The "Bug Chasing" Myth
The February 6 issue of Rolling Stone hit the shelves with a cover teaser bound to grab the attention of a lot of newsstand browsers: "Bug Chasers, The Men Who Long To Be HIV+."(1) The article was a lengthy feature on a so-called "intricate underground world"(2) of gay men who actively seek out sexual partners infected with the HIV virus, and who then practice unprotected sex in hope of becoming infected. A frightening prospect - but one that has been roundly discredited by HIV/AIDS experts and researchers.
According to the article, "bug chasers" celebrate and eroticize HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. To bug chasers, the story maintained, "the virus isn't horrible and fearsome, it's beautiful and sexy-and delivered in a way that is most likely to result in infection." The article profiles one anonymous bug chaser called "Carlos," who describes his quest to become infected with HIV.
The article's author Gregory A. Freeman quotes San Francisco-based psychiatrist Dr. Bob Cabaj as estimating that "at least twenty-five percent of all newly infected men" have some bug chasing tendencies, at least subconsciously. After some analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Freeman translates Dr. Cabaj's estimate into hard numbers, and concludes that a whopping 10,000 new HIV cases in the U.S. each year are attributable to bug chasing. Conservatives ranging from talk-show host Sean Hannity to the Traditional Values Coalition swiftly commented on the numbers, suggesting that thousands of gay men are irresponsible, mentally unstable, and seeking infection with the deadly virus.
However, according to many researchers, the issue of "bug chasing" and the statistics quoted in the Rolling Stone article are problematic and inaccurate. Even if 25 percent of new HIV infections are attributable to bug chasing, only 42 percent of the CDC's 40,000 annually reported new cases of HIV involve men who have sex with men, which means 4,200 cases would be attributable to bug chasers, rather than 10,000. Furthermore, some of the experts quoted in the original Rolling Stone article seemed to disagree with the statistics and scope of the "bug chasing issue," as portrayed in the article. In an interview in Newsweek, Bob Cabaj, the psychiatrist who suggested the initial estimate of 25 percent, retracted his statement and accused Rolling Stone of misquoting him.
And, according to the CDC, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim of 25 percent. "We have no data to show how many people are participating in this phenomenon," said Jessica Frikey, a spokeswoman with the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention. "No studies have been done to see how many 'bug chasers' there are."(3)
Among advocates and organizations that serve gay men and people with HIV/AIDS, "bug chasing" is a distraction from the real issues at hand. The spread of inaccurate information misrepresents the gay community-and gay men in particular-as irresponsible and self-destructive . "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it," says Cathy Renna of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "This is reminiscent of the coverage of AIDS in the 1980s, focusing on a flamboyant part of the gay male population that quickly becomes a shorthand for the entire gay community."(4) Other organizations and leadership are concerned that these statements foster homophobia and contribute to discrimination, while it reinforces the myth that HIV and AIDS are issues for the gay community and other marginalized groups, rather than everyone.
While there aren't data to support "Bug Chasing" as it was described in the Rolling Stone article, there is some evidence to suggest that gay and bisexual men may be less worried about being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, than they were in the past, and this may be contributing to increased infection rates among young men in certain cities.(5) According to the CDC's 2001 report "No Turning Back," some gay and bisexual men "may have become less concerned about HIV infection because of new treatments for HIV." In the Rolling Stone article, Carlos talks about HIV as a minor lifestyle inconvenience, rather than a fatal disease. In Carlos's words, living with HIV is "like living with diabetes. You take a few pills and get on with your life."(6) According to James Loyce, San Francisco's Deputy Director of Health for AIDS Programs, the generation of young men who have seen the epidemic change over the past 20 years may think that being infected with HIV isn't that big a deal, with all the new drug treatments available. "They've never seen the spots from Kaposi's sarcoma," Loyce said, in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. "They've never seen people wasting away from this-they just don't have the appearance of death in their mind's eye."(7) However, just as these drugs are helping many people to live longer lives, they don't work for everyone, and many have toxic side effects. In addition, the cost of long-term retroviral treatment can be crippling.
There is no hard evidence supporting this idea of a "bug chasing" trend. What is certain is that given the many physical, emotional, and financial challenges of living with HIV, prevention is still the most important component of the battle against the disease. There is still no cure for HIV/AIDS. That's why practicing safer sex, by using latex condoms and getting tested for STDS on a regular basis, continues to be so crucial for all sexually active people, both men and women, regardless of their sexual orientation.
1 Seth Mnookin, "Is Rolling Stone's HIV Story Wildly Exaggerated?" Newsweek, 1/23/03.
2 Gregory A. Freeman, "In Search of Death," Rolling Stone, 2/6/03. Unless otherwise noted, all citations from Rolling Stone come directly from this article.
3 Ellen Sorokin, The Washington Times, 1/24/03. "'Bug Chaser' AIDS Story Disputed: Doctors acknowledge some men pursue 'gift' of HIV."
4 Seth Mnookin, Media: Using 'Bug Chasers" February 17, 2003, U.S. Edition.
5 CDC, 2001. No Turning Back.
6 Rolling Stone, as above.
7 Philip Matier, Andrew Ross. "Uproar Over SF Health Official's Rolling Stone AIDS Quote," The San Francisco Chronicle, 1/27/03.