‘Bug chasers’: the men who want AIDS

By Jeremy Wilson on September 10th, 2013

Regular vanilla sex no longer getting you off? That assortment of nipple clamps and valiant attempts at Shibari failing to spice up your sex life? How about the ultimate sexual thrill: a mixture of sex and Russian roulette. Welcome to the world of “bug chasers”: a terrifying subculture of gay men who seek out unprotected sex with HIV+ partners in the hope of getting infected with the virus.

For a while, bug chasing was dismissed as mythological. But now anyone with an email account can sign up to a gay social network and surf around, reporters can see that bug chasing is rapidly colonising online gay forums and geolocated hook-up apps as well as the more feature-rich gay social networks.

As with other extreme fetishes, bug chasing is enabled and propagated by anonymity online. For obvious reasons, asking a stranger whether (a) they have HIV and (b) they are willing to be a “gift giver” (that’s the terminology, by the way) would be a tricky proposition in real life. On the internet it’s easy to place a personal ad, which, through the ubiquitous “profile”, is precisely how most gay social networks are organised.

A quick search of terms such as “hiv”, “poz” and “bareback” reveals profiles such as one we found on a major gay dating website created by a user calling himself “bareback_horny”. It contains two essential expressions of preference: “Never” under “Safer sex”, and a profile description that reads: “horny tops who wanna fuck bareback are welcomed.hiv top guys r also most welcomed”.

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?

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.

In an article for Rolling Stone in 2003, Gregory Freeman met a bug chaser who described the thought of receiving HIV as “the most erotic thing I can imagine… 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.”

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?

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.”

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.

How that real-life activity come about, however, is these days usually digital. There is a sophisticated shared lexicon available to those who wish to be infected with HIV, and those who wish to infect, which it doesn’t take long to learn. Surfing the major gay social networks, you realise there is no shortage of men looking to party dangerously – sometimes literally.

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.

Not every bug chaser is simply chasing a thrill: for some unhappy men, bug chasing is a form of taking control; a perverse type of pragmatism. An interviewee in the Rolling Stone article reasoned that after getting infected, “nothing worse can happen to you”.

Empowering oneself is all well and good, but taking control of a situation and bowing to an imagined inevitability are quite different  But, in their minds, these men are already victims.

The prevalence of bug chasing is hard to quantify, but the best guesses of some experts have been mind-blowing. Dr. Bob Cabaj, a past president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, was quoted in Rolling Stone in 2003 as saying that at least twenty-five per cent of all newly infected gay men in America had been bug chasing.

He later denied that giving the magazine that figure, but what’s not in dispute is that a rise in the number of men advertising their desire to be infected with the HIV virus has been observed on social networks in the last ten years. With their new visibility, perhaps a more accurate estimate of the scale of this problem will one day be possible.