Most writing about bug-chasing and gift-giving is dominated by sensationalism or absolute condemnation. This previous post by lewdandshrewd is an example of the latter. Although the need to condemn bug-chasing is understandable (especially in the cases when gift-givers are passing HIV to unsuspecting non-bug-chasers), we lack a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Why do some people get a thrill out of getting HIV (or other STDs) and giving it to others? What kinds of gender and sexuality dynamics are at work in gift-giving and bug-chasing? Also, given that it is such a minority phenomenon, why are we so obsessed with it?

The sociological and anthropological literature on the subject has identified bug-chasing/gift-giving subcultures as ‘carnivalesque’ spaces in which social roles are thoroughly reversed and forbidden or impossible relationships are given free play. This is an analogy to Medieval Carnivals, which featured stunning role reversals, such as pictures of women beating their husbands, pigs slicing up butchers and serfs lording over their masters. Similarly, the bug-chasing/gift-giving subculture reverses the social discourse on HIV – everything about the illness is turned upside down and previously impossible social arrangements are imagined. For instance, as a potentially fatal illness, HIV is associated with death. However, the discourse of gift-giving reconceptualizes HIV as productive by allowing Poz men to ‘give birth’ to new Poz offspring. It also subverts social norms about the body: the healthy and fit body is no longer seen as socially desirable. Bodies that show visible signs of illness (such as lesions) are seen as particularly sexually attractive in the bug-chasing/gift-giving groups. Overall, the subculture seems to invert all practical reason and revel in threatening social order.

But is this the reason why people want to become bug-chasers and gift-givers? Oddly enough, even though we may perceive the subculture as particularly subversive and non-conformist, people get involved in it for somewhat ‘conservative’ reasons. The literature identifies the revival of masculinism in gay male communities as one of the reasons that people engage in risky and dangerous sexual practices (such as barebacking). Safer sex practices are perceived as effeminate and ‘unsexy’ ways of controlling men’s sexualities. ‘Real men’ should approximate the ‘Marlboro Man’ image, never shrinking from danger and sometimes actively seeking it out! Thus, gift-giving and bug-chasing are in some cases attempts to revive a thrill/danger-seeking sexuality that fulfills norms of masculinity. Others have cited an interest in belonging to some kind of ‘community’ or ‘brotherhood’ by finally attaining HIV status. In this case, bug-chasing and gift-giving is a method of forming social bonds. By getting the ‘gift’ of HIV, people are initiated into essentially a new culture, with new privileges and responsibilities. Finally, there are also men who perceive becoming HIV Positive as a ‘relief’. Gripped with fear about becoming HIV-Positive, they perceive actually getting the virus to be the only way of overcoming that fear.

Overall, we view bug-chasing and gift-giving as profoundly subversive activities. And yet, the sociological literature suggests that people get involved in them for fairly conservative reasons (masculinism, forming social bonds), or because their fear of getting HIV is too intense and they would rather ‘get it over with’ by catching the illness. Given that bug-chasing and gift-giving are minority phenomena, why is it that both straight/normative and LGBT popular cultures are so obsessed with it? It has been found that about 14% of gay men engage in barebacking, and a very small amount of those are bug-chasers or gift-givers. They are, essentially, a minority within a minority – why all the attention, then? First, there’s definitely an element of right-wing propaganda against LGBT people. In a 'Human Sexuality' class taught at my old university by a very conservative Professor, she handed out an article on bug-chasing during our discussion on gay marriage, claiming that it was ‘relevant subject matter’. What sexual fetishes about HIV and STDs have to do with same-sex marriage is beyond me. She was clearly trying to show that queer people are immoral and not deserving of anybody’s sympathy. For those not trying to spread the conservative message, bug-chasing appeals as a topic because it has the macabre sensationalism that sells magazines and newspapers. It is simply one of those ‘out-there’ topics that is bound to get anyone’s attention.

***For More Information***
I found the following article very useful: Michael Graydon’s “Don’t Bother To Wrap It,” from the journal, Culture, Health and Sexuality (Vol. 9.3). David Moskowitz’s “The Existence of a Bug-Chasing Subculture,” from the same journal (Vol. 9.4), is also quite good. Otherwise, there are quite a few more sociological/anthropological articles out there. Just search for ‘bug-chasing’ on Google Scholar ( and you will find plenty of information!

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