’t really a trend, but they were aware of it. Rolling Stone still stands behind the content of Freeman’s piece.
Regardless of an expected level of over-sensationalism in the media and the potential negative impact that news of this unhealthy proclivity could have to the image of the gay community, Bugchasing is real. The level to which it exists is certainly inflated, as the culture thrives primarily online. The Internet allows anyone to mask their identity and delve into their darker sides with relatively few external consequences; so there are going to be more people who pretend they are Bugchasers out of a skewed kink and desire to appear edgy than those who are willing to go all the way with it. This in no way should negate the fact that there are people out there who are in a place where they will actually go to such an extreme, potentially because they are:
b) Lost; and/or
Gift Givers are the other side of the equation. They are HIV+ men who are willing to assist a Bugchaser in contracting the infection. They do this with varying levels of anonymity, ranging from meeting up on an individual basis to having Bugchaser Parties or “Conversions”.
In a 2003 documentary entitled “The Gift”, the main subject, Doug Hitzel, is a chaser who was under the impression that HIV was more chronic than fatal. That is until he got it. He had never smoked a cigarette because he knew there was no cure for lung cancer, but heard there were pills you could take for HIV. “I didn’t know I was gonna change so fast. No one told me.”, he’s quoted repenting.
After a lengthy discussion on the topic, an acquaintance of mine concluded “If they’re ignorant enough to want it, let them die.” Her bold statement is harsh, but is it legitimate? The idealistic part of me wants to say that the real solution is education. However, my excessively realistic side wonders how, in a world where information is so readily available, can any literate person plead ignorance or complacency? Have they not heard of Wikipedia?
The gay community itself looks down on Bugchasing. It isn’t just the ludicrous nature of seeking “pozzes” (those that are HIV-positive) for it’s implications to both physical and mental health, but the message it sends about an already challenged minority. Many less-accepting/informed people see being gay as an excuse to have as much casual, reckless sex as possible. So when gay men start playing Russian Roulette with their assholes, they’re not helping to change the misconception. While we live in an “evolved”, connected society, the battle for acceptance still rages on. Just look at our neighbours to the south, where more states allow cousins to marry than same-sex couples.
Bugchaser parties (or Conversions) are a whole other bag of wonders. The driving purpose is to hook up Bugchasing men with Gift Givers. Varying extremes of these events are having a party full of chasers, where one person is infected but the only one aware of who is the host, and a party where only one person is clean, thus increasing the chances of giving that Bugchaser “The Gift” they are so keen to acquire. This is where the sexual deviance element is at it peak.
Human sexuality is rife with diversity. There is always someone who does or is willing to do just about anything. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing. We are free and creative enough to explore the world and all of its possible enjoyabilities. The problem with Bugchasing is that it can be seen as taking kink to Kevorkian-esque proportions. Why do you want to die? Is that really what you call fun? Well, to many the idea is that they feel destined to get it eventually anyway.
In my research, I went so far as to peruse a gay sex blog or two. At first the idea made me slightly uncomfortable, “What’s Google going to start advertising to me now?”, but as soon as I realized that I wasn’t turned on, I relaxed significantly. The story that most caught my attention was one man’s tale of a raucous, orgical weekend involving a lot of barebacking and a little brunch. He recounted how a 22 year old had contacted him through a website, BBRS (Bareback Realtime Sex), wanting to meet up. This young man (the author didn’t give his own age, but was very excited at the prospect of something “tighter”) had a roommate who was a “poz” and inquired if he could come too. Our hero was fine with it and that was the last mention of there being an infected person involved in the proceeding happenings between his friends and these university students. I sincerely wish I had missed something.
Now, someone being a Barebaker does not make them a Bugchaser. While Chasers will use Barebacking websites to find Gift Givers, they are just a fraction of the culture. I think it’s also worth noting that not only gay men have trouble wrapping up their lil’ John Henrys, weiners, cocks, etc. So, to say that a gay man who doesn’t use a condom is asking for AIDS is the equivalent to saying the same about a straight man wanting a baby. Having a cavalier mentality toward the likelihood of becoming infected (/impregnating) doesn’t mean you are someone who has given up hope. It means you’re irresponsible and stupid.
Let’s not detract too far from the seriousness of this issue. There are in fact an abundance of members of the gay-male community who feel that their time will come. To them, HIV is inevitable. This is the prevailing mentality leading people to become official Bugchasers. Within the group, it’s seen as a positive (no pun intended) yet fuck you attitude toward the disease and the impact it has and continues to have on the greater homosexual community. But much like how the fuck you attitude of punk rock in the eighties ceases to have an impact on the world with any direct significance today, it won’t help a Bugchaser live the rest of their now-shortened life with AIDS.
In the end, the idealistic side of me was right; the solution is education. There is a story in The Gift about a man who was watching his partner die of the disease. It had gotten to the point where he was bed-ridden at home, pumped full of prescription drugs, and was in a great deal of pain. This man was so heartbroken to see his loved one suffer that he pulled the IV from his partner’s arm and infected himself. Shakespeare did it first, sure, but it is no less a testament to the power that a connection with someone can have over you. However, this is not an example of ignorant innocence… Where educating the public would benefit us masses is by preventing the Doug Hitzel’s of our world from believing that their lives as they know them will carry on post-infection, and that the medicine required to treat their illness is in any way cheap.
Posessing the desire to seek an infection like HIV is a bizarre “kink” to have. At the same time, there are a slew of other disturbing, damaging and seemingly bat-shit crazy habits and fetishes you can look up with the click or tap of a button. Take Plushies or girls who like having jars of bees pressed up against their bajingos as less-than damaging examples. People are fucked up and I highly doubt that will ever change. Some of us will always go too far in search of something we think is missing from our lives. We’re unconfined enough to make mistakes and to kill ourselves in the process. I could probably insert something about smoking here, but I wouldn’t want to offend my people.
Luckily, more AIDS awareness organizations have been acknowledging Bugchasing’s existence in recent years and are working to get the word out to those who haven’t heard… It hasn’t been beaten yet.