Hear Me Out:
|by Mubarak Dahir|
Could "Bug Chasing" Be More Serious Than We Want to Admit?
When I saw the headline on the cover of the February 6 issue of Rolling Stone, I cringed. My dismay was partly the cause of a sinking feeling that the story would be filled with sensationalism and over-reactiona fear that was quickly realized.
Right beside Shania Twain's glittered midriff was a boxed promo touting an investigative story on "Bug Chasers: The Men Who Long to be HIV+." It was the equivalent of a journalistic exclamation point, and though the headline was boxed in blue, yellow would have been a more appropriate color.
But there was something else that was making me uncomfortablethe possibility that there is more to the bug-chasing story than any of us in the gay community wants to admit.
There have been anecdotal stories of "bug chasers"men who purposely seek HIV-infectionand "gift givers"HIV-positive men who seek to infect negative partnerssince the early 1990s. I remember looking into the story myself at one point. It never materialized for two reasons: It was difficult to document if the phenomenon really existed, even among a tiny handful of men. But equally important, at the time, I simply couldn't get editors in the gay media interested in the story.
So part of the pangs I felt at the Rolling Stone headline was guilt: Is it possible that we in the gay and lesbian media missed this story because we simply didn't want to see it?
I know from personal experience that we as a community are often blind to what we wish wasn't there. In 1995, I wrote a feature for a paper in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, about the return of back rooms to gay bars. When the story hit the stands, I was persona non grata in the gay community. Some gay bars banned me. At the places where I was allowed in, patrons threatened me with physical violence. And gay community leaders organized a panel allegedly to discuss the impact of the article; the event turned out to be little more than a public lynching.
My unforgivable crime, I learned, was telling one of our community's secrets to the outside world.
Are we doing the same with the question of bug chasing?
Unfortunately, the Rolling Stone article was so poorly written and melodramatically presented that it won't help us get any closer to thoughtfully examining the question of bug chasing. Sadly, Rolling Stone blew its chance to ask a provocative social question by choosing sensationalism over seriousness. But our response to it shouldn't be equally blind.
Even before the article hit the stands, gay and AIDS activists have been picking it apartquite easily.
The article's major downfall appears to be its unbelievable claim that 25 percent of new HIV infections among gay men are caused deliberately by bug chasing. That is an astounding statisticand one that just doesn't live up to scrutiny.
In the article, the sole basis for this figure is attributed to an estimate by Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral-health services for San Francisco County, and past president of two leading gay medical groups: the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists.
In trumpeting the 25 percent figure no research was cited, no hard figures were offered, no data was presented. Just one man's off-the-cuff personal estimate.
Here's where it gets worse: Dr. Cabaj says he never gave that estimate. He told Newsweek that the assertion was "totally false. I never said that. And when the fact-checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. This is unbelievable."
The only other medical source in the story also refutes comments attributed to him in the article. Rolling Stone quotes Dr. Marshall Forstein, at Fenway Community Center in Boston, as saying that " bug chasers are seen regularly in the Fenway health system, and the phenomenon is growing." Dr. Forstein now calls that quote "entirely a fabrication." Instead, he says that Fenway has seen a few such cases, but that it's impossible to know how common the practice is.
The writer shoots himself in the foot when he takes that 25 percent figure and tries to come up with a number for just how many gay men were infected through bug-chasing. He carelessly applies the 25-percent to the total estimated 40,000 new HIV infections every year, proposing that 10,000 gay men each year are infected through deliberate bug chasing. But gay men make up only 42 percent of total new infectionsor about 16,800 men. Rolling Stone's figure of 10,000 gay men infected through bug chasing would mean that a whopping 60 percent of new infections in gay men are through bug chasing.
I touched base with several AIDS experts, and all of them felt that if bug-chasing was responsible for a significant rate of infections, the medical community would be aware of itand hopefully be trying to counteract it. Due to the current atmosphere created by the Rolling Stone article, the experts I spoke with asked not to be quoted.
But I was struck that no one I spoke to denied that bug chasing was a reality. The consensus seems to be that it happens, but probably in very small numbers.
Before sitting down to write this, I got on AOL, a popular meeting place for gay men, and did a random, unscientific search for "bug chasers" and "gift givers." It didn't take but a few seconds to come up with about 40 profiles that mention one or the other. I found only three profiles where men were seeking such behavior. In all the others, the profiles specifically warned "bug chasers" to stay away. Still, if men are putting those terms in their profiles, even to ward off hunters, it suggests that the practice is out there and real.
I understand why the gay and AIDS communities have come out in such full force to counter the flawed and inaccurate Rolling Stone article. By choosing sensationalism, Rolling Stone forfeited its chance to take a cold, hard look at bug chasing and what it means for gay men.We shouldn't fall into a similar trap. In our fury over the article, it isn't enough to just give Rolling Stone a slap on the wrist, and then continue to look the other way because the topic of bug chasing makes most of us feel awkward. I hope we don't miss this chance to take a serious look at the uncomfortable issue of bug chasing, evaluate its impact, and figure out what we might be able to do as a community to counter it.
Mubarak Dahir receives e-mail at MubarakDah@aol.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 13, No. 1, February 7, 2003