Chasing the Bug Chasers

How much of an urban legend is Rolling Stone's controversial "Bug Chasers" story? As you may know if you've been following Drudge, Gregory Freeman's feature story about gay men who fetishize being infected with HIV has touched off a brouhaha from Bill O'Reilly and others, who see it as evidence that everything connected to San Francisco—from Nancy Pelosi to Willie Brown to Rice-A-Roni—is hopelessly degenerate and unAmerican (an accurate assessment, but not quite in the way Bill O'Reilly says). So it's a relief—particularly for gay advocacy groups—to find many of the sources denying most of the comments attributed to them.

So far, though, the controversy has revolved around the number of bug chasers, not whether the phenomenon exists. Is the whole thing a figment of our perpetually fevered imaginations, like the old "AIDS Mary" chestnut (a variation of which features in Freeman's story)? I've been trying to track down the earliest published citation of this phenomenon, and thought I had hit paydirt when I came across Sam Burns's 2000 work of fiction "The Bug Chaser" in Soma Literary Review. Turns out, however, that there are news stories predating RS's and even Burns's. Here's a reference from Cheryl Clark in the San Diego Union Tribune, dated February 19, 2001:

In some rare yet worrisome cases, patients are deliberately seeking infection for a variety of complex reasons, Little and Richman said.

Called "bug chasing" or "gift giving" on Web sites, the practice is described as engaging in sexual encounters in which both partners knowingly allow viral transmission.

"I'm hopeful that it's a trivial minority," Little said, "but we know it's not localized to San Diego." She is aware of "bug chaser" e-mail groups where uninfected people solicit sex with those who are infected.

Greg Curran, spokesman for the San Diego AIDS support group Being Alive, said one reason some people want to become infected, especially those who are homeless or have substance abuse problems, is the belief that they could become eligible for free housing, food and medical care.

Others have said they wanted to get infected because "now that my partner and my friends have all died, what do I have to live for," Curran said.

It goes back even earlier than that. On June 18, 2000, Yvonne Abraham wrote in the Boston Globe:

Almost a generation after it was first reported, some men have turned the virus that causes AIDS on its head, seeing in it appealing qualities like community and kinship.

In the parlance of the burgeoning chat rooms and Web sites devoted to the subject, they are called "bug chasers," men who deliberately try to convert their HIV status from negative to positive.

"This is another whole level of distress people are carrying around," said Marshall Forstein, medical director of mental health and addiction services at Fenway Community Health Center. "These are people who don't feel entitled to live."

Forstein knows of one man who was 65, and shunned by his family after coming out late in life. Also isolated from the gay community, the man fantasized about getting HIV, Forstein said, "because suddenly, he'd have a whole world of people around him, delivering meals to him, paying attention to him."

"Sexual Roulette" was what Jay Cheshes called it in the May 27, 1999 edition of New Times Broward-Palm Beach:

A marginal few, who through some warped sense of survivor guilt view HIV-infection as a sort of badge of honor, are actually eager to contract the virus. Greg and Bill have encountered these men -- "bug chasers" looking for "gift givers" -- in person and online. "This is not some membership in a club," says Greg. "This is not some tribal badge of honor. This is still a bitch. Nobody in their right mind would want this." As for the handful of HIV-negative men who have fully embraced barebacking, Bill says most of them try to limit their sexual partners to other negative men.

Lou Kilzer in the Rocky Mountain News, May 3, 1998:

The return to unsafe sex even has a new nickname: ''barebacking.'' A few homosexuals even say they want to end the suspense by finally catching the virus. They are referred to in chat rooms as ''poz (for HIV-positive) hungry'' or ''bug chasers.'' Alarmed, some AIDS activists say the belief that a $ 15,000-a-year drug therapy is a safety net for HIV infection is dangerous.

And the earliest citation I've been able to find—Newsweek, September 29, 1997, with authors Marc Peyser, Elizabeth Roberts, and Frappa Stout:

Hard as it may be to understand, some gay men have unsafe sex because they want to get HIV -- or at least skate close to the edge. Danger can be erotic, even the threat of contracting a deadly disease. And men who have had their intimacy wrapped in latex for so many years want to share something -- anything -- with their partner. "I've met two people who were turned on by the idea of being infected," says Mark, an HIV-positive AIDS activist and frequent barebacker in New York. "One guy kept telling me, 'Give me your virus. Give me your disease'." There's a phrase to describe these men, too: bug chasers.

