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The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose

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Bug Chasers and Gift Givers: The Insanity of Bug Chasing

bug-chaser-mogoloid  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose bug chaser mogoloidThere is a frightening epidemic of complacency sweeping the AIDS community. Despite grand efforts to inform about the dangers of HIV, factions of people are embracing the virus. This emerging trend raises some troubling questions about how far people will go to gain acceptance. It also raises questions as to how it is that people in this day and age do not understand the dangers of HIV and AIDS. [18] Experts recently warned about a new craze in which men are secretly seeking and spreading HIV. The reckless practice, known as “bug chasing,” started in the US as a bizarre means of getting a ­sexual high from risk-taking. [2] The way it works is that HIV positive men, or “gift-givers”, who want to transmit the virus to so-called “bug chasers” – HIV negative or untested men – do so in an apparently negotiated exchange. [3] Now, according to one man who willingly caught the virus, hundreds of men in the UK are introducing themselves on online forums, Face­book groups and Twitter. [2] Several UK-based websites deal with the phenomenon, as do many more in the US, where the phenomenon of bug chasing was originally reported. [3] A new porn film entitled Viral Loads has earned quite a bit of attention for its graphic depictions of guys who are eager to give and receive HIV through man-on-man sex. [15] Like a lot of sexual fetishes and extreme behaviors, bug chasing could not exist without the Internet, or at least it couldn’t thrive. Prior to the advent of Web surfing and e-mail, it would have been practically impossible for bug chasing to happen in any great numbers, because it’s still not acceptable to walk up to a stranger and say you want the virus. But the Internet’s anonymity and broad access make it possible to find someone with like interests, no matter how outlandish. [1] A Yahoo! spokeswoman confirms that the company shuts down such sites when it receives notice that the subscribers are promoting HIV infection or any other kind of harm to one another, but the company doesn’t go looking for bug chasers in its thousands of discussion groups, most established by subscribers themselves. Recently, it was easy to find two discussion groups on Yahoo! that promoted bug chasing, one called barebackover50 and one called gayextremebareback. Barebacking — or intentional anal sex without a condom with someone other than a primary partner — is a sexual behavior that has become more prevalent in the last two years. In 2000, a review by Goodroad et al. [PubMed] described it as “a new phenomenon different from previously identified ‘relapse’ unsafe sexual behavior.” Nowadays, the behavior is disseminated by web sites such as Barebackcity.com and Xtremesex.com, that market videos showing unprotected sex to the homosexual community, and have the potential to compromise AIDS prevention efforts worldwide. [24] The first discussion group was established in 1998 and had 1,439 members at the end of 2002. Yahoo! closed the group after Rolling Stone inquired about it. [1] Many of those bug chasing freaks, once hooking up on the Internet, then meet up and try to transmit the potentially life-threatening virus, which attacks the ­immune system weakening the body’s ability to fight disease. HIV orgies are organised via websites such as Gaydar and Manhunt. Often, drugs are involved. A “chem session” could mean anything from rocking up at a lawyer’s house and being given a line of coke before he fucks you to a crystal meth-soaked orgy in which the status of the six or more participants isn’t revealed until afterwards. [6] Some bug-chasers actually claim the virus gives them a better quality of life because of the medication they subsequently have to take. [2]

