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Bugchasers – myth or reality?

Originally appeared on

 I was logged on to a gay website recently – it may have been, I can’t remember – and was chatting in the HIV positive room. A guy whose nick was something like breedmenow was going on about how he wanted to get ‘pozzed up’, i.e. infected with HIV.
The reaction was instant. A guy who we’ll call ffskin – a pretty hardcore character who had been exchanging steamy anecdotes with me about orgies – he was no choirboy – fired back:

> fuck off, bugchaser

He was backed up. Other guys joined in.

> these guys are crazy
> it’s a fuckin insult
> I’ve been poz for 15 yrs and if he knew what he was letting himself in for he’d shut up.

Breedmenow didn’t say another word and soon logged off. What this incident shows is:

a) yes, it’s true, some gay men out there fantasise about catching HIV
b) HIV positive guys are not necessarily interested in helping them

I’m writing this because yet another story has come out claiming that some gay men
"are actively seeking out HIV status"
. Researcher Melissa Parker – who, judging by her comments that her 'findings' were based on "casual conversations with gay men over many years", has been trawling the same chat rooms in the name of research – told the British Association science festival that "being diagnosed with HIV is a badge of being truly gay."

You can see why the mainstream media love this sort of thing. Gay sex = HIV positive = death. Gay men are a bunch of death-obsessed sickos, fighting to board the fast train to hell. Where have we heard that before? Oh, only about a million times in the last 100 years.

It’s important not to be defensive about such claims. The reaction of certain HIV prevention agencies when confronted with this kind of claim is to close ranks and deny that any gay man, anywhere, at any time, has wanted to be HIV positive and maybe even tried to catch it.

I am a counsellor as well as a journalist and first met a young gay man who admitted he’d thought it might be better to have HIV in 1992. “I just feel like I’ve got no direction in life,” he said, “and I see my HIV positive friends and it, like, gives them a kick up the ass. They feel they’ve got some meaning back, something to live for.” He didn’t really want HIV. What he did want was to stop feeling aimless and empty.

This isn’t a bizarre or pathological reaction. What about the grieving lover whose boyfriend has died, and wants to join him? What about the HIV negative guy who can’t face 40 years of rubber-insulated sex with his positive life partner? If these people were heterosexuals, we would be nodding sagely and taking about ‘the difficult choices facing couples’. But if they’re gay men they get called ‘bugchasers’.

What Melissa Parker has failed to cotton on to, however, is the difference between fantasy and reality. The one thing chat rooms breed is imagination – great gobbets of steaming, lurid fantasy, mined fresh from the redhot seams of the unconscious and detailing every possible and impossible anatomical feat it’s possible to devise.

A clue that poor, innocent Melissa has taken fantasy for reality comes when she claims that some guys who visit backrooms "can have 30 or 40 partners in one visit".
To that we can only reply, “In our dreams, girlfriend!” If you really got rogered 40 times a) you’d be still at it when the cleaning lady came round and b) you would get a teeny bit sore. What Melissa has done is read or listened to home-made pornography and taken it for Real Sex.

People eroticise what they are afraid of. It’s a defence mechanism, and the driving force behind S&M sex. The powerful man who gets spanked in his French maid’s uniform and called Susan is a stereotypical example. Fantasising about going to ‘ breeding parties’ and getting ‘pozzed up’ is a way of imagining you have control over something you feel powerless over – avoiding HIV. That’s not to say it never, ever happens. It is to say that 99% of the talk of it happening is fantasy.

That some gay men do feel powerless is borne out by the most succinct comment I ever got from a guy who claimed to be bugchasing. “You don’t want HIV, believe me,” I said. “Why are you barebacking?”

“I’m just tired of dodging the bullet,” he said.

This is the crucial distinction to be made at the heart of the ‘bugchasing’ debate. There’s no doubt that more gay men - more people - regardless of HIV status are having more unprotected sex. And it is translating into more infections, with 1,700 gay ones a year reported in the last two years as opposed to 1,400 or so throughout the 90s.

But this does not mean gay men want to get HIV. On the whole they’re pretty aware of the concussive effect a positive diagnosis can have on the health, the life, and the psyche.
Nor does it mean HIV-positive gay men want to give it to them. For a start, I don’t want to be sued. Less flippantly, my ride with HIV has not been an easy one and if I meet some wet-behind-the-ears twink who thinks it’ll be a breeze I put him right about it. And thirdly, as were the chatters in the poz room, I am insulted when someone wants to use me, or rather my virus, as an S&M accoutrement.

Gay men are catching HIV by omission, not commission. They’re catching it because – notwithstanding the blithe ‘condom, condom every time’ messages of the 90s –maintaining safer sex is difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to take the risk and think, maybe I’ll dodge the bullet this time. Sometimes it’s easier to let things happen than ask that passion-deadening question: “are you poz?” Or, if you have HIV, disclose it.

But it doesn’t mean that we’re all acquiring it like the latest lifestyle accessory. We’re catching it because we’re human. Not because we’re already sick.

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