This article contains sexual descriptions
In 2019, UNAIDS — a global effort to end AIDS — estimated there were 38 million people living with HIV. In that year, around 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, another 75.7 million people have contracted HIV. Yet, there are some who consider HIV to be a gift. “Bug chasing” and “gift giving” are the terms used by some gay men who intentionally have unprotected anal sex with other men — a practice known as “barebacking” — with the aim of contracting HIV.
What is HIV?
HIV, also known as human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks the cells that help the body fight infection — which makes sufferers extremely vulnerable to diseases and infection.
The virus often spreads by contact with body fluids infected with HIV. That most commonly happens during unprotected sex or through sharing injection drug equipment.
Without taking HIV medicine, people with HIV can develop AIDS — the last stage of the virus, which damages the body’s immune system. HIV Gov explained that AIDS patients typically survive about three years. But without treatment, life expectancy falls to about one year.
Bug Chasing and Gift Giving
Although HIV is no longer a death sentence, there are men who voluntarily look to infect themselves with the virus by a “gift giver” — a man who is HIV positive. Experts call the process “bug chasing.”
Men who want to infect themselves with HIV are known as the “bug chasers” because they are “chasing” the “bug,” a colloquialism for a viral illness.
Despite the terrifying statistics of the HIV virus, bug chasing is common in some subcultures, according to VICE.
One HIV positive Danish man who has long been an active member of the Danish barebacking scene told VICE that this subject is “much more widespread than you would think.”
A majority of this activity is found online, Martin Wichmann explained to VICE. At times, he sees more than 70 people online on the site.
Wichmann said that the phenonmon is not “something that people hide when it comes to bareback sex.”
He described that on sites like homospot.dk, there are some who are willing to pay to have sex with an HIV postive partner. It costs between 500-1,000 Danish Kroner, which is roughly$80-$162.
Threat to Public Health?
Researchers have argued that bug chasing is symptomatic of sexual addiction.
One unamed gay man explained in the BBC how his sexual addiction led him to chase HIV.
“My parents divorced when I was three. I lived with my mum, who I’ve come to realise is a narcissistic and emotionally abusive person,” he wrote. At 11, he started masturbating, and at 12, he discovered that he was gay.
“We got our first computer when I was 14. I started looking at porn pretty much every day,” he said.
As he got older, a man he dated wanted to have unprotected sex. He decided to go along with it. A few months later, he stopped using protection altogether.
“If I’m stressed or anxious, I hear my mum’s voice inside me telling me that I’m not good enough,” he wrote. “That leads to me wanting to harm myself, which leads to me chasing. It is much easier to do that than to face my feelings.”
The Fetishization of HIV
According to research conducted by Jamie Garcia-Iglesias, a sociologist researching HIV, sexuality and technology, “Bug chasing is the fetishization of HIV among some gay men.”
Iglesias’ research indicated that some bug chasers considered HIV as a pregnancy.
Iglesias explained that bug chasers often thrive in online forums and social media. That therefore creates a “complex subcultural narratives of the virus as a vehicle for intimacy, connection, and masculinity.”
Will Nutland, head of Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity campaigning and providing services relating to HIV and sexual health, told the BBC that, “the concepts of gift giving and bug chasers are definitely based more in fantasy than reality.”
“Most gay men with HIV do not want to pass HIV on, and most gay men who do not have HIV do not want to get infected,” Nutland added.
Written by: Laura Arman