Bugchasing is a fringe practice of pursuing sexual activity with HIV-positive individuals in order to contract HIV. The practise is documented as an extreme subculture among gay males, men who have sex with men, and to a lesser extent among women. Individuals engaged in this activity are referred to as bugchasers, who seek sexual partners who are HIV-positive for the purpose of having unprotected sex and becoming HIV-positive; giftgivers are HIV-positive individuals who assist the bugchasers' efforts to become infected with HIV.
Previous research identified that less than 1 percent of HIV negative men were actively seeking HIV positive partners. Bugchasers indicate various reasons for this activity. Some bugchasers are pursuing the excitement and intimacy inherent in such a dangerous activity, but do not implicitly desire to contract HIV.
Aspects and motivations
In reviewing the scarce unpublished and published materials on bugchasing, as well as general healthcare speculations, a common theme appears — the lumping of bug chasers with barebackers.... Although these two groups share some of the same practices, namely unprotected anal intercourse (UAI), there are distinctions that differentiate bug chasing...even though all bug chasers are indeed barebackers, not all barebackers are bugchasers.
Some people consider bugchasing "intensely erotic" and the act of being infected through the "fuck of death" as the "ultimate taboo, the most extreme sex act left."
Others have suggested that some people who feel lonely desire the nurturing community and social services that support people with HIV/AIDS. Other research suggests that semen contains a wealth of meaning for those who engage in bugchasing and gift giving fantasies and practices and that “HIV infected semen containing the men's DNA are a way of overcoming the sense of isolation that results from ‘cold, sterile’, protected sex”. Others suffering from depression and suicidal ideation report fantasising or engaging in the practice as a form of suicide.
Over the past decade, researchers have endeavored to document, explain, and look for a solution to bugchasing. Dr. DeAnn Gauthier and Dr. Craig Forsyth put forth the first academic article in 1999. They explored the emerging trend of gay men who eschew condoms and the development of a barebacking subculture. They also noted through their qualitative research that some barebackers were in search of HIV.
Dr. Richard Tewksbury was one of the first researchers to acknowledge bug chasing online and that bug chasers were using the Internet to assist their seroconversive efforts. In his more recent research, he gave a strong analysis of what bug chasers and gift givers resemble in their behaviors, attitudes, and demographics.
Drs. Christian Grov and Jeffrey T. Parsons' (2006) research using the internet profiles of 1,228 bug chasers and gift givers identified six subsets of bug chasers and gift givers.
- "The Committed Bug Chaser" included men who indicated they were HIV-negative and seeking HIV-positive partners. Of the committed bug chasers who indicated a desired sexual position, the majority were bottoms (62.2 percent anal receptive). Only 7.5 percent of the sample were classified as committed bug chasers.
- "The Opportunistic Bug Chaser" included men who were HIV-negative and indicated that their partner's HIV status did not matter. Most of these men were either versatile (43.6 percent; meaning anal receptive and anal insertive) or bottoms (46.3 percent). In total, 12.1 percent of their sample included opportunistic bug chasers.
- "The Committed Gift Giver" included men who were HIV-positive who also indicated they were seeking HIV-negative partners. Notably, only five men from the entire sample of 1,228 fell into this category.
- "The Opportunistic Gift Giver" included men who indicated they were HIV-positive and that their partner's status did not matter to them. Most of these men (61.8 percent) were versatile. Opportunistic Gift Givers accounted for 26 percent of the sample.
- "The Serosorter" Although all men Drs Grov and Parsons sampled indicated they were a gift giver or a bug chaser in their Internet profile, behavioural intentions did not consistently match with bug chaser/gift giver identity. Some HIV-positive men (8.5 percent of the total sample) indicated preference for other HIV-positive men. Meanwhile, some HIV-negative men (12.5 percent of the total sample) indicated preference for other HIV-negative men. Although having indicated they were a bug chaser or a gift giver, these men were serosorting for partners of similar HIV status.
- "The Ambiguous Bug Chaser or Gift Giver" included men who indicated they did not know their HIV status and thus it was difficult to determine if they were seeking to bug chase or gift give. This category was 16.3 percent of the sample.
In total, Drs Christian Grov and Jeffrey T. Parsons concluded that bug chasing and gift giving might occur among a select few individuals. Further, their research found that there was substantial variation in intentions to spread HIV (with some not intent on spreading HIV) among those who indicated they were gift givers or bug chasers.