What Enables this Behavior is Socialized Medicine

bugchasers-300x185  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose bugchasers 300x185Earlier, in an article entitled “Protease dis-inhibitors? The gay bareback phenomenon” Nicolas Sheon and Aaron Plant, associate editors of HIV InSite, say that new treatments based on protease inhibitors and other antiretroviral drugs have changed the perception of risk of contracting HIV for many gay men who now believe that the benefit of unsafe sex outweighs the risks. “The new treatments have led some men to conclude that the consequences of HIV infection for themselves or their negative partners have been minimized,” they say. The latest available annual report produced by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (2001 San Francisco HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Annual Report) has some alarming data on sexual risk behavior among men who have sex with men (MSM). The department surveyed MSM reporting unprotected anal intercourse in the previous six months for the years 1998 to 2001 (see graph), and MSM reporting unprotected anal intercourse with multiple partners in the previous six months for the same years (see graph). While both measures of unsafe sex have increased in the last years, the proportion of MSM practicing unprotected anal intercourse with multiple partners is alarming. [24] Medicine has come a long way since the 1980s, when HIV and AIDS was killing people daily in the United States. It’s both a blessing and a curse, since it’s saving lives but creating an appearance that HIV belongs in history books. What enables the behavior of these “bug chasers” is socialized medicine. These men are partly rational. Not completely; for instance, the one man’s supposition that HIV medications are healthy is not rational. [23] Some strains of the virus are drug resistant and can mutate to kill. The side-effects can range from dementia to bone breakage. The pill that can keep the worst symptoms at bay has been linked to cancer, said Perry N. Halkitis, professor of applied psychology, public heath and population health at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. [19] Completely blind to those facts, these men have seen that a socialized (and still somewhat wealthy or ‘First World’) society will give them lots of medical care that they have not earned and do not merit. These men have gauged, correctly, that their society will give them the best care possible, if they inflict some sort of manageable and tolerable medical condition on themselves. [23] Consciously or not, they are ‘playing’ the socialized medical system. That is partly (not entirely) the fault of the system itself: socialized systems for private goods always warp a society’s incentives in some way, and should not exist to begin with. Morally speaking, these men have a suicide-like ‘right’ to get HIV if they really want to; but no right to have government forcing the rest of their society to pay their way. Yet their government does force the rest of society to pay their way. And so there are enough of these men around to start making a social phenomenon of it. [23]

The Secret Brotherhood of Bug Chasing

Dr. Gerald Schoenewolf  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose schoenewolf

Dr. Gerald Schoenewolf

Why would someone want to contract a disease that weakens the immune system and could progress to AIDS, in turn killing them? Is it really the ultimate thrill? Understanding bug chasing requires understanding life beyond the mainstream and suspending judgment. The decision to deliberately seek HIV infection cannot fully be explained by conventional or rational choice modeling. [9] Integrating a dangerous activity into the bedroom isn’t new, or even unusual: coprophilia, emetophilia and autoerotic asphyxiation are all more common than you might imagine in the bedrooms of Middle America. Deviance and danger are exciting, and, for some people, the turn-on of a risky activity is something they just can’t turn down once they’ve had a taste of it. [6] Bug chasers are part of an intricate underground world that has sprouted, driven almost completely by the Internet, in which men who want to be infected with HIV get together with those who are willing to infect them. [1] Based on the belief that HIV/AIDS has become a chronic manageable disease, bug chasers and gift givers are creating a type of brotherhood in which the HIV virus represents life rather than death and unprotected sex is the expression of true love. [24] Bug chasers supposedly look for “conversion parties” where HIV positive men have the opportunity to pass on the virus to multiple partners. [3] While the rest of the world fights the AIDS epidemic and most people fear HIV infection, this subculture celebrates the virus and eroticizes it. HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold. [1] It’s a weird topsy-turvy world in which every convention about HIV is turned upside down. [1] Sleeping with HIV positive individuals is the ultimate fetish for bug-chasers; the most deviant act possible. [18] Definitely, in this context of “inversion of all values,” the reception of “the gift” is the ultimate “liberal sacrament.” The virus isn’t horrible and fearsome, it’s beautiful and sexy — and delivered in the way that is most likely to result in infection. [1] In this world, the men with HIV are the most desired, and the bug chasers will do anything to get the virus — to “get knocked up,” to be “bred” or “initiated into the brotherhood.” [1] Additionally, too much attention has been focused on anal sex as a risky activity, giving a symbolic meaning to a practice that many now see as an act of deep intimacy and true love, where the virus itself achieves a level of fetishism, eroticism and glamour. [24]

Antoine Douaihy  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose antoine pic

