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
More and more lately I have been coming to realize how much my sexual identity, and how I think about sex and intimate relationships, has been shaped by the fact that I was born after the emergence of HIV/AIDS. And the more I learn about the rise of the epidemic and the policies and media coverage that followed, the more I view the present state of national lgbt organizing and politics in relation to HIV/AIDS.
So I am going to take things back a bit here with my “Look over Here!” blog post. Remember when we talked about marriage? And the pleasure vs. responsibility debate?
For the longest time I could not figure out why people cared so much about gay marriage. I’m a butch, androgynous, radical pragmatist/formerly anarchist, post-punk, vegetarian, queer as f- artist after all and I will never get married. Right? My top priorities are more in the realm of survival: creating a world where my friends and I can live, dress and use which ever bathroom we choose without fear of violence.
It made me really angry to think about how much time, energy and MONEY was getting funneled into organizing that would have presumably no affect whatsoever on my life. Then all these queer people around me started having babies and I started grieving the loss of all these amazing artists and humans and my feelings started to change.
Thinking about gay marriage in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic has also helped me to understand why this issue is so important to some people, and why it has become the focus of the lgbt rights movement.
AIDS was first called gay cancer and later gay-related immune deficiency syndrome (GRID) and thought by some to be a punishment for promiscuity. As AIDS spread, more became publicly known about the sexual practices enjoyed by some homosexual men and the image of the reckless, promiscuous and dangerous gay man became cemented in the public psyche.
Gay marriage appears to be the perfect counter to that image, one that is gleaming with responsibility, monogamy and normalcy. The pursuit of pleasure cost many their lives, and now that queers are not dying as rapidly as before the time has come to change our public image.
Unfortunately I feel that this new, “more stable” image is just as damaging as the old. It leaves no room and gives no support to those who live outside of it, especially those whose genders on the more fluid or trans side of life. And yet at the same time I feel that if some people want to get married, they should be able to get married.
In conclusion (sort of), I really think that AIDS relates to most and informs many contemporary queer arguments. It is an important part of queer history that links political/social movements of the past with those of the present.