In a post 1990s AIDS era, of which safe sex and HIV are better understood, the practice of condomless sex is still prevalent. There is one specific group of sexually active homosexual identifying males that practice condomless sex: barebackers.
Despite the AIDS scare of the early 1980s to late 1990s, condom use wasn’t advocated for until 1986 when U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a report urging protective sex in schools as a response to the rise in diagnosed AIDS cases, (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015).
Out of the heel of the AIDS movement came widespread safesex campaigns such as ACT UP, that stressed the immediate importance of fighting HIV/AIDS from one of its starting points — the bedroom. The narratives produced out of this movement shaped how much of the world initially thought about HIV/AIDS.
In this paper, I will use scholarly research databases and HIV/AIDS case studies to focus on one group of barebackers that eroticize HIV. What drives these individuals to eroticize the disease? Is there any pushback to these individuals and their sexual practices? I will begin by analyzing bareback culture in its general form, move into this specific group of barebackers that eroticize HIV/AIDS, and finally step into the discussion on how this group of barebackers are being regulated.
When thinking about homosexual male bareback sex practices – it is defined as sexual penetration without condom use. Those who practice bareback sex are part of large community that operates on varied opinions, and it is important to know the groups within it. On one end of the spectrum you have a group advocating for safe sex – whether it be abstinence or the use of protective barriers – and then there is the other group claiming the psychological reasons and personal desires for bareback sex.
In a report done by the website Gay.com, many of the argued reasons for bareback sex came out of a chat room dedicated to “Bareback,” formerly listed online as the “HIV+” chatroom. The report was the first comprehensive investigation on bareback practices. It was performed using an algorithm that would identify common terms and phrases throughout the entire “Bareback” chatroom. This report showcased the reasons for why barebackers practice unprotected sex.
Many people argued that barebacking is enjoyable. Of those who favored barebacking within this chatroom, most argued that they prefer it due to that they favored the skin-to-skin feeling. One particular user highlighted that he prefered bareback sex over safe sex because “one can’t feel a darn thing, and condoms make having sex pointless” (Carballo-Dieguez, 2004, p. 7). This skin-to-skin feeling is a particular reason why barebackers choose to perform this sex act.
Another reason that the chatroom’s users advocated for bareback was that barebackers are deeply-informed about HIV/AIDS risks. Another particular user stated “[W]e’ve lost many we loved and valued, including my loss of the love of my life of over 13 years. Those who decide to bareback know the risk and don’t need someone to clap them on the wrist, or impose a gag order” (Carballo-Dieguez, 2004, p. 8). According to this report, bareback practitioners understand the risks of the sexual act, and there is a social responsibility present with these sexual decisions.
Yet, perhaps there are some greater things at play with the reasons that some gay men choose to have bareback sex. In a Rolling Stone article “In Search of Death” the author, Gregory Freeman, follows the life of a man named Carlos, who identifies as a “bug-chaser,” or someone who seeks to have sex with men whom are HIV+ in hopes of getting the virus. This concept of “death seeking,” as Freeman states, is one of the more extreme reasons for people who practice bareback sex. Freeman wrote in his story that “his [Carlos’] eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be “the most erotic thing I can imagine” (Freeman, 2005). The idea of conversion, or the creation of antibodies to HIV antigens, is a driving factor for people who identify as bug chasers.
Bug-chasers, are part of a specific group in the bareback “community” that want to have sex with HIV positive men through a desired conversion provided from a ‘gift giver.’ To clarify, the bug chasers I am focusing on are a specific group of homosexual males that practice bareback sex. Not all bareback practitioners are bug chasers, nor are they all gay. Bareback sex can be between any sexually active couple, however, the barebackers mentioned before are homosexual identifying males.
Perhaps bug chasing derives from this concept of domination, and bodily destruction that Bersani illustrates by stating “the realities of syphilis in the nineteenth century an of AIDS today “legitimate” a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy far from merely increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction” (Bersani, 1987, p. 211).
“The realities of syphilis in the nineteenth century an of AIDS today “legitimate” a fantasy of female sexuality as intrinsically diseased; and promiscuity in this fantasy far from merely increasing the risk of infection, is the sign of infection. Women and gay men spread their legs with an unquenchable appetite for destruction,” Bersani
Many bug chasers believe that having unprotected sex with gift givers isn’t as scary as it once was now that there is more medicine available to fight back the disease, such as the Prep pill. Scholars say that incoming treatments from antiretroviral drugs have shaped the perception of risk from HIV positive men who now think the pros of unsafe sex outweigh many of the risks (Plant). One of these drugs, such as PrEP, is one pill that people who do not have HIV may take if they are at high risk of getting it. In fact, medications such as PrEP or others have allowed for a decreased risk of infection by about 92% (CDC, 2014). While this may seem to contradict the whole reason for bug chasing in that it would prevent the infection, it is theorized that the development of these medications have molded other’s minds into believing that HIV/AIDS crisis isn’t as big of an issue as it once was.
