Bugchasers—those who eroticize HIV—constitute a subculture of barebacking men (those who have sex with men without protection). It is exceedingly uncommon for men to self-identify as bugchasers, but among those who do, their behavior does not consistently match this identification; instead, they often seek ambiguous sexual situations, rather than ones in which their partner is known to be HIV-positive. There are some explanations for the behavior, ranging from sexual excitement at the idea of HIV-positive status, to finding a shared sense of community with other HIV-positive people, to suicidality.
By 2003, the concept had entered the public consciousness after a Rolling Stone article covered the practice, though it may have existed since the AIDS crisis began. It has since been mentioned in or the focus of pieces of media and popular culture. As of 2021[update], bugchasing behavior still persists as a niche behavior, in spite of the widespread availability of effective PrEP and HAART treatments that protect against HIV transmission in otherwise unprotected sex.
The precise origins of bugchasing—the pursuit of HIV infection—are largely unknown, with its inception located either at the beginning of the AIDS crisis or closer to the 1990s. But it existed by at least 1997, when Newsweek published an article about the subject, followed soon after by Rolling Stone in 2003. Gregory Freeman's Rolling Stone article, the first to bring widespread concern and attention to the practice, claimed that around 25 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States (10,000 of 45,000) were linked to bugchasing activity. But Freeman's analysis did not only count bugchasers: it included all men who engaged in barebacking, regardless of motivation or attempts to seek out HIV infection, reporting them all together as bugchasers. Authorities that Freeman cited have since claimed he fabricated their statements, and his data has been widely criticized. Even so, Freeman's article article was arguably responsible for bringing the term bugchasing to the mainstream, viewing bugchasing as both self-destructive and pitiful.
Motivation and activity
Bugchasers are men who have sex with men who eroticize HIV infection, especially through the intentional pursuit (or intended pursuit) of infection with the virus. Since little is understood about the practice in general, the motivations for developing bugchasing identity and behavior remain largely undefined. However, there are four common motivating explanations.
Once the initial shock dissipated, he felt relieved, like he had been given a free pass to have consensual bareback sex without worry of being infected.
— Journalist Bobby Box on a bugchaser's reaction to HIV-positive diagnosis (2020)
First, it is suggested that some men become bugchasers as a result of fear of HIV infection, which had previously altered their sexual behavior, such as resulting in men abstaining from sex entirely, committing to one partner, or using preventative measures such as condoms. In this way, bugchasing can be viewed as sexually and personally empowering; the transformation of bugchasers from HIV-negative to HIV-positive status is understood as masculinizing and hence granting additional status. Second, some men view HIV-positive status as erotic or sexually stimulating, and hence as a subject of pleasure or even the ultimate taboo to overcome. Third, bugchasers may understand HIV-positive status (or its pursuit) as granting a shared identity and sense of community. And fourth, bugchasing has been described as a political device and action against social norms (such as those tied to heteronormativity) through transgression of particular ideals, which in this case includes rigid conformity to safe sex practices. There is a fifth possible motivation—suicide—but this remains an unclear or imprecise explanation for bugchasing behavior.
Regardless of apparent motivation, personal identification with bugchasing in-person is rare, and bugchasing behavior is rarer still, with most behavior not well-aligning with this sense of identity. But there are many outliers who profess themselves as bugchasers openly on the internet, on sites like Twitter, and formerly Tumblr. For example, this behavior is rarely centered on having sex with persons known to be HIV-positive, instead engaging in ambiguous sexual situations, where the HIV status of participants is unknown.
As of 2021[update], the widespread availability of highly effective pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) capable of preventing HIV infection in otherwise unprotected sexual encounters has not resulted in the disappearance of bugchasing, with some men incorporating both behaviors into their lives.
While barebacking and bugchasing are both centered in risky sexual activity, they are not necessarily equivalent activities. Instead, bugchasing is a subculture of barebacking, with intent being a defining characteristic: most barebackers have no intent in transmitting or being infected with HIV, which is the apparent focus of bugchasing behavior.
But among bugchasers in particular, there remain several common metaphors that distinguish them from other communities among men who have sex with men: those of insemination, pregnancy, and paternity. Since HIV is able to spread and reproduce through the sexual activity belonging to bugchasing, its cultural dimensions—institutions, norms, practices, and forms of kinship that, taken together, form a community situated around HIV status—are transmitted through viral infection, similar to cultural propagation through birth and paternity. And it is this sense of community—at once built but also destroyed by the consequences of HIV infection—that is described by ethnographer Jaime García-Iglesias as both "queer world-making and world-shattering". But perhaps even more to the point of the metaphor, the physical characteristics of HIV infection are similar to pregnancy, as typically some time passes before either diagnosis could be established.
Similarly, bugchasing spaces reinforce certain notions of masculinity. HIV-positive men who purposely seek out others to infect with HIV—known as giftgivers—are constructed as hypermasculine through a penetrative sexual role, while bugchasers are understood to lack masculinity: penetrated (rather than penetrating), having their rectums described with words relating to women such as "pussy" and "mancunt", they occupy a feminine role in the social order.
Owing to LGBT activism since the AIDS epidemic began—largely focusing on gay identity not as an innately sexual one, but "de-sexed" (removed from sexuality) for the purposes of a more mainstream political agenda—bugchasing remains controversial, with some gay academics and activists denying it exists altogether or minimizing its prevalence. For example, in response to Freeman's 2003 Rolling Stone article which brought attention to bugchasing, the Human Rights Campaign (an LGBT advocacy group centered in liberal politics) was observed by sexuality studies scholar Adam J. Greteman as upset, arguably because the practice did not align with its homonormative political ambitions.
Media and culture
American filmmaker Louise Hogarth released a documentary, The Gift, in the same year the Rolling Stone piece was published. It focused on narratives of bugchasers, emphasizing the self-reported positive aspects of HIV infection. Three years later, Ricky Dyer, an HIV-positive man, released a documentary through BBC3 entitled "I love being HIV+", suggesting that most bugchasing activity is simply fantasy. In 2009, gay playwright Erik Patterson ran the tragicomedy He Asked For It, dealing with bugchasing and HIV-positive status in contemporary Hollywood. Bugchasing was also a part of the show Queer as Folk.
In 2012, Canadian Steven Boone was tried and convicted of three counts each of attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault after having unprotected sex with four men after previously contracting HIV. A self-described "poz vampire"—the word poz referring to acquiring HIV—he was immersed in bugchasing culture. His convictions on attempted murder have since been quashed after appealing to the Court of Appeal for Ontario, while the aggravated sexual assault convictions remain. The appeals court said it was not proven in the original case that he intended to kill his sexual partners; it offered the government the possibility of a new trial. Other cases of people being charged for the willful transmission of HIV have been reported.
Following the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in 2020, the virus that causes COVID-19 and led to an associated pandemic, there were reports of so-called "coronavirus parties" in which people would become deliberately infected with the virus. While parties of this type appear to not be real (similar to those for chickenpox), or at least are not popular (like those for H1N1, a type of flu virus), parallels were drawn between these alleged parties and bugchasing, as both deal with the voluntary acquisition of infectious diseases.
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