Pictured above: Man with a biohazard tattoo, a bug chaser's symbol for being HIV positive.
“I totally stopped [PrEP] for one month and got loaded by four guys," says Milo, 28. "It was a real turn-on not knowing what [would] happen.”
Milo is not alone.
"Bug chasing," for those unfamiliar, is a fetish for the HIV virus. Individuals—known as “bug chasers”—willfully pursue and engage in sex with consenting HIV-positive individuals—known as “gift givers”—intent on being infected with the virus.
Members of this fetish community—who refer to themselves as the “poz brotherhood”—call HIV the “bug” or “gift," and the infected semen the “seed” or “gift.” Those that contract the virus often get the biohazard symbol tattooed to show that they’re positive.
Though the origins of bug chasing are difficult to trace, anecdotal reports on the fetish began appearing in 1997 on early internet forums and blogs. Later, in 2003, an article in the February issue of Rolling Stone stated that having sex with an HIV-positive person is the “ultimate taboo” and the “most extreme sex act left on the planet.” That same year, the documentary The Gift followed two bug chasers in Los Angeles.
In recent years, the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and antiretroviral therapy has presented a barrier for bug chasers. “It has changed everything because now guys can protect themselves if they choose to, but taking the risk to get fucked bare without using PrEP is way hotter,” Art, 38, shares with me in a message board on Bareback.com. “I grew up in the condom years, but now I’m pretty sick and tired of getting fucked with condoms. The feeling sucks for both parties.”
Art adds that the question Are you clean? is rather common in the community, though he feels it implies that the virus is dirty, an offensive assumption. While Art is undetectable (i.e. untransmittable) and can have sex with partners who aren’t solely seeking infection, he always answer yes to this question because, as a bottom, he douches thoroughly.
Many bug chasers I spoke with were aware of PrEP and didn't had any negative feelings toward the medication, even though it can stilt the efforts of active bug chasers and gift givers. As long as these sources could bareback, they were more or less content. “I fully support PrEP,” Anthony, 41, tells me on Bareback.com. “But it did not exist in the days I was seeking a poz status.”
Based on the responses I received in that thread, which I titled “Curious About Bug Chasing," the thought of a “positive load in a negative hole” was alluring to most interviewees, not necessarily becoming infected. Like any fetish, however, there are extremists—and for these people, infection is the only option.
Jaime Garcia-Iglesias, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Manchester, authored a 2019 paper titled “Wanting HIV Is ‘Such a Hot Choice': Exploring Bug Chasers’ Fluid Identities and Online Engagements” in Deviant Behavior, a peer-reviewed academic journal which focuses on social deviance, including criminal, sexual, and narcotic behaviors. In his paper, Garcia-Iglesias explores the modern impacts antiretroviral and PrEP medications have had on the community through three individuals, including Milo.
During a dry spell, Milo, who says he has a “very good knowledge of sexual health,” had stopped taking PrEP and knowingly had sex with a man who said he was negative, though he’d been actively bug chasing. The individual Milo had sex with hadn’t been tested in two years and already had “some” anonymous loads in him that day. Milo explains that the dangerous potential of the situation was seductive, an experience psychologically akin to playing Russian roulette. He soon started receiving loads from anonymous men without knowledge of their status.
The abandoning of PrEP is a significant milestone for modern bug chasers like Milo. It’s viewed as an allegiance to the poz brotherhood, as it removes defense against HIV. “As many bug chasers say, it’s like ‘training wheels’ for the moment you finally decide to go without it,” Milo adds, noting that when or if he decides to accept the gift, he would expect the relationship with his gift giver to be very ritualized, “like the vampire and [the] recruit.”
For Scott, 53, being infected with the virus offers a unique and everlasting form of intimacy. “I want to feel a connection with another man,” he says in Garcia-Iglesias’s report. “I want to feel that man. … I want to have a part of another man living inside of me—almost like the feeling of wanting to be pregnant.”