Antoine Douaihy

Antoine Douaihy, a Professor of Psychiatry University of Pittsburgh provides some perspective on this bizarre desire for inclusion. “They are reaching out for some kind of intimacy. They want to feel accepted and a part of something. It’s a distorted way of exploring how you can become intimate with someone else.” [6] New York based psychoanalyst and founder of The Living Center (a psychoanalytic group that “offers eclectic psychotherapy), Dr. Gerald Schoenewolf said almost the same thing: “They want to feel accepted and a part of something.” [4] At GMHC (formerly Gay Men’s Health Crisis), spokesman Marty Algaze calls bug chasing “one of those very underground subcultures or fetishes that seems to have sprung up in recent years.” [1] For some, the chase is a pragmatic move. They see HIV infection as inevitable because of their unsafe sex or needle sharing, so they decide to take control of the situation and infect themselves. It’s empowering. They’re no longer victims waiting to be infected; rather they are in charge of their own fates. For others, deliberately infecting themselves is the ultimate taboo, the most extreme sex act left on the planet, and that has a strong erotic appeal for some men who have tried everything else. Still others feel lost and without any community to embrace them, and they see those living with HIV as a cohesive group that welcomes its new members and receives vast support from the rest of the gay community, and from society as a whole. Bug chasers want to be a part of that club. Some want HIV because they think once they have it they can go on with a wild, uninhibited sex life without constant fears of the virus. Getting the bug opens the door to sexual nirvana, they say. Others can’t stand the thought of being so unlike their HIV-positive lover. [1] This distorted perspective on intimacy is reflective of the self-loathing that characterises all bug-chasing and most sexually extreme activity. At the root of it all is a lost respect for the self and the longing for validation that can, ironically, only be delivered by transgressive real-life activity. [6] But internalising the violence of an endemic virus could be understood as a masochistic empowerment Dr. David Moskowitz survey of 284 bugchasers and barebackers indicated that bugchasers “were far more likely to engage in sexually sadomasochistic activities”. This medicinally managed violence inverts the subtle violence that societal and cultural prejudices visit upon the gay community into something empowering, however paradoxical that might appear. Maybe this is where psychiatric framing of the scene as self-harm and destructive compulsive behaviour makes sense. [21]

Is Bug Chasing an Aberration Practiced Just by a Few?

Dr. Bob Cabaj  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose cabaj

Dr. Bob Cabaj

The assistant director of community education at GMHC, Daniel Castellanos, acknowledges that bug chasing exists but claims there’s not much need to discuss it because it involves such a small population. [1] Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral-health services for San Francisco County says public-health officials also tend to dismiss the bug-chasing phenomenon assuming that it is just an aberration practiced by a few, nothing more than a curiosity. Cabaj adamantly disagrees, though he admits numbers are very hard to come by. Some men consciously seek the virus, openly declaring themselves bug chasers, he says, while many more are just as actively seeking HIV but are in denial and wouldn’t call themselves bug chasers. Cabaj estimates that at least twenty-five percent of all newly infected gay men fall into that category. [1] Even if you consider only the number of self-proclaimed bug chasers and not the overall group of men seeking HIV, Cabaj still sees cause for concern because of the way one bug chaser’s quest can spread the virus far beyond his own life. “It may be a small number of actual people, but they may be disproportionately involved in continuing the spread of HIV,” he says. “That’s a major issue when you’re talking about how to control the spread of a virus. A small percentage could be responsible for continuing the infection. The clinical impact is profound, no matter how small the numbers.” [1] The problem is not restricted to any one community. Cabaj’s counterpart in Boston reports a similar experience with bug chasers. [1] He says bug chasers are seen regularly in the Fenway health system, and the phenomenon is growing. He adds that bug chasers can be found in any major city, though officials might be reluctant to discuss the issue either because it is unseemly or because it has escaped their notice. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health confirms that bug chasers are known in its health system. Public-health officials in New York refused multiple requests for comment. [1]

AJ__Nd3C  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose AJ  Nd3CAccording to the Centers for Disease Control, the “Bug Chasing” communities seem to be much larger in major metropolitan areas like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. However, that doesn’t mean smaller major cities like Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando don’t have their own bug chasing communities. “I would say it’s very rare,” says Dr. Jay Flicker with Hope and Help of Central Florida. “But it does happen. Often times the term is used incorrectly. There is a difference between a ‘bug chaser’, someone who is actively seeking the virus, and an individual who is complacent about getting it.” [12] It’s rare that a client will identify himself as a bug chaser, but it does happen. “I’ve tested someone who came in and first didn’t identify himself as a person who was looking to get infected,” recalls Abby Nicholson, Metro Wellness and Community Centers’ HIV Education & Prevention Coordinator. “When it came back positive, he was like, ‘Finally, it’s done now.’ That caught me off guard, but then he told me that he tried to get infected for a long time and that he had a lot of HIV-positive partners. He was relieved and excited.” Nicholson adds that while she doesn’t understand the desire to become positive, she treats every case the same and wanted to make sure the client knew what living with HIV meant. [12] Cary James, head of health improvement programmes at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “The term ‘bug chasing’ first came to public attention about ten years ago. However, research has so far found no evidence to suggest that it is practiced on any scale. “We are aware of a tiny minority of people who meet online to discuss bug chasing as a sexual a fantasy, but the reality is that very few will act on this in the real world. We recommend that gay and bisexual men protect themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by using condoms.” [16] Yusef Azad, director of policy at the National AIDS Trust, said: “It is hard to separate fact and fantasy when it comes to reports of ‘bug-chasing’. If it exists at all, it can only involve a tiny minority of gay men. Most gay men understand HIV remains a long-term serious condition, and transmission should be avoided.” [16] “It is naive to think that it is not going on,” said Vic Sorrell, community educator with the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program. [19] Most who study the HIV/AIDS epidemic downplay the practice as so small as to be of little significance.