Note that almost all of these citations are way down toward the end of the story, strongly indicating the kind of secondhand info you can get away with including after doing the real reporting for a story up top. Today, in what must be a national first, the specifics of barebacking were even mentioned in the White House daily news briefing:

QUESTION: In view of recent wire service reports of an increase -- a startling increase in cases of AIDS, HIV and syphilis in New York and California, as well as this morning's Washington Times page one story, does the president believe there are no such things as, quote, "bug chasers"?

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of what you're talking about.

QUESTION: It was page one. These are people in the homosexual community that feel its erotic to contract AIDS.

QUESTION: And this is what is reported...

FLEISCHER: I have no idea what you're talking about.

QUESTION: You have no idea. You don't read the Washington Times?

FLEISCHER: Of course, I do.

QUESTION: You do, well, then what about it?

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: ... I expressed yesterday the president's thought about AIDS and people who have AIDS. And the president's thoughts are that, people who have AIDS deserve to be treated with care and with compassion...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: ... that people need to be treated with care and compassion. He's very proud of the fact that his budget has unparalleled amounts of money, both foreign and domestic, to help people with AIDS.

QUESTION: Yes, but what about the ones that don't...

FLEISCHER: You only get two, and you sure have had them.

I got ahold of Sam Burns, the author of the fiction story, to see where he got his inspiration. He had this to say:

Here's the background on my piece. I wrote it back in 1999 and SoMa Literary Review published it at the beginning of 2000. The editors of that publication look for stories that introduce new subculture trends - like booty bumps, carjacking, and the Craigslist room for rent thing.

My story is fiction, but based on "fact." I got the idea when I was tricking with a guy and he wanted to bareback (sex without a rubber). When I got concerned, he told me it was no big deal if he got AIDS someday, since there now were drugs to fight the disease. In fact, he said, he should just catch it and get it over with. Like it was no big deal. Just something to get out of the way. It would make his life somehow more convenient.

Needless to say, that made me not want to fuck with him. So I just had him blow me.

That's when I wrote the story. A year or so later the term "bug chaser" turned up in one of the subplots of an epside of "ER." At the time I had to wonder if they had picked up my story idea. I can't find any stories about this subject written before mine.

But I won't claim to have invented the phrase. I heard the expression used by some queen at a party in SF, and I applied it to my story.

That said, I think much of the "bug chaser" talk is most likely urban legend. It is remarkable how many gay men have bareback sex, especially the guys who do crystal. It seems to come with the territory. But drug-addled bad judgment is different from intentionally trying to become infected. Right?

I also hear there was a story on Bug Chasers in Gear a few years ago, though I haven't found it.

Gay advocates would prefer we believe there is nothing going on here; homo haters would have us think this is typical behavior in the gay community. But while the specifics of the Rolling Stone story appear to be dubious, you also can't quite say there's no such thing as bug chasing. To the degree that the legend is true, it's more pathetic than lurid, a case of rampant stupidity rather than an outrageous new sex craze. I remember hearing about this phenomenon years ago, and thinking, Well, if there are amputee fetishists, [Warning: Link contains beaver- and stump-shots] it's probably inevitable that there are people with this fetish too. Then again, the only reason I have to believe there are amputee fetishists is because I saw it on the internet. I think there's a fetish for making up fetishes and then telling people about them. For the record, the only disease I've ever tried to catch was Super Bowl Fever.

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  • LI||

    One thing I've noticed again and again about these kinds of stories is that people's individual tendencies to believe or disbelieve the claims in question map almost perfectly onto their political ideologies, regardless or the strength or weakness of the evidence presented.

  • ||

    Pac Man Fever
    It's drivin' me crazy
    Pac Man Fever
    I'm goin' outta my mind

  • DavidMSC||

    I've been hearing Michael Reagan rant about this on his radio show the last few days, and he's bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Moron. Anyone who thinks that "bug chasers" represent anything other than a tiny, negligible subset of gay people is either gullible or simply eager for "evidence" that gays represent something evil.

  • Patrick||

    When is snopes gonna look into this?

  • ||

    I continue to have Big Mac attacks.

