Look Over Here! The Queer Subculture of Barebacking and Bug-Chasing
In another LGBT Studies class I’m taking, we recently began talking about the subculture of “barebackers” and “bug-chasers/gift-givers” in the American gay male community. Dr. Tim Dean, a notable author and expert on the subculture, defines the term “barebacking” as “gay men’s deliberate abandonment of prophylaxis during sex” and adds a definition from a medical sociologist, stating, “some people use barebacking to describe all sex without condoms, but barebackers themselves define it as both the premeditation and eroticization of unprotected anal sex.” Within this subculture is another subculture called “bug-chasers/gift-givers” that consciously and intentionally want to receive or give the “gift” of the HIV virus through unprotected “barebacking” sex. Dean describes this subculture as a category of barebacking “in which a desire for unprotected sex coexists with an active desire for viral transmission or viral exchange.” There are some estimates for how many individuals are partaking in this subculture’s practices, but there are no conclusive, accurate statistics as to the size of this subculture. Most research shows that the subcultures primarily exist in San Francisco and New York City and the subcultures are based within the United States. Dean identifies three categories within the barebacking culture: barebacking with the desire or intention to not transmit HIV, barebacking with indifference to HIV, and barebacking with a desire or intention for viral transmission.
The practices of “barebacking” and “bug-chasing/gift-giving” are controversial, to say the least, to individuals within the subcultures, within the queer community, and within the greater culture at large. Even the most libertarian of individuals take issue with this practice that can be seen as a public health issue. Many individuals within the queer community argue that the AIDS epidemic has plagued and stigmatized their community for far too long and by others purposefully contracting the virus, individuals are allowing the stigma of AIDS in the queer community to grow further.
Dean, however, theorizes as to the possible reasons gay men participate in this subculture, namely the concept of kinship, the eroticization of death, and the possibility of unlimited intimacy with anonymous partners. Each individual participating in the subculture has their own reasoning for participating, but Dean does mention several common overarching methods of reasoning when thinking about this practice. I am personally still learning about the subcultures while trying to maintain a neutral, open mind, which is undoubtedly difficult as the practices of the subcultures go against everything I have ever been taught about practicing safe sex. One of the most bothersome, challenging aspects of the practice concerns funding for AIDS research in our country being affected by the subcultures as Dean writes, “The very existence of bareback subculture potentially legitimates discrimination against those who are (or are perceived to be) HIV positive. Needless to say, the bareback phenomenon endangers public funding for AIDS research, treatment, and education.”
As the research is growing on this subculture, especially after the heightened interest that came from a Rolling Stone article on the subculture, I am interested to see how the queer community and the greater culture will understand this subculture’s practices and the implications that may come with them for people both within the subculture and outside the subculture.
Here are a few links about the barebacking subculture:
Perspective from a Gay HIV Positive Man at Alternatives Resources for Cultural Creativity
Trailer for “The Gift”– A Film on Bug-Chasing
Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking– A Portion of Tim Dean’s Book on Google Books