Deadly 'Bugchasing' on the Internet
By: Makebra M. Anderson
NNPA, National Correspondent
Originally posted 12/7/2004
WASHINGTON (NNPA) -- They spend hours on the Internet looking for the right mate. They use such expressions as “Breed me,” “Welcome me into the brotherhood” and “Convert me” to find the right man. They cruise neighborhoods, bars, and clubs in search of Mr. Right. It doesn’t matter if he’s tall or short, rich or poor. All that matters is his status. No, not his economic status – his health status. They are looking for a man who is HIV-positive. And when they find him, they deliberately want to get infected by him.
As incredulous as that might seem, law enforcement and health officials confirm that “bug chasers” – people who become HIV-infected on purpose – exist. More than merely exist, they have their on Web sites where they communicate with one another.
On one site, for example, an African-American man, 34, from New Jersey identifies himself as a “bug chaser.” His screen name is “Vertical”. He claims to be HIV-negative, but wants to become HIV-positive, preferably by “a down to earth, cool dude with nice thighs.”
Another African-American man who calls himself “Relentless” says he is also a “bug chaser.” He says he is a 41-year-old New Yorker who is HIV negative. Others on the site include “Blksexyfreak,” a 30-year-old Black man from Detroit, and “Jayson,” 35, an African-American from San Francisco. They both claim to be HIV-positive and are givers and chasers of the bug.
“Bug chasing” (people who want to become infected with HIV) and ‘gift giving’ (people who give someone HIV) is only a tiny section of gay men,” says Walter Armstrong, Editor-in-Chief of POZ magazine, a publication for people living with HIV. “Of the few men we’ve interviewed, many are young gay men who are on drugs and they get slipped into the elaborate Internet sex hook up stuff and they really don’t know very much about the reality of what it means to have HIV.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, HIV-related illness and death has historically affected men who sleep with men more than it has any other group, though Black women are increasingly infected through heterosexual relations. In 2000, according to the CDC, 13,562 (42 percent) of new AIDS cases were reported among men who sleep with men, compared with 8,531 (25 percent) among IDUs and 6,530 (33 percent) among men and women who acquired HIV heterosexually.
No one has reliable figures on “bug chasers” and there is concern about their mental stability.
“Psychologically we need to look at these behaviors. There are two things – conscious and unconscious intentions. The younger generation of gay men has not been as much affected by grief and losses because of HIV as the older generation,” says Antoine Douaihy, medical director of Addiction Medicine Services at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh. “There is a sense of a lack of connection. They [bug chasers] are reaching out for some kind of intimacy. They want to feel accepted and a part of something. It’s a distorted way of exploring how you can become intimate with someone else.”
Douaihy, also a consulting psychiatrist at Pittsburgh AIDS Center for Treatment, says along with confusion, depression and mental illness contribute to what he considers self-destructive behavior.
“When you look at the older generation of gay men who have lost most of their friends and loved ones to HIV, they struggle a lot with depression, feeling of helplessness, and survival guilt,” explains Douaihy. “They don’t feel like they should live. They become clinically depressed, hopeless, uncertain about their future and emotionally numb. They end up self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, tranquillizers, sleeping pills, etc. and it becomes a vicious cycle.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “People with alcohol use disorders are more likely than the general population to contract HIV. Similarly, people with HIV are more likely to abuse alcohol at some time during their lives. Alcohol use is associated with high-risk sexual behaviors and injection drug use, two major modes of HIV transmission.”
At a time when society promotes using condoms to prevent becoming infected with HIV or other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs), “bug chasers” are participating in unprotected sex in an attempt to contract the deadly disease.
Other reasons cited for having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive include “living life on the edge,” “showing your love for your positive partner” “acceptance into social circles,” and “thoughts that getting HIV is inevitable, so why avoid it?”
Armstrong, the magazine editor, is a gay man and is HIV-negative. “Being HIV-positive got turned into meaning you are truly gay and that is a really dangerous thing. That confusion is really what underlies this phenomenon.”
Douaihy says there have not been any research studies or scientific data looking at the trend of people who intentionally seek to become infected with the virus.
“This whole concept of gift giving and the meaning of HIV is being manipulated to meet specific goals and they [bug chasers and gift givers] are distorting the meaning of HIV to fulfill what they want it to mean,” he says. “The whole intimacy issue is a big one. Some people feel they can’t be intimate unless they let that person infect them. They don’t consider it an infection – it’s perceived as giving a gift.”
It is believed that most “bug chasers” find their “gift giver” on the Internet, using sites that actively promote having unprotected sex. Also, according to Cornelius Baker, executive director of the Witman-Walker clinic, a community- based health organization in Washington, D.C., conversion parties take place in most major cities.
“Some parties occur in hotels and we look for events that go on in Washington and try to intervene when we know they are going to occur,” explains Baker. “We have to acknowledge that some people do look at it as an ultimate sacrifice. They give themselves fully to someone ultimately risking their lives.”
Brett Parson, head of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison unit of the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, says these parties are dangerous, but not illegal.
“As a police officer, we see victimization going on to the extent that people are engaging in high-risk activities that result in life-changing illness that can’t be reversed. What we try and do is educate people in making sound judgments and decisions,” he explains.
There are laws that prohibit the deliberate spreading of AIDS in more than 24 states, including California, Idaho, Ohio, Missouri, Michigan and South Carolina. Under Bill SB 705 in California, “any person afflicted with any contagious, infectious, or communicable disease who willfully exposes himself or herself to another, and any person who willfully exposes another person afflicted with a disease of that nature, is guilty of a misdemeanor.” In New York, it is a felony to knowingly transmit a venereal disease.
Armstrong, who has lost many friends and loved ones to HIV, says, “If you’re sick enough in the head to give someone HIV on purpose you should be put away. You’re robbing someone of their health and that’s not right.”
Baker says bug chasing happens in a small number, but should be taken seriously.
“This does occur periodically and we find it unfortunate, but this is a very small number of cases. The reality is that most people that become infected never knew they were at risk,” he says. “HIV is not a fantasy. It is real. It is serious. One moment is not worth the rest of your life.”