Moving beyond these medications, individuals argue that condoms are common sense and should be used in sex for fighting the bareback phenomenon. Although protective barrier use is not 100% effective, it can be far safer than ‘natural’ sex, as pro-barebackers have argued (Carballo-Dieguez, 2004, p. 7). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states “Consistent and correct use of male latex condoms can reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV (CDC, 2015). Carlos showed the tough implications of barebacking in Freeman’s story. Sex education on HIV/AIDS hasn’t been seen as effective in grooming sexually active people to practice safe sex (Britzman, 1998, p. 265).
Depending on the area, the intentional HIV transmission from one HIV positive partner to an HIV negative partner is punishable by law (CDC, 2014). Currently, there are thirty states within the United States that prosecute HIV positive individuals who knowingly transmit the disease. During the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, various states implemented HIV-specific criminal exposure laws (Lehman, 2014). These laws could impose criminal penalties on those living with HIV who knowingly exposed others to the disease. These laws are regularly enforced through the 1990 Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, which gives states funds for AIDS treatment and care if every state is able to certify that its criminal laws adequately prosecuted any HIV-infected individual who knowingly exposed the disease to another person (Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act). In fact, an analysis in 2011 by CDC and Department of Justice showed that there was a total of 67 laws focused on individuals living with HIV had been created in 33 states (LEhman, 2014). One could argue that the unprotected sex that bug chasers and gift givers is practicing is considered a prosecutable offense. However, the problem here is how can the government regulate bug chasing when it is mostly organized in anonymous methods?
It is believed that bug chasing was born out of the early days of chatrooms. In 2003, when bug chaser chatrooms were on the rise, many of these chatrooms saw a swift decline when host sites began to shut them down for being pro-bug chasing (Freeman, 2003). This caused problems for bug chasers and gift givers to network and perform sexual acts. The first of these anonymous chatrooms was established through Yahoo! in 1998, and grew to nearly 1,500 members by 2002. Shortly after bug chasing came under the scope of journalism, Yahoo! began to hammer down on these chatrooms.
Moving forward to recent times, bug chasing has acquired so much ground that is it now being produced as scenes in homosexual pornography. Treasure Island Media, known for its “taboo” porn production recently unveiled a new category of porn in which HIV positive males have sex with HIV negative bug chasers. Titled “Viral Loads,” the film is described as a ‘gang-bang’ of mostly HIV positive males having sex with an actor (McCasker, 2015). In one particular scene, Treasure Island Media actor Blue Bailey is anally injected with a jar full of 200 positive ejaculations (Viral Loads, 2014). Director Paul Morris highlighted the reasons for the controversy behind bug chasing to be from an identity crisis for gay males. With PrEP being able to “render HIV a non issue,” bug chasers are coming out of the cracks (McCasker, 2015). Morris touches on how a world where HIV positive men are able to practice sex freely will free homosexual males from institution equating sex with fear and death. There is a belief that HIV/AIDS has become a manageable disease, and bug chasers and gift givers are fostering a sort of comradery in which HIV stands for life rather than the grave perception to come out of the post 1990s AIDS scare (Triunfol, 2003).
Whether “Viral Loads” was controversial in the perceived act of bareback sex with positive men, there has been a direct response to unprotected sex in the pornography industry. Carlos’ story and “Viral Loads” come out of two different time periods in the history of mainstream bug chasing.
Although there is no direct correlation between gay pornography production and the practice of bareback sex, it is evident that the practice is imposing problems in more than one way. Five years ago, the adult film industry was rattled when officials of the San Fernando Valley Medica Healthcare Foundation announced an adult film performer tested positive for HIV. Hours after the news, rumors circulated across the internet of HIV infection within the adult film industry of California. This performer’s case would mark the 22nd report of an HIV infection in an adult film performer since 2004 (Lin, 2009).
Many years later in March 2012, a law requiring adult film actors to use condoms took effect in the state of California. Known as measure B, the law was endorsed by AIDS awareness groups when it was passed in an attempt to help protect adult film performers from the spread of various diseases. Most of the discussion behind the bill talks about the bill’s effects on the adult film industry and the health of the actors. However, there are numerous human interest groups that argue this bill prohibits sexual expression (Brinkley, 2015).
Stakeholders within the pornography industry argued that Measure B was seen as way for the government to regulate condomless sex, and that enforcing actors to wear condoms will be unappealing to consumers because they take away the fantasy aspect in bareback pornography (Lupkin, 2015). This sort of regulation challenges bareback and bug chasing expression because it mutes this particular sexual act in pornography, and the people who consume it. In many ways, this attempt to stifle the condomless sex acts of the pornography industry as a violation on the freedom of speech (Lupkin, 2015).
As literature has shown, bug chasing and bareback pornography may have a direct correlation, between those you film it, and those who consume it. The pushback here lies within the laws against sexual expression. Bug chasers within the bareback community should have a right to practice the sex they choose to practice, however, these laws and regulations that are stifling their sexual endeavors. With these laws, the sexual practice of bug chasing may be challenged to the point of sexual repression. Whether is be indirect regulation through the public’s interpretation of Measure B, or the direct regulation formed out of the heel of the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the push back on unprotected sex.
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