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Bug chasers: Does a subculture of people seeking HIV really exist?

By Mark HayAugust 17, 2015

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Some have argued that bug chasing is basically an invention — an extreme minority that has been oversold to a paranoid-to-homophobic world. Mario Tama/Getty Images News

Back in 2003, a controversial Rolling Stone article and a provocative documentary, entitled The Gift, introduced most of the world to a subculture known as “bug chasers.” Named after a colloquial term for HIV/AIDS, bug chasers are supposedly a subset of the actively condom-rejecting “barebacking” subculture, in which HIV-negative men use online forums to seek out HIV-positive men for unprotected sex, some even seeking infection, or “sero-conversion.” 
 

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The February 2003 cover of Rolling Stone, where the controversial bug chaser article appeared


Chasing was considered an established phenomenon in some circles for years before the 2003 Rolling Stone article: Bug chasing seems to show up in academic literature by at least 1997. Yet the big (and bunk) claims made in the Rolling Stone article, such as the fact that conscious and “unconscious” chasers caused up to 25 percent of gay HIV infections per year, launched a massive debate on the subculture. Some have argued that bug chasing is basically an invention — an extreme minority that has been oversold to a paranoid-to-homophobic world, or a misinterpretation of HIV-positive men seeking other HIV-positive men to engage in fantasy. Some insist bug chasing is real, but disagree as to why they pursue sex with HIV-positive men. The debate only rages on as idiosyncratic profiles of individual chasers emerge here and there, or when they appear in episodes of ER or Queer as Folk

Yet for all the speculation and limited profiles, few academics have tried to tackle chasing — to figure out if it’s a real phenomenon, or an invented paranoia. And if it’s real, to figure out the overarching, community-wide allure of this sexual proclivity, beyond case-by-case analyses. 

Dr. David Moskowitz, an assistant professor of epidemiology at New York Medical College is one of the few academics who has taken a wide-eye view of the chaser community. Below are his studied insights on the divisive culture, which he says exists, but as an ever-smaller minority.  


“I started working on bug chasing in 2005, as part of my Masters thesis. I’d come across it from reading the Rolling Stone article. I said, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ I was very interested in HIV disclosure. So I said: ‘Let’s see what’s going on here. Did they just find the one person who was doing this or is this a real subculture that exists?’

My initial project involved looking at bug-chaser profiles versus barebacker profiles. I think it was on barebackcity.com, which I doubt exists now. When my study came out, I think they either got closed down or morphed into some new iteration. I grabbed 150 chaser profiles, 150 barebacker profiles and explored the differences between these two groups. 

[We found] that bug chasers were behaviorally different than barebackers. It wasn’t just [looking for HIV-positive partners for HIV-negative men], it was in things like sexual submission, their interest in use of drugs during sex, like methamphetamines. This was a group [that was] taking things to the next level. [They’re] tremendous sensation seekers where it’s not enough to just have the unprotected sex. They need the drugs, they need the idea of sero-converting along with the actual physical pleasure of it. It’s adding a level of risk, where they’ve exhausted everything else that they could do. 

I’d read another article about a homeless guy who was looking to get infected so that he could have a community of [HIV-positive] people and more social support. But I just didn’t find any concrete evidence for that besides a few people who probably have a few psychological issues going on. For 95 percent of cases, we’ve got people who are looking for a more intense experience, and adding HIV into the mix does that for them. But that’s a convenient explanation, to say, oh I’m looking for a community, rather than, oh I like to huff poppers and do methamphetamines on the weekends. 
 

For 95 percent of cases, we’ve got people who are looking for a more intense experience, and adding HIV into the mix does that for them


There was also another hypothesis that said that people were pursuing bug chasing because they saw HIV-positive men as reaching a sexual nirvana because they could do anything they wanted to do [with no fear of further consequences]. I did a study of HIV-positive men, and it turned out that they were no more likely to actualize their sexual desires than HIV-negative men. So that was nonsense, but I suppose people believe whatever they want to believe. 

Nobody has ever contacted me [from the chaser community about my work]. I think it’s because you’re talking about a fraction of a fraction here. Maybe 10 percent of gay-bi men are barebackers. And maybe 10 percent of them are bug chasers or interested in [it] at least. I think either people didn’t want to identify as a bug chaser, or just didn’t read what we were writing. It was in an academic journal. But other people have done research on this, too, and I don’t think they’ve gotten any flack for it [either]. And I probably wasn’t saying anything too earthshattering for them. I also think that people not contacting me and trying to correct the conclusions that I made might kind of prove that those conclusions were not wrong. 
 

There’s HIV fetishism just because it’s such an enormous taboo. It’s just something out there that some people might find erotic


I think it’s just another fetish. And I think it’s also a little bit dated, to be honest. [Now] negative men take Trevada, which is an anti-retroviral, which inhibits their ability to sero-convert. Or positive men who are undetectable because they’re on a regimen. All of these things didn’t exist 10 years ago, or were poorly understood 10 years ago. I suppose bug chasing can still be real now because people can always end up sero-converting, but there are [now] techniques where people can play around with sero-discordant sex without the ramifications that it used to have. 

There’s HIV fetishism just because it’s such an enormous taboo. It’s just something out there that some people might find erotic. I’d be curious to see how many people are [now] looking at sero-discordant partners who are also [on preventative regimens] — so they like the idea of it but not the actuality of [getting infected]." —Dr. David Moskowitz 


Editor's Note: This is part one 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 two here.