Contractual arrangements: A brief look at ‘bug chasing’

Despite being fairly well read on sexually extreme behaviour, it wasn’t until relatively recently (in the last 12 months) that I came across the terms ‘bug chasing’ and ‘pozzing’. Both of these slang terms refer to the practice of people (usually gay or bisexual men) deliberately engaging in unprotected (‘bareback’) sex with men who are known to be HIV-positive in an attempt to contract the HIV virus (“bug”) themselves (hence the name ‘pozzing’ deriving from the word ‘positive’). This has led to knowing recipients of bug chasers being called ‘gift givers’ (i.e., those that allow sexual partners to contract the HIV virus). Despite some people believing the practice to be a complete myth, empirical research does indeed conform the existence of the practice.

However, there is a clear distinction concerning intent between those who don’t want to engage in protective sex because they prefer penetrative sex and/or prefer sex without condoms (the so-called ‘barebackers’), and those who don’t want to engage in unprotected sex in order to contract a life-threatening sexually transmitted disease (so-called ‘bug chasers’). The consequence of this clear distinction means that all bug chasers are barebackers but not all barebackers are bug chasers.

Research has been carried out suggesting various reasons for why men would want to deliberately contract HIV. In a 2004 paper in the British Journal of Social Psychology, Dr. Michele Crossley reported some men indicate that the practice is highly exciting because it is such a highly risky behaviour (in that they could ultimately die from contracting the virus). However, such a reason suggests that such individuals don’t actually want to contract HIV (and seems psychologically akin to playing Russian roulette). The same paper also noted that some bug chasers appear to be very lonely people who want to contract AIDS so that they will receive the attention, nurturance and care that they feel they need (and therefore share similarities with those who have Munchausen’s Syndrome). Similarly, others see the contracting of HIV as way becoming part of a community that elicits public sympathy and caretaking.

Writing in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy, a paper by Dr. Mark Blechner in 2002 examined the the psychodynamics of barebacking and safer sex. Dr. Blechner argued that the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, gay men had personal experience of multiple deaths and were “terrified by a new, mysterious, and untreatable disease”. This was contrasted with today’s gay men who were much less afraid of contracting HIV and considered condom use as more restrictive, less intimate and less pleasurable than older gay men. There also appears to be a small minority of gay men who are so anxious and overwhelmed about the thought of contracting HIV that actually contracting it would help overcome the negative psychological states they experience.

In 2007, Dr. David Moskowitz and his colleagues carried out a study published in the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. They compared 284 bug chasers and barebackers. Their results showed that bug chasers were considerably different from barebackers regarding sexually paraphilic activities (for instance, bug chasers were far more likely to engage in sexually sadomasochistic activities), and significantly more likely than barebackers to rank higher on behavioural and psychological measures of sexual addiction. The Wikipedia entry on bug chasing also provides further reasons for wanting to contract HIV: 

“The behavior may stem from a ‘resistance to dominant heterosexual norms and mores’ due to a defensive response by gay men to repudiate stigmatization and rejection by society. Some people consider bug chasing ‘intensely erotic’ and the act of being infected as the “ultimate taboo, the most extreme sex act left’. A number of people who are HIV negative and in a relationship with someone who is HIV positive seek infection as a way to remain in the relationship, particularly when the HIV positive partner may wish to break up to avoid infecting the HIV negative partner. Some contend that this behaviour stems from feelings of inevitability towards HIV among the gay community and the empowerment of choosing when to contract the virus”.

In 1999, Dr. DeAnn Gauthier and Dr. Craig Forsyth published a paper on bareback subculture in the journal Deviant Behavior and noted in their interviews with gay men that a few of their participants wanted to contract the HIV virus. In previous blogs, I have written about how the internet has facilitated the meeting of like-minded people (such as people who are cannibals meeting up with people wanting to be eaten). A paper by Dr. Richard Tewksbury (also published in the journal Deviant Behavior) entitled ‘Bareback sex and the quest for HIV: Assessing the relationship in internet personal advertisements of men who have sex with men’. This was arguably the first academic paper to find empirical evidence that bug chasers had moved with the times and were looking for ‘gift givers’ online.