Simon Prytherch  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose SimonPrytherchtion

Simon Prytherch

Simon Prytherch, of the Elton John Aids Foundation has tried to educate people on bug chasing and said: “This practice is very scary and highly irresponsible. What we are seeing are cases of treatment failure and then rapid decline in health.” Despite the danger, people continue to seek AIDS in certain situations. [4] Silvia Petretti, of HIV charity Positively UK, has been living with the virus for 16 years. She said: “It may not be a death sentence any more but living with HIV is not a walk in the park either. [2]

It makes me very sad and very worried that people are seeking to contract it. Bug chasing needs to be ­addressed, both by the NHS and the education system, so that ­people are aware of the risks from a young age and receive the help they need if they are feeling compelled to act this way.

Ricky Dyer  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose hivprog

Ricky Dyer

HIV positive man Ricky Dyer, who investigates the apparent bug chasing phenomenon for a BBC programme, “I love being HIV+”, says that an air of complacency about the realities of living with the virus may be one reason why infection rates have been rising. Dyer tries to find out the truth behind the reporting by going online on a gay dating website, saying he is an HIV positive man who wants to talk to bug chasers. “I’m not saying I am offering them sex…talk is all I want,” he says in the programme. However, Dyer is appalled to find dozens of apparent bug chasers contact him within days saying that they want to be “pozzed up” – infected with the virus.

Will Nutland  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose willnuttland

Will Nutland

Bug chasers supposedly look for “conversion parties” where HIV positive men have the opportunity to pass on the virus to multiple partners. Dyer finds that the overwhelming majority of the talk is pure fantasy. Men who say they are bug chasers and gift givers fail to stand by their claims on camera and one man who gave an anonymous interview subsequently appeared to be lying to the production team about his activities. His findings are echoed by the HIV charities. Will Nutland, head of health promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “The concepts of ‘gift giving’ and ‘bug chasers’ are definitely based more in fantasy than reality. “Most gay men with HIV do not want to pass HIV on, and most gay men who do not have HIV do not want to get infected.” And Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust said: “There is very little evidence of people trying to get infected with HIV. “The real issue is why risk-taking behaviour continues when HIV positive men have no wish to pass HIV on HIV negative men wish to avoid infection.” However, the fantasy on the internet may give the wrong idea to young and ill-informed gay men coming out on the gay scene, according to Dyer. The Sexual Health Survey of Gay Men in London found that in recent years 50% of men who identify themselves as gay had had unprotected anal sex at least once.

The Case of Chris

infected-idiot  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected idiotThough much of the bug chasing talk on the net is just that – talk, which previous reports seem to have taken at face value – in the programme, Dyer also interviews an ex-Jehovah’s Witness named Chris, who is HIV negative. Chris says that he is engaging in a great deal of unprotected anal sex. He knows he will become infected and has made a conscious decision to welcome it into his life. In the course of filming, Chris is diagnosed HIV positive and in an on-camera interview tells his story. [3] Chris came out as gay to his parents 14 years ago and was told he would be dead in the eyes of God and the Jehovah’s Witness community if he embraced his homosexuality. [3] Chris chose to leave home and live as a gay man. Though he engaged in a great deal of unprotected sex for years and welcomes the “inevitable” arrival of the virus, he says he is not a bug chaser. “I wasn’t scared of the consequences of getting HIV,” he says. “But by accepting it, I’m going to take the sting out of its tail.” According to the Health Protection Agency there has been a steady increase in diagnosis rates in the UK among men who have sex with men from 1500 in 1999 to over 2000 in 2004 – a 30% increase in five years. [3]