  • John Hensley||

    Regarding past accounts of "bug-chasing," you might refer to David Horowitz's book "Radical Son." In one of the later chapters he describes a gay liberation rally (in the 80s, I think), where a speaker says (from memory) "Every time I get the clap, I'm striking a blow for the revolution." The same chapter describes the amusement-park attitude toward sexual activity that was widespread among SF gays at the time.

  • ||

    Everytime I see this "bug chaser" story I can't help but think of exterminators. Let's hope next months issue is not about "gonorrea chasers."

  • tom brennan||

    I posted this at my blog (with links), it's a little long, but hey so is Tim C's post:

    Bogus Chasing

    The very mossy Rolling Stone bug chasing story has been blown up in several places. Tim Cavanaugh gets a little closer to the urban legend heart of it here. And the stories are overwhelmingly legends which is to say mythical extrapolations of some few real incidents and some dark human fears and drives. Contrast Cavanaugh's real reporting with Rod Dreher's rebroadcasting of any twisted inanity that makes it to his email box:

    CHASING THE BUG-CHASING STORY [Rod Dreher]
    This is getting interesting. Newsweek has a piece up that largely follows Andrew Sullivan's criticism of the story's sourcing. An NRO reader writes, of the RS piece: "Nothing really new here though. I was aware of that whole scene back in the early 90s here in San Francisco. There were conversion parties where a [passive anal sex partner] would be infected or Russian roulette orgy parties where one unknown person would have AIDS."


    Dreher had accepted the RS story as true in an initial post, had linked to Andrew Sullivan's demoltion of it in a second post and then jumped back in with the post above. I'm kicking myself that I didn't think to send Rod an email myself with similar first-hand testimony of HIV blood in the punch bowl parties, or HIV Pinata parties (not sure how those would work yet, need to brush up my memories). And it's not just that Dreher did no follow-up to substantiate the facts of this singular email, the second instance mentioned--the russian roulette parties--is a logical impossibility. How exactly does one organize an HIV roulette party with one HIV+ partyboy circulating among the other HIV- revelers? How exactly do you find the unknown HIV+ and how does he stay unknown? Likewise the HIV- party majority? Who is hosting these parties, God on his gay weekend trips to town? Whoever did throw these parties must have been as omniscient as Rod is nonmiscient.


    Curious too that I've yet to read any mention of the circumstance that probably leads to most of whatever small amount of bug chasing might actually exist. And that's sero-discordant long term relationships. Committed, loving relationships between HIV+ and an HIV negative partners creates more of the undercurrents of guilt and fear that might engender thoughts of joining a loved one in his predicament or of banishing the fear of falling by choosing to jump. Even with these incentives I don't believe that more than a miniscule number make that conscious choice (unconscious self-sabotage is another question). Even more absurd to think that the more than a vanishingly small number few would make the choice to chase HIV at anonymous sex parties or with HIV+ vanishing hitchhikers.
    12:38 PM

  • ||

    I know for a fact that there was a guy who came to San Diego, then went to Tijuana and had a leg amputated because of his amputee fetish. He died a couple of days later in a National City motel room.

  • ||

    I guess I heard about this "bug chasing a little late in the game. It's December of 2003 and I just heard of this psychotic way people are choosing to live life. AIDS or HIV isn't a joke, all you people who want to die, get a gun, it's much quicker! What are you sick people thinking?

  • ||

    there was an error w/ my email address if you'd like to email me click on this link

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    there was an error w/ my email address if you'd like to email me click on this link

  • ||

    hey im a gay man in the uk and came across these kind of articles while doing some work on Sub-Cultures for my A-level sociology, i have never heard of this so-called "bug catching" and neither have my gay friends....was very interesting and helpful though thanx

  • ||

    I lived in San Francisco (Castro district) from 1980-2000 during the peak of the epidemic. I'm willing to bet my house that 99.9% of "bug chasers" are already poz and just claiming to be neg. Yes,Virginia... there is an erotic component to that fantasy - it is the ultimate submission to another man, and since they are poz already they have some serious erotic fun with it. Can't say that I think that is so terrible. I'm neg and I play very safe...but if for any reason I end up poz, I'm sure as hell going back to natural sex...and if some hot guy wants me to play "neg" I'll have fun with it too.

