The most dangerous fetish: bug chasing

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Posted Thursday, October 30, 2003 - 12:00am

There is a frightening epidemic of complacency sweeping the AIDS community. Despite grand efforts to inform about the dangers of HIV, factions of people are embracing the virus. This emerging trend raises some troubling questions about how far people will go to gain acceptance. It also raises questions as to how it is that people in this day and age do not understand the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

In spite of the fact that the AIDS epidemic has enjoyed much notoriety over 20 years, much ground has being lost among the group most prone to infection. According to an article in USA Today written on July 28, 2003, overall HIV infection rates in America have risen one percent from 2000 to 2001. They also report that of 900,000 HIV positive people in America, nearly one-third do not know that they are infected. It is estimated that 40,000 people become infected each year. And every year, 4.4 percent of all gay and bisexual men ages 23 to 29 are infected with HIV.

Some of these alarming infection rates can be attributed to an underground culture within the gay community that is seeking infection. HIV negative men known as "bug chasers" search for "gift-givers" who can give them the virus.

This problem is highlighted in a new documentary by Louise Hogarth called The Gift. It features a young gay man named Doug who moves to San Fransisco from his home in the Midwest in search of the gay community. Upon arrival, he became a bug chaser and acquired HIV. The documentary goes on and follows Doug as he deals with the severity of the illness, and the regret he feels over his decision to become infected.

The reasons they have for wanting to become HIV-positive are varied, and may seem strange to those in the outside world. One cannot just walk up to somebody on the street and ask if they will give them AIDS. They keep their fetish secret by confining their searches to the Internet. On bulletin boards and in chat rooms, couples can hook up. Gift givers and bug-chasers organize Russian-roulette parties to share the virus; if you come home infected, you win.

To some bug-chasers, who are as yet on the outside of the AIDS community, being HIV-positive means being inducted into a brotherhood of support and acceptance. The consequences of ill health and death loom too far away on the horizon to even be a real concern. They feel rejected by their families, friends and mainstream society. The tightly-knit AIDS community is a family who will welcome all with open arms.

One factor attributed to their self-destructive behavior is the guilt associated with being HIV-free within a community that has a disproportionately high instance of the disease. If you are the only uninfected person among your group of friends, you may wonder why you are the healthy one. This phenomenon is known among veterans who survived deadly combat. They feel that it is unfair that they got to live when so many did not make it. Unfortunately, some find solace in suicide.

Another motivation may be that the disease has been, to some degree, glamorized by the media. Prominent celebrities like Magic Johnson seem to be living healthy and normal lives, even years after being diagnosed with HIV. The perception that infection with HIV will ensure many years of health before dying a quick death cause bug-chasers to believe that even with the disease they will be able to live both a normal life, and garner some sympathy from uninfected people.

Sleeping with HIV positive individuals may be the ultimate fetish for bug-chasers; the most deviant act possible. It has even been observed that in some African communities healthy women will knowingly sleep with HIV positive men in the hopes of becoming infected.

Despite all of the information that is readily available about the virus, many people are dangerously misinformed about what living with HIV means. According to UNICEF, 39 percent of teenageers in the Ukraine, have never heard of HIV, or believe that it can be transfered through supernatural means. Bug-chasers often believe that after they get AIDS, they will simply need to take a few pills each morning, and go about their regular lives. Many "bug-chasers" who have completed their quest wake up to realize that their unrealistic expectations were wrong, and can do nothing to reverse it.

The use of the euphemisms "bug-chaser" and "gift giver" underscores the ignorance of these individuals. The fact is that having AIDS means you will either slowly die from the illness itself, or die as a result of complications caused by drugs.

Recently, there has been a backlash in the gay community regarding this problem. Because it has only recently been made known, some view it as evidence that the heterosexual community is just pushing their own agenda. But the fact is that HIV and other STD infection rates are on the rise in the U.S. and the European Union. While it is true that there are cases of bug-chasing outside the gay community, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, here it is mostly confined to the gay community.

The consequences of disease is not a problem confined to just the homosexual community. The majority of sexually-transmitted diseases are viral infections; even when the symptoms are gone, the virus is still present in the bloodstream of the host. Thus, they are never really cured. People who have participated in such risky behavior are obligated to be careful in the future. They also exclude themselves from certain activities, such as donating blood.

This kind of risky behavior is morally reprehensible at least because of the potentials for damage to the public at large. Even though the gift-giving is occurring between consenting partners and not being propagated outside of that community, it is undoing millions of dollars of research and prevention efforts.

The virus will never be eradicated if there are people actively harboring it like a fugitive. It is illegal to knowingly infect somebody with the virus that causes AIDS - should prosecution be pointed at those who give and receive willingly? It might be pointless to do that if the desired effect is deter people from this sort of behavior. If they are despondent to the point where they willingly take on a deadly disease, will fines and jail time keep them clean?

Being homosexual does not mean one must also be promiscuous. Perhaps the best way to safeguard others from deadly disease is encouraging abstinence among those most at risk. Although some will argue that it is not a realistic alternative, we should keep in mind that we are talking about a deadly virus.

When a person seeks help for a drug problem, the prescribed course of action is centered around quitting use of the drug. Sure, sexual desires are difficult to curb, but so is nicotine, cocaine and heroin addiction. Thousands of people successfully quit drugs each day.

Whichever course proves to be the most effective will be the one that makes people aware that their sexual behavior has life-and-death consequences. Awareness of the dangers of unsafe sex must be increased. New ways to reach a jaded target audience are necessary, before it is too late.

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I came across your page on bug chasing following up from a TV programme on it. As a heterosexual (hopefully clean) male, I am astounded that people would actually see getting HIV in itself as a positive act to be actively sought. I have empathy with anyone living with any long term, ultimately lethal disease and in reality I think these bug seekers are demeaning the situation of people who have HIV, gay or heterosexual without asking for it. I wonder how many HIV positive people would gladly pass these bug chasers the virus if it meant they could be free from it themselves?
We should be living in a society where positive and healthy behaviour is praised and I feel an element of sorrow for people who\'s lives may be so empty that they feel the need to become part of another community to feel supported, but at such an ultimately personally extreme price. I think that it may also fuel anti-gay rhetoric during a time when in the Western world gay lifestyle is becoming more accepted in the general population. Although I hope such bug chasers are a minority (hopefully insignificant) who will ultimately be condemmed by their own gay community as being self deluded and damaging to the gay cause as a whole.
Thanks for your informative article. If it makes only one person who is thinking of taking this nihilistic route to acceptance to change their mind, you have saved at least one life.

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