The Case of Carlos

carloss  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose carlossThe Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Carlos, a man who desperately want to get infected with the HIV virus. In a crowded Starbucks, Carlos explained to the journalist how much he wants HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. His eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be “the most erotic thing I can imagine.” [1] He seems like a typical thirty-two-year-old man, but, in fact, he has a secret life. Carlos is chasing the bug. [1]

I know what the risks are, and I know that putting myself in this situation is like putting a gun to my head. […] But I think it turns the other guy on to know that I’m negative and that they’re bringing me into the brotherhood. That gets me off, too. [1]

When asked whether he is prepared to live with HIV after that “erotic” moment, Carlos dismisses living with HIV as a minor annoyance. [1] Like most bug chasers, he has the impression that the virus just isn’t such a big deal anymore: “It’s like living with diabetes. You take a few pills and get on with your life.” [1] Carlos spends the afternoon continually calling a man named Richard, someone he met on the Internet. They met on barebackcity.com about a year ago, while Carlos was still with his boyfriend. That boyfriend left because Carlos was having sex with other men and because he was interested in barebacking — the practice of having sex without a condom. Carlos and Richard are arranging a “date” for later that day. [1] Carlos surfs online about twenty hours a week looking for men to have sex with, usually frequenting sites such as bareback.com and barebackcity.com, plus a number of Internet discussion groups. Most of the Web sites use the pretense that they actually are about barebacking, which is in itself risky and controversial but still a long way from bug chasing. For the Web sites, that distinction is at best razor-thin and more often just an outright lie. “We got Poz4Poz, Neg4Neg and bug chasers looking to join the club,” the welcome page to barebackcity.com, which claims 48,000 registered users, up from 28,000 about a year ago, recently said. “Be the first to seed a newbie and give him a pozitive attitude!” [1]

Within this online community, bug chasers revel in their desires, using their own lingo about “poz” and “neg” men, “bug juice” and “conversion” from negative to positive. User profiles include names such as BugChaser21, Knockmeup, BugMeSoon, ConvertMeSir, PozCum4NegHole and GiftGiver. The posters are upfront about seeking HIV even extremely enthusiastic, possibly because the Web sites are about the only place a bug seeker can really express his desires openly. Under turn-ons, a poster called PozMeChgo craves a “hot poz load deep in me. I really want to be converted!! Breed me/seed me!” Carlos’ profile on one Web site lists his screen name as ConvertMe, and he says he wants a man “to fill me up with that poison seed.” His AOL Instant Messenger name is Bug Juice Wanted. [1] Condoms and safe sex are openly ridiculed on bug-chasing Web sites, with many bug chasers rebelling against what they see as the dogma of safe-sex education; constantly thinking about a deadly disease takes all the fun out of sex, they say, and condoms suck. Carlos agrees and says getting HIV will make safe sex a moot point. “It’s about freedom,” he says. “What else can happen to us after this? You can fuck whoever you want, fuck as much as you want, and nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen after you get HIV.” [1] For Carlos, bug chasing is mostly about the excitement of doing something that everyone else sees as crazy and wrong. Keeping this part of his life secret is part of the turn-on for Carlos, which is not his real name. That forbidden aspect makes HIV infection incredibly exciting for him, so much so that he now seeks out sex exclusively with HIV-positive men. “This is something that no one knows about me,” Carlos says. “It’s mine. It’s my dirty little secret.” He compares bug chasing to the thrill that you get by screwing your boyfriend in your parents’ house, or having sex on your boss’ desk. You’re not supposed to do it, and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun, he says, laughing. [1]

