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Bug Chasers: How did this subculture come about?

By Mark HayAugust 24, 2015

HIV testing center
HIV testing center Mario Tama/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This is part two of Liberty’s coverage of a subculture of so-called “bug chasers,” HIV-negative men who seek out HIV-positive men for unprotected sex, some even seeking infection, or “sero-conversion.” You can read part one here.

Octavio Gonzalez, an Assistant Professor at Wellesley College, is one of the few academics who’s looked into bug chasing. Here he explains why his work has led him to believe that chasing is largely an invention, perpetuating paranoia about “dangerous gay promiscuity.” 

I got into studying the topic of barebacking and bug chasing / gift-giving [the term for an HIV-positive man who, usually willingly, fulfills the chaser’s fantasy] as a subset of that larger issue, in graduate school. I had trained in HIV/AIDS research and prevention, and when I began my graduate training in English and American Studies, I took a seminar on Disability Studies. 

There is a “social model” of disability, which counters the “medical model.” HIV/AIDS, when seen through the social model of disability, bears very different values and fosters different forms of community, as opposed to the (phobic) medical model of HIV/AIDs, which bears the sign of death and pathology. Many bug chasers are seen as having a “death wish.” 

My main theoretical question was, ‘do bug chasers exist?’ My article on the subject [“Tracking the Bugchaser”] investigated the “bug chaser” figure as primarily a rhetorical trope—one in a long line of similar figures, who have been ideologically mobilized by media and other apparatus to discipline the public and control HIV/AIDS. The earlier [examples] include: “Patient Zero,” the promiscuous flight attendant famously captured by Randy Shilts in And The Band Played On; the “down low” figure, who threatens heterosexual women (especially women of color); the “barebacker;” and more recently the “Truvada Whore,” another promiscuous gay male trope of sexual licentiousness linked to HIV transmission. 

Though I didn’t seek out chasers, I did do informal reviews of websites to see if I could hear “the bug chaser speak,” and found basically nothing. The real research showed that many so-called bug chasers were actually already HIV-positive, and were merely engaging in a fantasy of HIV acquisition – a form of taking control of a virus that had already infected them. (And most sources agree that most barebackers, for that matter, are either already HIV-positive and seek out those who are also already infected, or are HIV-negative and seek out those who are uninfected. This form of risk-reduction, called sero-sorting, is a way to reduce risk, not a way to increase it, as the general media/public understand it.)

The research showed there was a tiny minority of bug chasers in actuality, despite the moral panic incited by the bug chaser accounts in 2003. —Octavio González