Bug chasing is becoming a concern for Ottawa.
Thirty-four-year-old Robert recently returned to the city after living in Montreal for several years. He was just diagnosed as HIV-positive. He’s very open about his condition with people that he meets, but he was shocked one evening when a man offered him money if he would infect him.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I am looking at a future where I will be popping pills for the rest of my life, and this guy wants me to infect him. It’s disgusting,” he says. Robert declined the offer but is confident there are more out there.
“Just because I didn’t do it for him doesn’t mean there isn’t somebody out there that will.”
In fact, there almost certainly is.
At a time when AIDS is devastating whole continents, a growing subculture of men has begun to surface whose sole goal in life is to become HIV positive. They’re known as bug chasers.
There is no single profile that fits what a bug chaser is or how he thinks. He can range in age from 18 to 40 and can come from all walks of life. There are also those already infected, known as “gift givers,” who are willing, even eager, to share their infection with the bug chasers. While most people fear getting infected, these groups of people not only celebrates the virus, they worship it.
A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine angered several gay organizations in the United States when it reported that 25 percent of all new infections in that country, approximately 10,000 per year, were men who sought out the virus for erotic purposes. Groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called the story sensationalized and filled with inaccuracies. Rolling Stone Editor Ed Needham, in a press statement, contends the story is accurate. Needham declined an interview when contacted by Capital Xtra.
In Canada, gay groups and health officials acknowledge the fact that bug chasing exists but are not sure how to address the issue. Each year there are 4,200 new HIV infections reported in Canada. In Ottawa about 90 new cases of HIV are reported each year, but there are no statistics to show how many of these infections are intentional.
The means by which bug chasing has become so prevalent and such a cause for concern is easy to pinpoint. It’s safe to say that if it weren’t for the Internet, bug chasing would not exist, or at the very least, have become so popular. The advantage of the Internet is the anonymity it provides, the perfect conduit for bug chasers and gift givers to connect and arrange meetings.
As the bathhouses were the source of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the Internet has become today’s modern vehicle of transmission. The website barebackcity.com alone boasts over 60,000 members, all willing to practice unsafe sex – a bug chaser’s pot of liquid gold. There are over 100 Yahoo newsgroups devoted to bareback sex including beefypozbarebackers, BarebackOttawa and HIVPozGayBareback. There are also sites specific for people who want to become infected such as barebackboysneg4poz and barebackbugM4M.
Chat rooms have also become an avenue of connection as well. Gay.com has rooms specifically for those with HIV and although there is no direct reference to bug chasing or gift giving, nicknames such as Breedme or Neg4Poz clearly demonstrate there is a desire. For some, it’s like joining a fraternity or becoming part of the brotherhood.
Those who post their opinions in these forums are clear and direct about their feelings toward barebacking, bug chasing and gift giving. To some gift givers, transmitting HIV is a noble act. To some bug chasers, becoming HIV positive is a relief.
“The stress around whether or not you are positive is taken away,” says a chatter. “Now I am free to have sex the way I want and not have to worry, it’s really cool,” says another.
Jay Koornstra, Executive Director of Ottawa’s Bruce House, says there is no easy explanation for why somebody would feel that way and want to purposely become infected. “I don’t always understand it, but I understand there are varying factors for it such as a sense of belonging, or a sort of status symbol.” He says for some people becoming positive takes them out of an already isolated life and welcomes them into a family.
Koornstra says there are so many variables that can make up why a person would want to become HIV positive. He says for some it’s the risk factor involved in having unprotected sex that makes it more exciting, even erotic.
“I think we need to address this issue. People always need to make informed choices and know the inherent risks of those choices,” says Koornstra. “Do you want to be able to travel around the world and not be barred from entering another country like the United States? Do you know you will have to adjust your social life because you have a medication schedule to adhere to? Are you ready to make those changes?”
Brent Oliver of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa agrees the issue has to be addressed, but admits it’s a difficult strategy to create. “We have to open the issue up for discussion without stigmatizing people or judging them for their behaviour.” Oliver agrees that this issue cannot be ignored or placed in the denial box
The gay community knows too well that barebacking, bug chasing and gift giving aren’t just isolated to larger cities like New York, Los Angeles or Toronto, but we would rather just sweep the matter under the rug. The issue is avoided as it causes tempers to rise and sides are chosen, but the time has come for calmer heads and education. If we don’t start looking after ourselves, then who will? Unsafe sex can no longer be ignored. We can’t become afraid of asking the tough questions, but we better be damn prepared to understand the answer.
Bug chasing is becoming a concern for Ottawa.