I heard about Bug Chasing the same way you hear most urban myths – a salacious tale about a distant friend of a friend. “A Bug Chaser lives in that flat,” said a colleague, pointing towards the window of a Glasgow tenement. A Bug Chaser, he explained, is somebody who actively tries to contract HIV.
But, like most urban myths, Bug Chasing has a basis in reality. Although no statistical research has been compiled – an all but impossible task given its intensely private nature – most HIV charities acknowledge its existence.
“We’ve only come across a handful of cases,” says Oliver Wright of the Terrence Higgins Trust. “It’s a strange world and there are inevitably people who are living out fantasies like this – but we believe the numbers are very small.”
Roy Kilpatrick from HIV Scotland agrees. “Any behaviour will have a spectrum of extremes within it. I can understand how barebacking [having unprotected sex] and the subdivision of this [Bug Chasing] could be erotic to some people.
“It’s not a huge problem but I wouldn’t be surprised if figures were revealed that showed relatively high numbers participating in it, for the reason that most unsafe behaviour, be it needle sharing or unsafe sex, tends to be driven underground.”
The reasons for this are clear – HIV remains a taboo subject so even discussing its prevention can be uncomfortable. This is part of the problem: it is often in the underground nature of unsafe behaviour that its attraction lies.
It is also suggested that the force of safe sex warnings can be unhelpful – what Kilpatrick refers to as “one of the dangers of a monolithic safe sex message” – causing people to rebel against it.
“I’m sure if you were to search the internet and go on some of the chatrooms you would find more of it in that underground environment,” he adds.
It is in one such chatroom I first come across Alan. He’s friendly and engaging, and as I get to know him, he’s happy to answer my questions.
Going by the screen name rawfilthpig, he is a 56-year-old man who claims to have been Bug Chasing for over ten years. In a later conversation he wearily points out, “I’ve had no luck so far, even though I only bareback.”
He goes on to vent his frustration at the “poz guys” he knows who won’t “share” with him. He tells me about his plans to meet up with a couple of HIV positive men – who he refers to as “Gift Givers” – but he hasn’t been able to finalise a date yet.
He blames his lack of “breeding” – becoming infected – on the fact that his hometown in the Midlands has a low instance of HIV. He believes he would have better luck in London, where he says Bug Chasing is more prevalent.
On the same site I initially made contact with Alan there are at least 20 other men claiming they want to either infect or be infected. In a chat forum, one man issues a plea to, “Anyone in the UK willing to give a neg guy the ultimate gift.” He gets a reply almost instantly. “Hi there, do you have a pic? I’m into barebacking and I’m also poz.”
Since 1999 there has been a sharp increase in the number of HIV diagnoses – and new cases are expected to rise by 50 per cent over the next five years. At the start of 2007 there were an estimated 80,000 people in the UK living with the virus. Last year almost 10,000 new cases were diagnosed. At least 17,152 people in the UK have died of AIDS. Almost three quarters of new diagnoses are gay men.
The charities I approached all said their direct contact with Bug Chasing was negligible but that there was a vastly disproportionate amount of anecdotal evidence. Most agree that the majority of supposed Bug Chasers are simply fantasists – people who see the combination of HIV and sex as the ultimate taboo but would never knowingly have unprotected sex with an HIV positive partner.
But the sheer number of men leaving posts like Alan’s suggests at least a tenuous link to reality.
However, high-profile exaggerations from some quarters of the media have made it difficult to properly discuss the issue. When the story was first broken in the mainstream press by Rolling Stone in 2003, it made the wild claim that a quarter – 10,000 out of 40,000 – of new HIV cases in the US were a result of Bug Chasing.
The article was ravaged by a number of high profile writers, including then editor of New Republic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan, who labelled it “hysteria, wrapped in a homophobic and HIV-phobic wrapper.”
The unanimously negative coverage the subject received led many gay-rights organisations to dismiss the phenomena for fear of it being attributed to the gay community as a whole and fuelling anti-HIV sentiments.
Almost two years later, several high profile charities still refused point-blank to discuss the subject with me. Kilpatrick says he is worried media coverage may bring ideas like Bug Chasing into the public sphere and run the risk of popularising or mainstreaming them.
He is also critical of the type of coverage that has been given to Bug Chasing. “It dismays me that there is rarely an attempt to understand the psychology behind Bug Chasing or the reasons why it might exist.
“There is often a sense of inevitability whereby someone who is practising unsafe sex regularly may feel that they are already at risk or are, in fact, already infected but not tested and diagnosed, so they become a Bug Chaser in their own mind.”
He speculates that some people take this a step further and actively try to become infected rather than live in fear – to take their lives into their own hands instead of contracting HIV incidentally, through their lifestyle choices.
Other reasons could be low self esteem and the idea that there may be something to be gained by being part of a community of HIV positive people.
Kilpatrick is keen to stress that Bug Chasing is not exclusive to a niche of gay men. “I have a background in the drugs field, where there was a similar motivation among some IV drug users at the height of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. I’ve known of individuals who have asked to be injected with a barrel of HIV positive blood, for example. I don’t think Bug Chasing is unique to sex between men.”
Even the label “Bug Chaser” is problematic, often giving a warped account of the individuals involved. Fraser gives the example of entering a relationship with an HIV positive partner and deciding to have unprotected sex. “Could you call that person a Bug Chaser when they are being led by their emotional response to one individual? It’s much more complicated than a one-off phrase suggests.”
Research by UK academic Melissa Parker, who studied Bug Chasing in London, was met with indignation. After “extended anecdotal evidence” she concluded: “There is a tendency for some gay men to say ‘Now I’m HIV positive, I am truly gay.’ They want to get into that caring, more supportive world and the acquisition of a diagnosis is obviously going to help them do that.”
Her report included evidence that, in a number of London backroom saunas, men were regularly having sex with “30 or 40 partners a night,” some of whom were known to be HIV positive. Bruce Fraser of Gay Men’s Health, however, plays down the link between this and Bug Chasing. “Certainly there is a rise in men having intercourse without condoms – that is definitely happening. But whether the reason behind it is wanting to get infected, I doubt very much.”
However, he is aware that some men are starting to see HIV as an illness that can be controlled. “People, and gay men in particular, are aware that drugs can manage HIV, so perhaps it is not quite so high on the agenda and some view it less seriously.”
For Alan, though, it is simple. For him Bug Chasing is pure eroticism. He speaks with undisguised lust as he says, “Why am I looking for the bug? I don’t really know other than I need to have it. The act of being seeded just sounds so horny. I think it’s about going on from barebacking and putting some additional excitement into the act.”
Maybe he’s just another internet fantasist, but if there really are scores of others with the same idea, it’s an issue we shouldn’t ignore.