Bug Chasing and Gift Giving: The Underground Culture Where HIV Is Fetishized

April 25, 2014 by Justin Lehmiller

“Mansex is a virus, one that uses men as its host. Some try to resist it. Others embrace it as the source of life and meaning. We live to breed the sex-virus, to pass it on to every random anonymous dude we meet and f*ck. It’s how we reproduce, man.” – From the description of the film Viral Loads

A new porn film entitled Viral Loads has earned quite a bit of attention for its graphic depictions of guys who are eager to give and receive HIV through man-on-man sex. I know some of you may be wondering how anyone could possibly find the prospect of contracting an incurable and deadly virus like HIV sexually arousing, but it turns out that there is a small subculture among men who have sex with men for whom HIV is fetishized. Before I go on, let me be perfectly clear: this is a small subculture and it is not a reflection of how the broader community of gay and bisexual men feel about HIV.

For those men who derive sexual arousal from spreading or contracting HIV, the terms “bug chaser” and “gift giver” are often used [1]. “Bug chasers” are HIV-negative men who desire sex with HIV-positive partners who can potentially infect them with the “bug.” In contrast, “gift givers” are HIV-positive men who desire sex with HIV-negative partners to whom they can give the “gift” of HIV.

What are the psychological origins of bug chasing? Based on a study of actual bug chasers, it appears that there are several distinct motivations for it [2]. Some do it because they are seeking relief from the uncertainty of when they might contract it (think of it this way: for those who think HIV is inevitable, they may see it as “empowering” to contract the virus under their own terms). Others do it because they simply find risky sexual behavior to be erotic—these individuals do not necessarily want to contract HIV, rather, they simply find it arousing to seek sexual encounters that involve risky circumstances (i.e., think someone with a general sensation-seeking personality). Yet others do it because they know so many people who have become infected with HIV that they somehow feel excluded by not having the virus. The psychological motivations behind gift giving have not been as well explored.

We do not have a good sense of how prevalent bug chasing and gift giving are, but the available data suggest that they are quite rare. For instance, in one study, researchers analyzed the online profiles of men from a large sexual hookup website [1]. This website was dedicated to men who have sex with men who are specifically seeking unprotected sex. Of course, there is a big selection bias here in that not all gay and bisexual men seek casual sex (let alone unprotected casual sex), and not all who seek it do so online. So, we must keep these sampling limitations in mind when evaluating the results.

For users of this website, they had the option of explicitly identifying themselves as “bug chasers” or “gift givers” on their profiles by checking off the appropriate box. Overall, 6.6% of the 24,000+ men who had profiles on the site selected one or both of these labels.

However, it is important to note that among the small group of men who chose one of those identity labels, there were far fewer who went even further to explicitly say that they were looking for sexual partners who had a different HIV status from them (in another part of their profile, these men had to select the characteristics they were looking for in a prospective partner, and HIV status was one such characteristic that could be specified). This suggests that bug chasing and gift giving behaviors are perhaps even rarer than they first appear. It is possible that some men chose these labels without fully understanding their meaning, and some may have chosen them because they find the idea of bug chasing or gift giving to be an erotic fantasy, but do not necessarily desire these activities in reality.

As you can see, the fetishization of HIV that appears in films like Viral Loads is far from make-believe. However, the erotic appeal of spreading and contracting HIV is one that would seem to be pretty limited and is not representative of how most men who have sex with men feel about this infection.

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[1] Grov, C., & Parsons, J. T. (2006). Bug chasing and gift giving: the potential for HIV transmission among barebackers on the internet. AIDS Education & Prevention, 18(6), 490-503.

[2] Gauthier, D. K., & Forsyth, C. J. (1999). Bareback sex, bug chasers, and the gift of death. Deviant Behavior, 20, 85–100.

Image Source: iStockphoto

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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