“Last night, I was introduced to Adam. He’s 17 and lives in Surrey. He’s a sex worker, and as crazy as it may seem, he wants to be infected with HIV”.
Chasing your demise. On some level, it might resonate with hedonistic daredevils on an eternal quest for thrills and adventure. Or tortured souls with gluttonous appetites for punishment. But what exactly could persuade a young, healthy and sane person to gamble with their future, when the only prize on offer is a shot of poisonous cum?
You’re about to find out, as we take a look at the changing face of HIV and AIDS in the Western World – and more specifically, the dubious motivators of so-called ‘bug chasers’ and ‘gift givers’.
As a child of the 80s, AIDS was absolutely a death sentence. Something to be avoided at all costs with a social stigma akin to pedophilia or committing genocide. In the past 10 years, with the rise of antiretroviral drugs, things have changed. Many aren’t looking after themselves properly anymore; they say people aren’t dying now. That AIDS is now a chronic disease, not a fatal one. But those people are wrong.
The first cases of AIDS were reported over 33 years ago in the June 5, 1981, issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Since then, an estimated 36 million people worldwide have died from HIV/AIDS; and an estimated 35.3 million continue to live with HIV infection according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the United States, approximately 636,000 people with AIDS diagnoses have died since the first cases were reported and an estimated 1.1 million persons continue to live with HIV infection.
Global efforts, including the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (for which CDC is an implementing partner), provided antiretroviral therapy to approximately 9.7 million people in low-income and middle-income countries in 2012, an increase of 1.6 million people from 2011.
So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?
Last year, the CDC estimated that there were 1.6million deaths from AIDS related symptoms globally. Of these, unsurprisingly, a huge 1.2million were in Sub-Saharan Africa. A massive global failing for our Live8 generation; though not news to the thousands of us with discarded white wristbands, Unicef standing orders and memories of Bono killing babies by snapping his fingers.
What might be news for some, though, is the death of the other 400,000 people. Black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, boys and girls from all across the world are still falling ill. People just like you and me. People who didn’t know they were infected until it was too late. People who couldn’t access healthcare. People lost to the system. People who did everything right; but with shitty luck.
Last night, I was introduced to Adam. He’s 17 and lives in Surrey. He’s a sex worker, and as crazy as it may seem against these statistics, he wants to be infected with HIV.
“The majority of sex that I have is bareback (BB). When I am renting, it’s always the same. I get blown off and am expected to cum in their mouth, and then I am expected to take them BB. When I am having anonymous sex at a cruising area, most sex is also bareback. More recently I have expressed my desire to bug chase during their sessions, but more to increase the sexual experience for myself rather than to protect them”.
This alarming trend of deliberately trying to become infected with HIV, first brought to light in Gregory A Freemans article ‘Bug Chasers‘ for Billboard 11 years ago, is thought to be on the decline. But a quick shout out on social media and scour of hook up sites last week left me reeling at how many ‘chasers’ are still out there. It left me questioning their motivations… and sanity.
Adam’s background has been far from easy, and by the time he was fifteen he’d experienced the loss of a mother, the aggressions of a father and entered an abusive relationship with an older man.
“I am also a bit of a loner, and there are very few people that I can be openly honest with about my sexuality. I have had one regular partner for a period of 3 years, but the relationship was entirely emotionally abusive – no matter how I felt about him I understand he basically used me for sex, and I was at his beck and call whenever he wanted to have sex. It is all I know, and being a bug chaser is perhaps another expression of “well, if this is going to be my lot in life, I may as well go the whole way”.
Part of an underground sub-culture enjoying its resurgence, Adam considers himself a bug chaser. Part thrill seeking, part self-harming, he’s thrown himself to the lions with reckless behaviours as he endeavours to join the only group he thinks will accept him.
“I do think one reason [I do it], and pretty strong for me given my background, is my need to have a feeling of “belonging”. Having felt rejected for most of my life, both sexually and as a human being, I have a strong desire to feel accepted and to belong. The brotherhood of poz people would give me this sense of belonging”.
But he’s emphatic that joining the ‘brotherhood’ is not the only reason he’d like to be HIV+.
“There is also a rebellious side to me, as I had parents (my mother died in 2004) who were critical of homosexuality. My father is in denial about my sexuality and is, to be honest, somewhat homophobic. I think to contract HIV would be the ultimate rebellious act for me, and would be two fingers up to my parents”.
“I have also got off on the fact that I am having usually unprotected sex with a total stranger. To that extent, although I have been tested and am still negative, it is only a matter of time before I contract HIV. Therefore there is a definite feeling of inevitability about it”.
“So you can see there are a lot of reasons behind it. I am not trying to play down the sexual arousal element of bug chasing, which is certainly very strong. But I think a combination of the other reasons is what has led me down that route”.
from the NCHHSTP Newsroom, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention
Standing as far back from the issue as I can and trying to wear an objective hat, I still can’t quite get past the mountain of bodies from the 80s and my gut really wants to slap this kid into shape. I want to take him by the shoulders and shake him. I want to scream at him DON’T YOU KNOW HOW FUCKING LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE ALIVE? But then I realise that Adam doesn’t feel that way. Instead, I reach out to get another perspective. One from someone living with HIV.
