Bug Chasers: Do You Really Wanna Go There?

Ask anyone who grew up through the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the resulting thousands of deaths, they’ll tell you it’s no laughing matter. In 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death in adults in the 25-44 age group, with a total of over 40,000 deaths across all age groups that year.1,2

However with the advent of antiretroviral therapies, the late 90s brought about new hope for those with HIV. Today, a person testing positive for HIV has an excellent chance to live a normal lifespan if treatment is started and followed as directed.3

What is "bug chasing"?

However, as with many things in life, there always seems to come a dark side with the good. HIV is no longer viewed as a death sentence but as a manageable condition.

This has given rise to a subculture called “bug chasing” in which gay males (especially young ones) seek unprotected sex with males who are HIV-positive in the hopes of contracting the virus. Those who are not in treatment are especially sought. Various websites have become popular in which men openly solicit unprotected sex. In these, “chasers” hope to contract the virus from “gift-givers.”

Why would someone "bug chase"?

This phenomenon started to gain exposure as far back as 2003 when Rolling Stone published an article entitled “Bug Chasers: the Men Who Long to be HIV Positive”.4

There have been various theories postulated as to why men would actually desire to become infected with the virus; some seem to see eventual infection as inevitable due to their lifestyle and decide to take the matter into their own hands. One young man with that attitude was quoted in the article as comparing it to diabetes: “You take a few pills and get on with your life.”4

An article from Psychology Today in 2014 explained other possible reasons for bug chasing.5 Some view it as the ultimate taboo, intensely erotic. Others dislike condom use as being less intimate than bareback (unprotected) sex. And yet another possible motivating factor is a desire to “belong” almost as a form of gaining attention.5

Think about it first

Whatever the motivation, I do not think any of us who are living with the consequences of the virus would encourage this type of behavior. Far from being a simple matter of "taking a few pills and getting on with life", HIV has life-altering consequences even for those who are otherwise healthy.

Complications with a compromised immune system

For example, HIV can exacerbate other health conditions as they arise. Speaking from experience, my ID doctor worries about me developing any form of cancer, as chemotherapy in itself weakens the immune system.

Anything that weakens our immune system is the last thing a person with HIV wants. A compromised immune system can make it such that even the flu or a cold can be more difficult for our bodies to fight. Vaccines take on a new level of importance. Our health becomes more a subject of concern than it would otherwise be.

A change in attitudes as we age

Another consequence: as we get older, our attitudes and goals may change. What seemed erotic and taboo fun when we are young may come back to bite later on. At some point in the future, a person's HIV status can complicate life big time. Things like a serious relationship - dating, marriage, having children; things that otherwise should be a given.

Other consequences

Stigma is another unfortunate fact of life. People who are HIV positive report that one of the first questions often asked by people on a dating app is "Status?". The fears related to disclosure and some factors to consider are addressed in this article.

Some dating apps basically allow for discrimination based on status by allowing users to exclude those who are honest enough to indicate they are HIV positive. An excellent article on just how harmful stigma is and ways to fight it can be found here.

While this is an unfair prejudice based on fear and ignorance, it is nonetheless common. And it's tiring and perhaps embarrassing to constantly go through the explanation and fear of rejection due to HIV. While there are many serodiscordant couples out there, others are fearful to enter into such a relationship.

Do you really want to go there?

For anyone reading this who may be thinking about bug chasing, why not have a chat with some people who are HIV positive and see what their opinion is?

True, HIV is now a manageable disease. But think about it: the very existence of websites such as this one and dozens of others gives evidence that this is a disease that creates a host of issues, stress, and fear. If I were a betting person, I'd bet that not many of us would deliberately chase that bug.

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