Dr. David Moskowitz, Dr. Catriona MacLeod and Dr. Michael Roloff attempted to quantitatively explain why bug chasers chase HIV. They claimed that individuals who look for HIV are more likely sex addicts. These individuals have exhausted the sexual high they previously derived by performing other sexual risk taking behaviors, and now turn to bug chasing to achieve the risk-oriented high.
Dr. Bruce D. LeBlanc (2007) conducted an exploratory study involving survey responses from self identified bug chasers, one of the first published studies involving direct responses from this identified group. His findings challenge "common sense" and research findings regarding bug chasers. Examining psychological and social motivations for seeking HIV the most frequent response was that individuals could not identify a psychological (internal thought process) or social (interactions with others) factor for seeking HIV. Regarding motivations for seeking infection the most frequent response was seeing becoming infected as a thrill, hot, or erotic, as well as seeing the semen through a similar lens. Few respondents identified "getting it over with" as a motivating factor.
Some limited identification of becoming part of the "community" or "brotherhood" was identified. Other variables studied included methods for finding partners, sexual behaviors undertaken while seeking infection, average number of sexual partners, length of time for which they will seek infection and life event changes if they were successful in becoming infected with HIV.
In mainstream media
In Episode 13 of the 2000/1 NBC series ER ER Season 7 Dr. Malucci treats a gay man who wants to contract HIV from his positive partner. Malucci asks the HIV-negative patient if he is "bug chasing".
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+". The article quoted San Francisco health services director Dr. Bob Cabaj as saying that as many as 25 percent of new HIV infections a year (about ten thousand people) were from men who had contracted it on purpose. Cabaj disputed the quotes attributed to him, but Rolling Stone stands behind the story. Dr. Marshall Forstein, the medical director of mental health and addiction services at Boston's Fenway Community Health, was reported to have said that the clinic regularly saw bug-chasers and warned that it was growing. He called the statements "entirely a fabrication," but Rolling Stone also stood behind them. Steven Weinstein, then editor of the New York Blade, an established gay newspaper, called the article "less than truthful" and attributed it to a Rolling Stone editor (whom he did not name) recently recruited from a competing "lad mag" who wished to make a sensation for himself.
Following the article, the Human Rights Campaign put out an action alert, calling its members to "PROTEST ROLLING STONE'S IRRESPONSIBLE 'BUG CHASING'". Critics criticized the use of the disputed figures by conservative organizations. For example, The Traditional Values Coalition used the article to urge the Centers for Disease Control to cut down on its AIDS funding.
Writer/director Daniel Bort made a 2003 short film on the subject called Bugchaser, which premièred at the 16th Annual Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and was shot mainly in New York sex clubs. In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, he explained: "The matter-of-fact declarations of a string of articulate, apparently nonsensical people...affected me tremendously. I had to find out the reasons why such individuals will seek suicide in this almost symbolic way." At the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the film was shown with an accompanying documentary The Gift by Louise Hogarth.
In 2004, Episode 10, Season 4 of the Showtime series Queer as Folk a former student of Professor Ben Bruckner asks Ben to infect him with HIV, wanting to experience "the gift". Ben refuses and writes a short story about the incident.
HIV-positive male Ricky Dyer, who investigated the apparent bug chasing phenomenon for a 2006 BBC programme, I love being HIV+, said that an air of complacency about the realities of living with the virus may be one reason why infection rates have been rising. However, the BBC also described bugchasing as more internet fantasy than reality, saying that, "Dyer finds that the overwhelming majority of the talk is pure fantasy." The article also quotes Will Nutland, head of health promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust, as saying, "The concepts of 'gift giving' and 'bug chasers' are definitely based more in fantasy than reality" as well as Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust, who said, "There is very little evidence of people trying to get infected with HIV."
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- Times Online article: HIV sex parties 'spread disease', September 29, 2005
- Bug Chasers: The men who long to be HIV+ — the Rolling Stone article
- Media Life magazine on the Rolling Stone article, January 24, 2003
- Salon.com article on the Rolling Stone article, by Andrew Sullivan
- "THE GIFT" (documentary) 2003 The Phenomenon of deliberate HIV infection
- BBC News story: HIV 'bug chasers': Fantasy or fact?, 10 April 2006