One of the best (and most interesting) papers published on bug chasers and gift givers was published in a few years ago in an issue of the journal AIDS Education and Prevention by Dr. Christian Grov and Dr, Jeffrey Parsons. Their research examined the online profiles of over a thousand bug chasers and gift givers (n=1228) and classified such people into one of six types. These comprised:

  • Committed Bug Chasers (7.5% of the total sample): This type comprised men who were HIV-negative but actively seeking HIV-positive partners.
  • Opportunistic Bug Chasers (12.1%): This type comprised men who were HIV-negative but were not bothered about the HIV status of their prospective partner.
  • Committed Gift Givers (0.4%): This type comprised men who were HIV-positive and sought HIV-negative partners.
  • Opportunistic Gift Givers (26%): This type comprised men who were HIV-positive but were not bothered about the HIV status of their prospective partner.
  • Serosorters: This type comprised men whose description of being a bug chaser or gift giver did not match their intentions and were seeking partners of equal HIV status. For instance, some HIV-positive men (8.5%) sought other HIV-positive men, whereas some HIV-negative men (12.5%) sought other HIV-negative men.
  • Ambiguous Bug Chasers or Gift Givers (16.3%): This type comprised men who did not know their HIV status. Therefore, it was not determined whether these men were bug chasers or gift givers.

Clearly, the evidence shows that bug chasing is far from being a myth and is engaged in by a small minority of the gay and bisexual community. For some, the research seems to echo one of the most wonderful lines from the song Frankly Mr Shankly by one of my favourite groups The Smiths. I’m sure Morrissey didn’t have bug chasing in mind when he sang the lyrics “I want to live and I want to love/I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of” but it does seem applicable.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Blechner, M. (2002). Intimacy, pleasure, risk, and safety. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy 6(3), 27–33.

Crossley, M.L. (2004). Making sense of ‘barebacking’: Gay men’s narratives, unsafe sex and the ‘resistance habitus’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43, 225-244.

Gauthier, D. K.; Forsyth, C. J. (1999). Bareback sex, bug chasing, and the gift of death”. Deviant Behavior 20, 85-100.

Grov, C. (2004). “Make me your death slave”: Men who have sex with men and use the Internet to intentionally spread HIV. Deviant Behavior, 25, 329–349.

Grov, C. (2006). Barebacking websites: Electronic environments for reducing or inducing HIV risk. AIDS Care, 18, 990–997.

Grov, C. & Parsons, J.T. (2006). Bugchasing and Giftgiving: The potential for HIV transmission among barebackers on the Internet” AIDS Education and Prevention, 18, 490-503.

Hatfield, K. (2004). A Quest for belonging: Exploring the story of the bug chasing phenomenon. Paper presented at the National Communication Association Conference, Chicago, Illinois.

LeBlanc, B. (2007). “An Exploratory Study of ‘Bug Chasers'”. Sociological Imagination 43 (2): 13–20.

Moskowitz, D.A. & Roloff, M.E. (2007). The ultimate high: Sexual addiction and the bug chasing phenomenon. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity 14, 21-40.

Moskowitz, D.A. & Roloff, M.E. (2007). The existence of a bug chasing subculture. Culture, Health and Sexuality, 9, 347-358.

Tewksbury, R. (2003). Bareback sex and the quest for HIV: Assessing the relationship in internet personal advertisements of men who have sex with men. Deviant Behavior, 25, 467-482.

Tewksbury, R. (2006). “Click here for HIV”: An analysis of internet-based bug chasers and bug givers. Deviant Behavior, 27, 379–395.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on March 14, 2013, in Case Studies, Compulsion, Culture Bound Syndromes, Gender differences, Obsession, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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