A couple years ago, Rolling Stone ran an article about “Bug Chasers,” subtitled, “The men who long to be HIV+.” In the article, writer Gregory A. Freeman noted, among others things, a number of gay men had created screen names on sites promoting bareback sex identifying them as interested in contracting HIV. He saw this longing to become HIV-positive as a growing phenomenon in gay culture. To many of those individuals,
The virus isn’t horrible and fearsome, it’s beautiful and sexy — and delivered in the way that is most likely to result in infection. In this world, the men with HIV are the most desired, and the bug chasers will do anything to get the virus — to “get knocked up,” to be “bred” or “initiated into the brotherhood.”
When the piece was published, many gay activists and writers denounced the piece, some saying it gave ammunition to anti-gay voices in American society. (Indeed, a google search yielded several hits of social conservatives using the phenomenon to promote their agenda.) Others said this phenomenon was very limited, if it existed at all.
Yet, just tonight, a friend of mine told me that when he was in San Francisco, an HIV-positive man invited him to a party which shortly after his arrival, he discovered to be a “bug-chasing” party, similar to those described in the film, The Gift. He watched as a number of HIV-positive men tried to infect several young HIV-negative men. He described the event as “intense” and offered a few anecdotes which I won’t present on this blog.
I don’t get it. Yes, I understand that many believe that HIV has become like diabetes, easily treated with a few pills everyday. That some gay men long for a sexual life without limitation and that some may see, as Freeman puts its, those living with HIV as a cohesive group that welcomes its new members and receives vast support from the rest of the gay community, and from society as a whole. Bug chasers want to be a part of that club.” But, don’t they also realize that while the drugs work wonders on some, they don’t work on others. Some people experience painful side effects while others see their appearance altered.
Back when this article first came out, I wanted to believe the critics, that this article didn’t describe a growing phenomenon, that, while maybe a handful of gay men in our nation’s gay meccas sought to get infected, most gay men understood the risks and took precautions. I can still hope that my friend’s story is just an isolated anecdote. Yet, I and many of friends seeing an increasing number of gay men putting sexual satisfaction ahead of concerns for their health. It seems with each passing year, I hear more stories of gay men unwilling to talk precautions.
Just last year, LA County reported an increase in HIV infections was “seen only in men.”
Yes, I well understand the need for community, to feel that we belong among a group of similarly situated peers. But, I’m concerned that we have made sex such a focus of our community that many men wish to become HIV-positive so they don’t have to worry about getting infected. In his book, Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men, Gabriel Rotello argued that we need to make a “larger transformation” than relying on, what he called, “the condom code.” That we promote safe-sex so gay men can continue to enjoy sexual freedom, albeit by taking the small step of wearing a condom before engaging in certain types of sex.
For many men, however, there is no longer a condom code. My friend reported that condoms were strictly verboten at the party he attended. Many have returned to the 1970s attitudes of sexual abandon, but this time, while taking pills to stay healthy. I’m not sure where this is leading us. I had hoped that marriage debate would remind us of the importance of enduring attachments. That we would make an effort to get to know our sexual partners rather than treating them as disposable units offering a moment of pleasure.
But too often in the debate, our leaders talk about equality and rights when they should be promoting commitment and responsibility. To be sure, there are a handful of marriage advocates who do promote such values (notably Jonathan Rauch, particularly in the first chapter of his book, Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good For Straights and Good for America).
Perhaps, what upset me so much about my friend’s story is that as a culture, we don’t seem to be promoting those values which have worked throughout history to promote stability and happiness for countless individuals. Rotello is right; we do need to get beyond the condom code. But, I’m not quite sure how to get there. What’s needed is to have a conversation about these issues, to talk openly about “bug chasing,” to see if is a phenomenon only among a tiny segment of the gay population or a growing concern. And to talk about integrating a healthy attitude towards sex into our lives. And to remind gay men that there is more, much, much, much more, to a good life than good sex.
I regret that I have not used this blog enough to further such a conversation. It was almost four months ago when I last referenced Rotello’s book (which I believe is one of the most important (if not the most important) gay book of the past ten years). Back then I wrote that I “would comment on the meaning of that larger transformation” (that Rotello feels gay men need to make) and realized as I worked on this post that I have yet to do so.
Let me offer this post as the first stab at beginning of a discussion of that transformation. Some of you may not think we need such a transformation. But, I expect that many of you, like myself, believe we do need some sort of transformation, but are not entirely sure to effect it. So, I invite you to consider my thoughts, to weigh in with your comments (or e-mails). I will do my best to look over them while I’m on vacation and to contribute as I can. And if I don’t talk about this more in future posts, please, readers, remind me to keep that “promise” I made in the aformentioned post in March.
-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com
(If you e-mail me, please indicate whether I may quote from your e-mail on the blog–and indicate as well how I should identify you, e.g., a “reader” or “a reader from Boise” or by your name and/or web-site.)