The Case of Doug Hitzel

bug-chaser-idiot  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose bug chaser idiotHitzel understands all too clearly what bug chasing can do to a young man’s life, but it’s too late for him. After six months of bug chasing, Hitzel succeeded in getting the virus. He’s now a twenty-one-year-old freshman at a Midwestern university, so wholesome-looking you’d think he just walked out of a cornfield. [1] Hitzel’s experience started when he moved from his home in Nebraska to San Francisco with his boyfriend. When that relationship broke up, Hitzel was at the lowest point in his life, and alone. He sought relief in drugs and sex, as much of each as he could get. At first, he started out just not caring whether he got HIV or not, then he found the bug-chasing underground and embraced it. He was sure he’d get HIV soon anyway. He thought he would always feel exactly like he did then; he was certain that ten, twenty, thirty years later he’d still be partying every night. It lasted only six months — then Hitzel got sick with awful flulike symptoms and lost a lot of weight. [1] A doctor’s visit cleared him of hepatitis and other possible problems, but the clinic sent him home with an HIV test he could do himself. Hitzel waited before doing the test and decided to go home to Nebraska, to give up the bug chasing and the rest of the life that was killing him. Once he got home, he did the test and found out he was positive. He now wakes up each day with a terrible frustration that’s just below the surface of his once sunny demeanor. He hates the medication he has to take every day, and he realizes that HIV affects nearly every part of his life. [1] While he was bug chasing, Hitzel couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be in a relationship again. But now that he’s getting his life back in order, he realizes that being HIV-positive can be a roadblock to new relationships. “Whenever I have to deal with things like medication, days when I’m really down,” Hitzel says, “I have to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘You did this. [1] Are you happy now?’ That’s the one line that goes through my head: ‘Are you happy now?'” He says it with a snarl, full of anger. “Some days I feel really angry and guilty. I’m pretty much adjusted to the fact that this is my life, but about forty percent of the time I look at myself and say, ‘Look what you’ve done. Happy now?'”

38315  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose 38315Looking back on it, Hitzel says he was committing suicide by chasing HIV, killing himself slowly because he didn’t have the nerve to do it quickly. Hitzel is ashamed and embarrassed that he actually sought HIV, but he’s willing to tell his story because he hopes to dissuade others who are on the same path. He gets angry when he hears bug chasers talking in the same ways he talked a year earlier. The mention of “bug chasing” and “gift giving” sets him off. “‘Bug chasing’ sounds like a group of kindergartners running around chasing grasshoppers and butterflies,” Hitzel says, “a beautiful thing. And gift giving? What the hell is that? I just wish the terms would actually put some real context into what’s going on. Why did I not want to say that I was deliberately infecting myself? Because saying the word infect sounds bad and gross and germy. I wanted it to be sexualized.” He’s particularly angered by the idea of HIV being erotic: “How about you follow me after I start new medications and you watch me throw up for a few weeks? Tell me how erotic that is.” [1] The whole story of Hitzel’s bug chasing adventures is told in an acclaimed and controversial documentary, The Gift (Hogarth, 2003), that chronicles the real story of how and why he got infected. The “gift” as described by Doug Hitzel in the documentary, “pulls you in because it seems like the biggest box. In a whole room of presents, it’s got the best bow, it’s got the best ribbon, and it looks like the biggest and the funnest [sic], and you open it up and it’s like a big ball of nothing and it just sucks all the life from you.” At the end of the documentary Doug shares, “I just can’t believe that it seemed like a livable thing to me—there was no benefit in this [bug chasing]—and that’s just what really needs to be said.” [9]

The Case of Nick

bugchasssser  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose bugchasssserNick, 30, an admin worker from the Midlands, said: “I feel fit as a fiddle. I feel full of energy and healthier as a result of being on my medication.

I get my liver function tests every three months, my cholesterol tested regularly and I get loads of general health checks so if there are any underlying conditions I know straight away. Even better, I get it all on the NHS. [2]

Last year, 73,659 people in the UK were treated for HIV – 43 per cent of them gay or bisexual men – a rise of 58 per cent over the last 10 years. In 2012, the NHS spent £840million on HIV treatment, an average £10,000 per patient. Simon Prytherch, of the Elton John Aids Foundation, said: “This practice is very scary and highly irresponsible.

What we see increasingly are cases of treatment failure and then rapid decline in health. [2]

Bug chasing is so new to the UK it is impossible to say how many men are involved. In the US, where the phenomenon was first identified in 1999, research is further advanced. An investigation by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003 claimed a ­quarter of all new HIV transmissions in the US could be attributed to bug chasing. No such studies have been done in the UK but one Face­book group dedicated to the practice has been “liked” by 1,172 people. A US website which promotes meetings of bug-chasers and gift-givers – those who are already HIV positive – has more than 5,000 members. Nick, who contracted HIV in 2011, joined the site two years ago. He claims he has had unprotected sex with more than 1,000 men, including many he knew were HIV positive, in his quest for the virus. When Nick was first diagnosed, he wrote on Facebook: “Tested positive on 21st September and totally loving it! Wanna share with any chasers, CD4 is 971, VL 100,000 – nice and toxic!” CD4 refers to his white blood cell count while VL is the “viral load”, which indicates how likely a carrier is to pass the virus on. VL 100,000 is extremely high.