    I believe there is a tiny, tiny % of gay men who have deliberately contracted hiv, acting out of grief or despair. Some men who have lost their friends and/or life partner to AIDs may feel that they don't deserve to be negative, or alive. Grief is a terrible, awful suffering and there is very little support for grieving people in our society. Grieving people are expected to recover from grief quickly...or at least not talk about it after a week or two. My parent's generation understood grieving could take years (7 was considered a reasonable number of years to wait before remarrying so that the grieving process could be completed). Our sick culture expects people to be done with it in a couple of weeks and move on (or at least to grieve in isolation with a smile on your face). And if you live in a part of the world where it isn't even acceptable to be publicly gay...how the hell can you grieve at all?

    Another tiny % of gay men who live in the Gay ghettos (bars, drugs, circuit parties) may feel that AIDs is inevitable so why not just get it over with. Many families and small towns still reject thier gay youth leaving them no option but to move to large metropolitan areas where without the support of community and family, and traumatized from that rejection, they get involved in drugs and alcohol. They may not be able to see a positive future for themselves and become self destructive. These men rarely seek the bug, but do little to prevent what they think they deserve and cannot avoid. Again, there is very little support for gay men who are rejected from thier families and community. "Sink or swim, fag" is all too often the attitude in the gay ghettos.

    And why the hell aren't more parents lecturing their sons to play safe? My mother lectured my sister from the time she was 12 not to let men do "that" to her. Parent's don't want to deal with the fact that their son could be/become sexually involved with men, so they stick thier head in the sand and abdicate their responsibility to protect thier child. From the age of about 17 - 32, men (breeder or queer) think with their dicks. Without some grounding from parents, teachers, anyone...gay youth/men are at risk.

    Its time for America to grow up and realize that happy, healthy adults are the product of loving families that teach them to set healthy limits and protect themselves. To do that, America needs to accept the possibility that their children may be/become gay...and to prepare them for it instead of abandoning them to the gay ghettos to fend for themselves.

    We are all responsible for every single hiv conversion. We are all responsible for every hiv conversion. We are all responsible for every hiv conversion.

  • ||

    It is really sad and disturbing to think that there are people out there who actively choose to "chase the bug" so to speak. Its even more disturbing that there are men out there that knowingly engage in sex with chaser's with no regard to what they are doing. I recently watched a documentary on the Bug Chasing and Gift Giving phenomenom on the Sundance Channel. I had not previously heard of this and was blown away as the camera followed these young men around, all of whom romanticized the notion of catching HIV. I was equally surprised that there are websites that are devoted to men meeting other Bug Chasers and Gift Givers. The documentary followed a young man who ran such a site and anounced parties for Chasers which were thrown in his own house. Sadly for him by the end of the documentay he was infected but not only still continued the parties, but he also refused to seek medical attention. I do not want to judge anyone, although it may seem like I am doing so, but it just seems like complete ignorance. Whether or not bug chasing only pertains to a small minority of homosexuals, does not mean that it does not affect us as a group. Nothing is going to change anytime soon however. We have evolved into a society that is obsessed with sex and even though there are many schools and public ads that discuss the ins and outs of sex ed, there is still no one talking to the gay youth. Kids who are discovering there homosexuality are often left to fend for themselves as far as getting proper information on protecting themselves from disease. Many parents do not wish to address or condone there kids sexuallity which just leaves teens with no knowledge of what they are doing. Yes teens should be smarter, yes they should know about STD's but teens are stupid. Im only 22 and can clearly remember all the idiotic things i did as a teen. Not talking to gay youth about issues like this and making sure they are well informed is the only way to if not prevent, lower HIV infections and atleast let them know negative sides of Bug Chasing. Just like in the documentary I saw many of the men who had been chasers and subsequently caught HIV said that they did not have anyone to talk about sex or any resources to learn about HIV. They just got caught up in the notion of believing that it just didnt matter, or they related some sort of "romanticism" to it. In the end however many of the men did regret the decision they had made and were ultimately more desperate, depressed and alone they were before. Society needs to start recognizing that there is more of a need to educate especially in the gay community. I do realize that to a certain extent that has already started to happen. It is not, however enough. From Bug Chasing to being on the DL> which is another phenomenom that is not just happening with middle aged black men, but as well as white men, and even college campuses across the country too there is a growing need to make sure that we educate ourselves.

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