Look Over Here! The Queer Subculture of Barebacking and Bug-Chasing

Posted in Uncategorized by ahart1314 on May 3, 2010

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

CNN Special with Anderson Cooper on Bug-Chasing

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


7 Responses

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  1. kth14 said, on May 4, 2010 at 3:56 am

    This comment is going to be extremely opinionated. First of all, I have to say: What the F***?!? I’ve heard about barebacking and bug-chasing before and itis disgusting. If you could catch cancer by having unprotected sex, would you want to do it to receive the “gift” of life-long pain and suffering and an early death? While I completely sympathize with people with HIV/AIDS, I cannot sympathize wth those who catch the bug on purpose. HIV is not necessarily a death sentence anymore, yet it will lead to a painful and earlier death, as well as extremely expensive medical costs. Bug-chasers talk about being “free” by becoming infected, that they don’t have to worry about condoms and HIV tests and the danger/possibility of becoming infected because they already have it. This is the most ridiculous and backwards logic I have ever heard, as well as the logic of wanting to become part of the HIV/AIDS subculture. This subculture should be upset about having the virus and fighting for their lives, not a product of people who are there by choice.
    This phenomenon really upsets me and seems to diminish the suffering and pain that HIV/AIDS patients go through everyday.

  2. mrthomps said, on May 6, 2010 at 3:13 am

    Wow. This was an amazing post! Thank you so much for tackling this issue, it definitely deserves some extra light. After reading this I immediately have a million questions!
    How does one find a community of bug chasers and gift givers? Is there any predominant ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic level represented disproportionately or predominantly in these communities?
    Are bug chaser considered to have a diagnosable psychological disorder?
    Are there any communities of heterosexual gift givers/ bug chasers? Do they only have sexual contact with people within the bug chasing community?
    I definitely agree with Kth14 in that this life style is very extreme and it is near impossible to be subjective to a group who purposefully try to contract a horrid/heartbreaking/etc. disease. I think that this is one of those things that is horrible but fascinating to the point that you can’t look away and I really want to know more despite myself.

  3. jshu10 said, on May 8, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I have heard stories like this from my poz friends, where they were encouraged by a sexual partner to infect them…both of my friends said they had refused these individuals…although, of course there must be some who do not. I think this phenomena is interesting, even as it somewhat disturbing. Because it raises certain kinds of questions about the socio-sexual effects of living in a world with hiv/aids. Perhaps our pedagogies about safe-sex lend themselves to a fetishization of unsafe-sex. For example, Most “mainstream” pornography now involve safe sex via condom use. One effect of this is that it produces a niche market of films which show bareback sex, and are marketed as such. I’m sure there must be various other kinds of ways bareback sex is fetishized.

    On a comic note. last summer I went into a men’s bathroom at a club and there was a dispenser for condoms…the brandname of the condom was “bareback.” “Bareback condoms”…I kind of marvel at the kind of intervention here…can you just imagine some moment where you say to your partner, “Did you put on a ‘bareback’ dear?” or ”lemme grab a bareback” LOL…

  4. austone said, on May 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    This subculture is deeply upsetting. We should learn more about this phenomenon with an open mindset but in no way can I empathize with the people spreading and receiving the “gift” of HIV. Although it is painfully obvious, HIV (which could lead to AIDS) is no gift. A person shouldn’t react with joy when they intentionally gained HIV. One of the reasons given for why someone may seek the virus is unlimited sex with whoever (most likely this sex will be bareback) and I’m sure this will transmit to someone who does not want the virus. I watched the Anderson Cooper clip and he also seemed deeply disturbed by this niche subculture. The director of “Bug Catchers” argued that HIV+ status has been shaped as so positive (“good”) that certain people see no harm in contracting it- of COURSE poz people shouldn’t be stigmatized but using this as an example for why one may want to contract this is disheartening (I understand her justification but seekers have this mindset). Bug chasers need psychological help…

  5. damo said, on August 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

    i,m gonna sound harsh here,i find find all the bug chasers and gift givers very,very weak and pathetic,if they wanna die ..go jump of a bridge,and do us all a favour..we dont want you and your fucked up heads around. i cant understand this mentality,hiv/aids is no fucking joke as an older gay man i have been so lucky in not becomeing positive and the reason for this is i was terrified of hiv and of catching it.so i never took thechance ever…all my freands died it was a terrible time and its still going on people are still fighting hiv/aids still liveing with it keeping themselves as healthy as possible..and god bless them,this fucked up subculture insults them and all the people globaly who have died of aids esp the first wave of gay men who didnt know wot hiv/aids was,how dare thease ..queens..insult thoses early victims and every one eles once again i,m sorry to have sounded harsh..but it just realy angers me,its a selfish limp ,pathetic thing to do..brotherhood indeed

  6. Lisa said, on August 28, 2010 at 8:45 am

    I know I’m going to get alot of peoples backs up here, but I’m a 22 year old female and I have come to the conclusion that I am so fed up with worrying about catching the HIV virus from any of me male partners, that I have decided to attend a ‘conversion party’ where i am told there will be at least one HIV+ male. The rules are, no condoms, you must let the men cum inside you, and you must move on to the next man straight away. After 2 hours of frantic sex, the part is finished, and the ‘bug chasers’ are then given the opportunity to leave before the HIV+ male makes himself known to all. So then you can see if you had sex with him or not, and can get an idea of if you might be infected now. I have noted my interest and await my invite to the next party!

  7. alwin said, on February 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Yes there is man sites for heterosexual bug chasing etc and bareback with prostitutes without HIV test etc before sex.In Europe more people get to know about the heterosexual bareback scene and doctors now know that heterosexuals had bareback in brothels etc all the time (illegal prostitution in the U.S.) that is why heterosexul men with known HIV infection are low bevause most of the do not want to get tested . Heterosexuall men get tested too late (6 yrs after risk contact) and in many countries only MSM get tested so much . Many of the ebarebackers fear that they will know their HIV Status and then can’t have sex unprotected with prsotitute every week or they think HIV does not exist or bisexuals are responsible for HIV in the heterosexual community (that is wrong) etc… There’s sites where men from all over the world share pictures with bareback sex(client/customer with prostitute having baresex) and share adresses from/of prostitutes that like barebacksex for 20-100$ for one hour …

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