Hit & Run

Chasing the Bug Chasers

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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.