I don’t regret the sex I had or becoming HIV. The only downside of contracting the virus is it took some of the excitement away. [2]

Since his diagnosis, Nick claims to have had unprotected sex with 20 men. “I have faced a lot of vitriol on my blog,” he said. “But I just think that as it’s between two consenting adults, it’s no one else’s business.

If you brought me a person I had infected and sat them in front of me I would probably feel some guilt over it if they hadn’t been educated about the risks. But all the people I have had sex with have made educated decisions. [2]

The Case of Brandon

infected-moron  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected moronSitting in a Tampa coffee shop, “Brandon” is visibly excited about his upcoming weekend plans. The 23 year old, a customer service representative for a cell phone carrier, hopes to achieve a very important goal on the upcoming Saturday night. “I’m going to finally get HIV!” he says with a smile. “I’ve tried before, but this is the first time I’m really boosting my chances.” [12] Brandon, not his real name, shares that he has plans to attend a “Conversion Party” at a private residence in Hillsborough County. There, he adds, he will “bottom” for multiple partners, most of whom are already HIV-positive. “I found several gift-givers willing to give me the bug,” Brandon explains. “I’m excited. It’s going to be a really hot night and it will accomplish something in the process.” Lots of people think that this is insanity. He shrugs off criticism. He says he knows what it means to be HIV-positive and he gladly embraces the title of “Bug Chaser.” “I know a ton of poz people,” says Brandon, who responded to a social networking post Watermark placed on a site focused on HIV infections. “I’m a good-looking guy and I’m in great shape. I love sex and I know it’s just a matter of time before I get it anyway. It’s like ripping off a band-aid. Why wait to find out in a year that you have it, when you can just get it, get on the drugs and go on with life. To me, this is the responsible thing to do. I’ll know I have it and I’ll be able to treat it.” [12] As he talks about the conversion party just days away, Brandon is visibly excited. He’s excited to contract HIV, but also about the act of doing so. “Everyone knows barebacking is way better than wrapped sex,” he says. “It feels better for the top and for the bottom.” And Brandon believes that becoming HIV-Positive will improve his sex life because he won’t have to use condoms or worry about getting infected. Just days after his “conversion party,” Watermark reached out to Brandon via a social networking site dedicated to HIV infection to ask about his experience. “It was awesome,” he says of the party, where he shared he had “at least” four partners. “But I did the rapid HIV test and it came back negative. I’m guessing that the infection is just too new to show up, so I’ll go again next week.” [12] The rapid test uses a simple finger prick of blood that reacts to a chemical in a vial if a person is HIV-positive. That “reactive” test is then sent to the state for further analysis and confirmation. It’s after that two week period that HIV service organizations like ASAP, Metro, Hope and Help and The Center, help clients navigate living with HIV. There may be more to Brandon’s thought process than simply wanting to get infected, according to Flicker. There could be mental health issues at play. “He thinks becoming positive will fulfill a need, and I would want to find out what is that need,” Flicker says. “It sounds like it’s a case of learned helplessness that he’s going to get infected anyway. But we have a choice today and make those choices through our actions. HIV is not a guarantee if you act responsibly.” But Brandon isn’t interested. In fact, he’s more determined than ever to get his positive test result. “As soon as I get the positive test back I’ll let you know,” Brandon says. “But if it doesn’t happen this time, I know I can always go to another party.” [12]

The Case of Travis

infected-dumbass  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected dumbassTravis” accomplished his ultimate goal in 2012. “I found out I was HIV-positive on April 5, 2012, and that’s a date I plan to celebrate every year,” the 29-year-old Plant City resident says. “I’m on the right drugs, I see my doctor regularly and I always disclose my HIV status before I have sex with someone.” Travis says he doesn’t plan to transmit the disease, but wouldn’t rule out becoming a “gift-giver” sometime in the future, if he meets someone with a desire to become positive. “For me, getting infected was a way for me to start the next phase of my life,” Travis says. “I knew it would happen eventually, so I now know my status, I have a drug plan and I’m very healthy. It’s better than finding out later that I have HIV and starting treatment too late.” [12] That’s a very common practice among bug-chasers, according to Dio Diaz, a prevention specialist with Metro Wellness and Community Centers. “I have seen a lot of bug chasing over my years with the HIV community,” Diaz says. “It’s usually younger community that they have boyfriends and they want to get infected because they don’t want to worry about getting infected anymore. So they willingly contract it.” Others may want to contract it to make their relationship “easier,” especially if one of the parnters is already positive. [12]

