One of the earliest documented articles about bug chasing was published 24 years ago when Marc Peyser wrote the article “A Deadly Dance” in Newsweek on September 28, 1997. The article discussed risky sex involving men who have sex with men (MSM) and was primarily about barebacking, but it also included a couple of bug chasing references as well. This could very well be the earliest piece of writing about bug chasing that was ever published in mainstream media.
The article “A Deadly Dance” started out by introducing readers to a 32 year old computer analyst from New York named Joseph Hillburn, who kept himself knowledgable about HIV/AIDS issues, but he was also an avid barebacker who enjoyed having unprotected sex with other men. The article referred to a 23% decrease in AIDS deaths following new drugs known as protease inhibitors becoming available, which may have contributed to a 15% increase in the men surveyed saying they had already engaged in higher-risk sex, because they were less concerned about AIDS.
As readers were introduced to the phrase “bareback sex” that was adopted by some gay men to define unprotected sex, the article referred to “a tiny but visible group of HIV-negative men are actually looking to get infected”. It was a brief sentence that acknowledged bug chasing, before the article veered back to bareback sex and “the morning after pill”, which referred to Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP); a pill that needs to be taken within 72 hours of possible HIV infection for the treatment to be effective. PEP became available in 2005 after the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued guidelines on occupational use for individuals with HIV exposures occurring in health care settings, with Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012 as an HIV transmission preventative.
The Newsweek article used the term “lethal virus” to describe HIV, because at the time of publication, HIV treatments were not as advanced as they are today, but it’s still important to acknowledge these earlier articles to explore bug chasing over the years. A part of the article that makes you appreciate the importance of sharing fact based information is when the article referred to a young man who “stumbled into a barebacking chat room”, where the full implications of HIV were apparently watered down by some people, by allegedly comparing HIV treatment with being as simple to treat as the flu. It can only be assumed that this young man engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse at some point in his life and when he was tested for HIV, he was devastated when he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive at age fourteen.
The other bug chasing reference in the article was made through a few sentences that said “some gay men have unsafe sex because they want to get HIV—or at least skate close to the edge. Danger can be erratic, even the threat of contracting a deadly disease”. The term “gift giver” was not used in this article, but it came very close when mentioning “men who have had their intimacy wrapped in latex for so many years want to share something—anything— with their partner” and reinforced this with the quote “I’ve met two people who were turned on by the barebacker in New York. One guy kept telling me ‘give me your virus, give me your disease”, with the term “bug chaser” then used to describe people who desire becoming infected with the virus.
The Newsweek article touched upon a few issues involving gay sex, but it was mainly about risky sexual encounters through barebacking, although the article did make the connection between improvements to medication and healthcare lowering people’s perceptions of sexual risk, which made them feel more comfortable engaging in unprotected sex, even when they knew that many people engaging in bareback sex were already HIV-positive. The Newsweek article may have inspired research, along with other articles to be written about bug chasing, which is why it’s good to look back to explore how bug chasing was presented in the media at a time when HIV/AIDS was creating fear for those of us within the gay community.
- A Deadly Dance – https://www.newsweek.com/deadly-dance-172768
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Version Control: 1.0 – September 23, 2021: Original article published.