“Breeding Culture: Barebacking, Bugchasing, Giftgiving” is an academic essay written by Tim Dean in March 2008 and published in Volume 49 of The Massachusetts Review on pages 80 to 94, prior to the release of Tim’s book Unlimited Intimacy the following year. This essay is a refreshing read, because it explores the topics of barebacking, bug chasing and gift giving from a psychoanalysis viewpoint, by delving into these subjects more deeply from an open-minded perspective, rather than from the perspective many other authors or editors have taken.
What makes this essay so important, is that it explores these subjects from an early time period, so we can consider what was happening as barebacking, bug chasing and gift giving was first emerging, then we can take a look at where we are at in the present time. Tim brings all three subjects together in his essay and even though they are slightly different, they are connected and associated with unprotected sexual acts, so this article takes you on a journey as we experience Tim’s essay together.
When you feel a connection to bug chasing, you often start researching the topic online, as you search for resources to help you understand the subject matter, which in turn can help understand yourself better. This is an important part of any bug chaser’s journey, as trying to figure out why you feel the way you do is an integral part of the process, but the problem is that it can be difficult to find useful resources available to help you, which can cause further confusion. That’s why Tim’s essay is an excellent starting point, because he explores these subjects with an open mind, which is helpful to not only yourself, but also others who are trying to understand why someone might be a barebacker, bug chaser or gift giver.
Tim’s inspiration for writing this essay came from an experience he had after the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, when someone he met asked for him to breed him. As this was at a time before PrEP was available and when HIV cases were still rising, Tim was surprised by the request, especially since he had been researching sexual risk taking during the mid-nineties and knew about the risks involved with doing this. Tim’s definition of barebacking is very simple and easy to understand when he refers to it as being “anal sex without a condom” and he adds that the term derives from “equestrian pursuits: riding a horse bareback, without a saddle, as a rugged cowboy might do.“
The purpose of Tim’s essay is to unpack the meanings of barebacking, bug chasing and gift giving, which I believe he has done very well. There are a number of references in the article where barebacking is compared to gay marriage, “because HIV makes the exchange of bodily fluids homologous to the exchange of wedding rings” where the commitment is permanent, with a conversion party being a place “where gay men gather for unprotected sex and to exercise some choice over which man will infect them and what’s exchanged is guaranteed to last a lifetime.“
Marriage is something I had never associated with bug chasing, but the breeding and pregnancy aspect of this relationship structure I have, which Tim addresses in his essay. Tim also notes how unprotected sex has created a kinship, based on HIV being used to create blood ties, through “permanent forms of bodily and communal affiliation” and “exchanging bodily fluids as a viable alternative to exchanging wedding rings” as a basis for one’s sexual identity and kinship network, which makes sense when you consider association with marriage, bonding and lifetime commitment.
This aspect of Tim’s essay is one that helps you appreciate that the article is open-minded: “The deliberate transmission of HIV through bareback sex isn’t anomalous, but should be understood as part of the ongoing history of sexuality at the turn of the millennium.” Many become close-minded when they come across something they don’t understand, especially when the subject might shock them. Perhaps this is human nature’s natural defence mechanism designed to protect from the unknown, but being close-minded can cause harm to others when ignorance is used against someone, rather than that person taking the time to try to understand, even if they don’t agree with it.
Tim refers to barebacking websites creating new sexual identity categories including “bugchasers” and “giftgivers” where “bug chasers are those who fetishize HIV-infected semen and want it inside their bodies and giftgivers are those positive men who are willing to oblige. Based on the model of sperm-donors, giftgivers consensually inseminate other men with HIV. They transmit the virus intentionally rather than inadvertently, and they understand their actions as creative rather than as destructive.” Tim adds that due to many locations throughout the world criminalising HIV-transmission, many gift givers remain shadowy figures and may use the former American military’s homophobic non-disclosure policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue.”
You will gain a lot of insight from Tim’s essay, such as why some gay men refuse to take an HIV test. One of the reasons is that when a person does not know their HIV status, it means they can repeat the unrepeatable, which is imagining that each unprotected sexual encounter is the one that transmits the virus, which intensifies the fucking experience every time. This renews the excitement of taking sexual risks during each risky sexual encounter, which can create a powerful experience, rather than knowing if the infection has previously taken place. This also goes against the health advice of undergoing regular HIV testing to know your status to help stop the spread.
When a person becomes HIV-positive, they will sometimes take the next step by adding positive imagery to the skin through the form of a tattoo. A tattoo makes a public statement to others, such as a biohazard symbol or a scorpion symbol, where other people can recognise the symbol and become aware of the person’s HIV status without needing to engage in a discussion about it. Tim has added that choosing to become infected with HIV creates a permanent identity, where it marks the inside of the body like a tattoo marks the outside of the body, so choosing to get a tattoo could be considered as fully completing the positive identity process inside and out by making others aware of what’s happening on the inside of the body by showcasing their poz pride on the outside.
Tim also considers that for some gay men, the desire to avoid HIV has mutated into the opposite, where some men who engage in bareback sex are not interested in having an HIV-negative man ejaculate inside them, because they only want semen that contains the virus to enter their body through the act of sexual intercourse. This is the process known as sero-sorting, where people attempt to connect with people who have the same HIV status as themselves, whether they are HIV-negative or HIV-positive, but people can also use sero-sorting to find someone who has the opposite HIV status, to create a sero-discordant connection with someone.
Conversations about bareback sex often refer to breeding and can be associated with insemination, pregnancy and paternity, which is where Tim explores the connection between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, with sexuality in the current day being more fluid. Men who have sex with men don’t need to consider the issue of pregnancy, so condoms are not even a consideration when it comes to restricting the flow of bodily fluids from one person to another to prevent the creation of life, but in a spiritual sense, there’s a close connection. In a heterosexual relationship, condoms are abandoned when a couple makes the decision to conceive and create life through fertile sperm, but homosexual men can also view HIV transmission as a way of creating life through the breeding of a virus through the exchange of infected bodily fluids.
If you have ever felt guilty about about wanting to engage in high-risk sexual activity or wanting to contract HIV, Tim has this insight to share with you when he says that “the communities of men formed around barebacking bond together like communities of soldiers during wartime” and “it’s worth recalling that since the first decade of the AIDS epidemic killed off whole generations of gay men, those who survived resemble survivors of war.” You might find the following comforting when Tim says “rather than necessarily disregarding and thus dishonouring those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses, barebacking may represent an effort to maintain their vitality in the bodies of the living. By means of a virus, some part of the deceased can be imagined as living on. Bareback subculture thus may be as much a culture of survival and imaginative reinvention as it is a culture of death.“
It’s important to point out that the author of the Breeding Culture essay may not be supporting or recommending bug chasing or gift giving to anyone, he is simply considering the subject and provides some excellent insight, which may provide some comfort to those who identify as bug chasers and/or gift givers and those who have an interest in bug chasing and/or gift giving. As it has been highlighted in the article, there are some solid considerations that attract people to the virus from an individual and community perspective. You can read the full article below, which has been included here courtesy of The Massachusetts Review.
- Dean, T. J. (2008). Breeding Culture: Barebacking, Bugchasing, Giftgiving. Massachusetts Review, 49(1/2), 80-94.
- Breeding Culture: Barebacking, Bugchasing, Giftgiving
- Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking
- Raw: PrEP, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Barebacking
Featured Photo: Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay.
Article ID: CC059
Version Control: 1.0 – March 8, 2023: Original article published.