I recently watched a documentary by filmmaker Louise Hogarth called “The Gift,” about the phenomenon of “bugchasing.” The film is not new, but the topic is nonetheless relevant.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “bugchaser” is a gay man who seeks unsafe sex with the intention of becoming infected with HIV.
“The Gift" follows several gay men, among them, a young man named Doug Hitzel who became infected at 19 years of age, after having had several sexual encounters with HIV-positive men. Another young man, Kenboy, threw a “conversion party” (a bareback sex party in which only HIV-positive men were invited) for himself in an effort to contract the virus. The film also follows Bill and John, a gay couple who opened up their home for bareback (unprotected anal sex) parties. According to Bill, there were 167 men who were willing to participate in the party to engage in unprotected sex. Even more surprising, Bill even claims some of these men were employees or volunteers for AIDS-related organizations.
It certainly was surprising to me to see through this film that so many gay men are actively seeking seroconversion. In fact, there are many online avenues that advertise bareback parties all over the world, many of them that uphold “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies with regard to HIV status disclosure. There are literally tons of online communities catering to bugchasers and willing gift-givers.
However, the film is not without advocates of safe sex.
A support group of HIV-positive men suffering from heart conditions due to HIV medication discuss the possible reasons for bugchasing and what needs to be done. Also interviewed for “The Gift” was Dr. Walt Odets, author of several AIDS awareness books. Odets was overwhelmed with guilt after losing a partner to HIV, at one point wishing that he were HIV-positive.
The film raises many questions about the phenomenon of bugchasing. I found Doug’s story to be especially heartbreaking. He came to regret his decision, saying that he “made a terrible mistake and there’s no fixing that.” Being new to the gay community, he felt a desperate need to fit in. The issue of self-esteem seems to have played a large part in Doug’s eventual infection. Anyone with little to no self-respect wouldn’t feel the need to value and protect themselves.
For Dr. Odet, the desire to contract HIV appeared to come from an overwhelming sense of guilt over losing his lover to AIDS. He also addressed the dilemma faced by the gay community between trying to educate HIV-positive people that they could still live their lives, and also trying to educate men who were HIV-negative that they need to protect themselves. Dr. Odet’s proposition reminds me of the web-series HIV+ME, hosted by Ongina (from RuPaul’s drag race), in which HIV-positive men (not bugchasers) were interviewed about their lives pre and post-infection. While I sincerely applaud the series for sharing the stories of HIV-positive men who have acknowledged their past mistakes, turned their lives around, and made their own special contribution to raise awareness about the virus, it may be partially responsible for portraying HIV as a completely controllable and manageable virus, comparable to diabetes, thereby possibly giving gay men a false sense of security. Could this be the reason that gay men are starting to become complacent about their sexual health?
Still, it is hard for me to fathom why anyone of sound mind would desire to contract HIV. Personally, the idea doesn't entice me at all, but more importantly, the gay community needs to combat the defeatist attitude that they will sooner or later inevitably become infected. Being part of a community that is still sometimes marginalized, it is more important than ever for us to take responsibility for ourselves and our health. For those of us who have lost partners to HIV or AIDS, we owe it to ourselves to move on and live the rest of our lives, and to live them as healthy people.
Society is not without its faults either. The glamourization and resurgence of barebacking in porn needs to stop. There seems to be countless men who are willing to jump into bed without a condom. Myths also need to be dispelled. According to the film, there appears to be a misconception that most or even all gay men are HIV-positive, so therefore, infection would be inevitable. Educating these men (perhaps with a visit to AIDS patients) about the real consequences of being HIV-positive is absolutely essential.
If nothing else is learned from “The Gift,” it’s that the real gift is life. It is precious, and we owe it to ourselves to take care of it.
What will it take to stop this unyielding trend of bug chasing?