If and/or when he tests positive, Scott, who was still negative when the study was conducted, confesses he will stay off medication for as long as he possibly can in order to make himself available as a gift giver for others seeking this rare connection. “I feel for guys in my position and how difficult, how much it hurts, and how painful it is having this desire and not having it fulfilled—so I will stay off medication for as long as I possibly can and I will make myself available as a gift giver,” he says.
Fascinated by this prospect, I ventured further into Bareback.com. Immediately, I found that bug chasers far outnumbered gift givers—but I did manage to find one gift giver, Ernie, 38, who was willing to talk. He had become HIV positive unintentionally, but now seeks out negative guys who want positive loads because, like Scott, he regards these men as more reliable, committed, and submissive partners. “If I were able to poz somebody, I definitely would want to maintain a relationship,” he shares with me.
The connection between a bug chaser and a gift giver is considered similar to a lifelong marriage; they have a shared infection borne from the same virus. “Bug chasers feel aroused by the possibility that each sexual encounter could be ‘the one’ that infects them with HIV,” Garcia-Iglesias tells me. “Others feel that chasing HIV is a way of revolting against the ‘safe-sex always’ [expectation] and, at times, oppressive social settings they [have] lived [in].”
For others, there is no need for connection at all. “The guy that poz'ed [me was] a mutual friend of a friend in another country,” Art shares. “When he became poz, me and my friend convinced him to fuck me bare. He was reluctant to do that, but we went out and got drunk, and when we got back, he fucked me all night bareback. He had a [penal] piercing so when he was fucking me roughly, the chance of infection was higher. A few weeks later, I came down with the tell-tale fuck flu and the rest is history. I don't see them anymore.”
Upon his positive diagnosis, Art was speechless for roughly two minutes. Once the initial shock dissipated, he felt relieved, like he had been given a free pass to have consensual bareback sex without worry of being infected. “Once you go bareback, you don't want your present wrapped,” he says.
Shane Hebel, director of product at the HIV medication adherence monitoring company UrSure Inc., tells me seeking infection can be related to a yearning of acceptance into a closer community of like-minded individuals. It may also be caused by a belief that HIV is more of an annoyance than a deadly disease due to medical advancements, and is the “price to pay” for a fulfilling sex life. Some bug chasers think infection is inevitable, and purposeful infection is an autonomous act that puts the power into the hands of the individual rather than the virus. Many message board participants told me that, to increase chances of infection, they roughly scrub their rectums with a toothbrush in order to create micro-tears.
Still, there are a number of bug chasers who solely exist online and will never physically seek HIV. Rather, they prefer to play with the fantasy. “They will watch and say extremely dark things,” Garcia-Iglesias says. “However, they are well aware that these are fantasies they will not carry through offline and that are bound to a masturbatory context."
Online forums are magnetic for bug chasers. Members frequent sites like Bareback.com and Barebackcity.com, and I’m told a new website called BarebackRT.com is becoming quite popular. All boast communities in which consensual HIV transmission can be arranged and openly discussed.
When navigating apps like Grindr and Scruff, bug chasers leave subtle hints—like the biohazard symbol—on their profiles; others state it outright. Offline, bug chasers frequent bathhouses or cruising spots and—consensually—play out their fantasy, either imagining the stranger they’re having sex is positive or engaging in unprotected sex knowing they could be infected. “With bug chasing, the act of transmission is an important element," Hebel says.
There is no denying that both the meaning and motivation associated with bug chasing have shifted in the age of PrEP and antiretroviral medication. For some, it blurs the binary between fantasy and reality, as one can choose to engage in bareback sex while on PrEP and live out the fantasy in a safer way. For others, it doesn’t change things at all, as someone who deliberately seeks infection will not take these drugs. But a shared consistency between these two groups of people still remains: an attraction to danger, and a yearning for the community that being HIV positive can provide. From there, it's up to the individual to decide just how far he wishes to go.