Bill comes from Kansas City.
“I was diagnosed in 2007. Before then I was with a poz man for 5 years. I had feelings here and there about “chasing” or intentionally getting the ‘bug’ because it was such an awkward thing between us. For the entire five years I was with him it took a LOT of effort to have safe sex. So I had a tinge of wanting to get it myself so that there wouldn’t have been such a divide between us. It was about intimacy. I felt like we were like together in a relationship…together emotionally, spiritually, economically but as far as sex…there was ALWAYS this thing that hung over our sexual relationship. ‘Oh you can’t cum in me because you’ll infect me’. There were times when I wanted him to cum in me…multiple times…because I hated that had this thing that separated us. If I became poz, then we wouldn’t have this thing. When I did seroconvert there was no longer that ‘thing’ separating us. We subsequently broke up, of course haha…but you get my point”
It struck me that there’s bound to be huge amount of regret after infection and I wondered if deep down, blame was responsible for the demise of the relationship.
“The diagnosis wasn’t the reason we broke up. It’s a long story but I was an HUGE emotional mess… and the breakup was more about the lack of sex… just in general. I’m a very high sex drive kind of guy and he just wasn’t. So I would like… beg for sex… he would deny me and then the cycle of low self-esteem and my own depression just spiralled and I wound up hating myself and attempting suicide in 2007 after this all happened”.
“The attempt wasn’t directly attributed to the breakup but it certainly was a part of it. Most of the suicide attempt was because I felt desperate and economically poor and just horribly depressed so I thought what the fuck. So I drove my car into a pond …and it would have worked had some good Samaritan not rescued me in the submerged car”.
Living a fairly healthy life as an HIV positive man now I wondered about the other side of things for Bill. Aware that he didn’t actually actively chase infection in the way that many do, I was curious to hear if he’d ever been asked to participate as a ‘gifter’.
“I have to say that I enjoy barebacking. As a poz man I realize the risks, I realise that I have to disclose my status or I could be prosecuted. I’ve gotten to the point where I hardly want to play with negative men anymore because it’s such a bother”.
“I had a fuck bud actually not that long ago who was neg… who knew he was getting fucked by poz guys and he thought it was hot as hell. He was actively chasing HIV because it was sort of a fetish for him. I fucked him raw because he knew my status and he wanted it. I actually didn’t feel any guilt about that because he was responsible for his own behaviour and there was no way I could get prosecuted for fucking a neg guy. He loved it and actually begged for my poz cum. I’ve run into a few guys like this.”
And there’s a darker side to the gifting phenomenon too, Bill states.
“I have experience of a couple guys where they’ll actively lie about their status. Not knowing is one thing but knowing you’re poz and then lying and saying you’re neg is a whole other thing. It’s reckless behaviour but it’s very conscious behaviour and poz guys who have a complex about being poz sort of have a death wish for themselves which by extension they pass on others… almost saying ‘well I got infected and I didn’t deserve it, now I’m going to infect as many people as possible to get back’”.
“There are whole groups dedicated to barebacking…and barebacking neg guys to deliberately infect them on twitter. Check out the hashtag #BBBH for bare back brotherhood. There are responsible guys who are poz but also VERY sinister guys who intentionally lie and try to infect as many people as possible”.
There’s a flip side too. Yesterday I was chatting to my friendly barista who mentioned that he’d read the blog lead we published last week. Unsure of what the etiquette is when sharing experiences he pulled me aside and told me of a couple that he knew. When they met, both declared themselves HIV+ and proceeded to embark on their relationship. Sometime down the line, it emerged that one of them was a chaser who had in the broadest parliamentary sense been telling massive ‘untruths’ about his desire to be infected; literally tricking someone into giving him the virus.
And so it continues. And so I could keep writing for weeks, as every day since I announced this blog piece I have received at least two approaches from people wanting to be part of it. Wanting to share their experiences and wanting to make people understand their motivations. I can’t help thinking that this too is indicative of the over-arching issues of self-harm apparent in most subjects.
And therein lies the rub.
Are we perpetuating the culture of ‘bug chasing’ by addressing it? Does the fact that more and more people are writing about this phenomenon or making films about it take it to a new audience? A new group of people wanting to belong?
It seems clear to me from the chats I’ve had that a major driving force in most ‘bug chasers’ and ‘gift givers’ is a damaged sense of self-worth and deep-rooted unhappiness. Ultimately, no matter how convinced someone is that bug chasing genuinely turns them on, I can’t quite believe that such a blatant disregard for your health, and the health of others, boils down to mere sexual kicks – except perhaps in people with psychopathic tendencies.
What do you think? Is it possible to be happy, healthy and mentally sound, whilst pursuing (or spreading) HIV as some kind of sexy hobby? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so feel free to share your thoughts on this blog, or the subject matter more generally in the comments section.
If you are concerned about HIV or AIDS, visit AIDS.org for more information.
We’re currently working on a follow up to this article. If you’d like to contribute, email Barry at LGBTicons@gmail.com