When Travis decided it was time to become positive, he looked to websites to find a person to infect him. He joined several social sites that advertised bareback sex or “conversion” themes. “But most of the guys I was interested in were too far away,” he says. “I wasn’t going to travel across the country to get pozzed. But I wasn’t going to get infected by someone I wasn’t into, either. If I’m getting pozzed, I’m going to get pozzed by someone hot.” Travis decided the best way to become HIV-positive was to visit a bath house. That’s a popular tactic, according to Diaz. “A lot of people who love to go to bath houses do it in the areas of Orlando, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale,” Diaz says. “It’s a place to hookup to have random sex with random men, so that boosts infection rates. It’s really a triangle for easy sex.” And while most bath houses or sex clubs provide free condoms, if a bug-chaser wants to find a positive with whom to have unprotected sex, that’s easy to do. “If you’re into bareback sex or are bug chasing, these are great places because it’s an environment that’s non-judgmental. There is someone there willing to do whatever you want and you’re also not forced into a situation you don’t want. If you don’t want a barrier, there’s someone there who is willing to not use one either. That’s a large part of the infection numbers.” Travis, who was infected in 2012, believes he contracted HIV during several encounters at a bath house in Central Florida. He wouldn’t say which one, however. “I was there for nearly eight hours,” Travis recalls. “I have a certain ‘type’ and I knew that going to this one particular bath house would provide me with plenty of opportunities to hook up.” Travis explains that his approach to the evening was to approach men for sex by offering his “raw hole.” “For a lot of guys the idea of bareback sex is a huge turn on,” Travis says. “They don’t want a long discussion about condom use or want to hear the reasons behind why you want raw cock. But if you approach them and simply tell them what you want, you’ll get a quick yes or no answer. Honestly, there are rarely ‘no’ answers.” Three weeks after his night at the bath house, Travis tested positive for HIV. He says that he’s thankful for the “gift-giver” who passed along the infection, but doesn’t really care who the particular individual is. “I know some bug-chasers who compare getting infected with getting pregnant,” Travis says. “That’s just stupid. I just wanted to get it so I could go on with life. It has nothing to do with a relationship.” [12]

The Case of Thornton

infected-low-life  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected low lifeAnd then there’s Thornton (old English for “in from the thorns”). Messages from Catholic high school about homosexuality might have set the foundation for his addictions, both sex and drugs. He described the foundation of these challenges: “I am angry and disappointed, I did everything that I could to change my sexual identification.” He is still troubled by his past and the turmoil that led to the acceptance of his sexual identity. He describes himself as having, “just little bit of self-hatred, and anger with God.” Thornton denied any regrets for contracting HIV. As long as his HIV infection does not cause him to end up in diapers, he says he will not worry. Guilt drives much of his thinking. Thornton makes connections to his life now, and those of young gay boys addicted to the party scene, who are also addicted to sex. In admitting his intentional HIV pursuit, Thornton also claims, “Nowadays, I deserve this if anybody does, not just a 19-year-old kid.” [9]

The Case of Desiderius

infected-dillweed  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected dillweedNow meet Desiderius who was first raped by his older brother when he was only six, and then for many years later while he was incarcerated. He says; “And finally the rapes stopped.” His decision to seek HIV infection was easy – HIV positive men in prison are tarnished; “they won’t rape me anymore.” The Latin translation of Desiderius is “so long hoped for, craved and desired.” [9]

The Case of Karan

infected-airhead  The Bug Chasers: The Underground World of Gay Men Who are Getting Infected with HIV on Purpose infected airheadFor some gay men religion can cause much confusion and influence drastic actions. Karan (Sanskrit for warrior), told a sad story about being barred from his church:

The church that I was a member of threw me out when they found that I was gay. I am not unique… there are a lot of people like me; they might not go as far as I did, but I’m not unique. Having HIV is not the worst thing that could have happened… it brought me to a better place spiritually.

Getting HIV would mean he would die for his sin – drawing analogies to God “dying for our sins.” Karan was sure contracting HIV would make him “holy.” [9]

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About Bill Wallace

Bill Wallace is a self-fashioned writter, a computer programmer and cybermarketer from Quebec City, Canada who decided to enter the political arena after his disillusionment with the socialist system under which he was living in the French Canadian province of Quebec.

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