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Bug Chasers

January 30, 2003

I went on to the Drudge Report today and read this: "MAG: 25% OF NEW HIV-INFECTED GAY MEN SOUGHT OUT VIRUS, SAYS SAN FRAN HEALTH OFFICIAL." Is there any truth to this? I sincerely hope that it's not true and that Matt Drudge's "journalist" badge is revoked!

Can't Trust Drudge

Sorry, CTD, but we can't take away Drudge's journalism badge. First, there's no such thing as a journalism badge (good thing, too, since I probably couldn't get one), and second, the claim that 25 percent of all new HIV infections in gay men are intentional wasn't made by Matt Drudge. Drudge doesn't do much actual reporting; any Drudge Report regular can tell you that his website is almost entirely composed of links to stories in other publications. All Drudge is guilty of is disseminating a claim made in the February issue of Rolling Stone.

Gregory Freeman wrote the story that Drudge trumpeted on his website. Freeman's piece focuses on so-called "bug chasers," HIV-negative gay men who are actively trying to get infected, and "gift givers," HIV-positive gay men who are only too happy to infect other gay men. After a depressing slog through the cracked thinking of one bug chaser, Freeman whips a little amateur psychoanalysis on us ("...deliberately infecting themselves is the ultimate taboo... and that has a strong erotic appeal for some men who have tried everything else."), then introduces Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral-health services for San Francisco County.

"Some men consciously seek the virus," Freeman writes, paraphrasing Cabaj, "while many more are just as actively seeking HIV but are in denial and wouldn't call themselves bug chasers." Then Freeman blows his wad, spewing the shocking sound bite that the Drudge Report made famous: "Cabaj estimates that at least 25 percent of all newly infected gay men fall into that category," i.e., guys consciously or subconsciously seeking the virus.

The day after Drudge broke the story, Cabaj accused Freeman of fabricating his quotes. In an interview with Newsweek, Cabaj denied ever saying that 25 percent of the new infections in gay men are due to bug chasing. Freeman told Newsweek that he quoted Cabaj accurately and implied that Cabaj got cold feet once the story hit the cable news talk shows. "I can only imagine that now that it's getting a lot of attention," Freeman told Newsweek, "people are getting worried."

Who to believe? On the one hand, I know from personal experience that at least 25 percent of the people who work in AIDS--how can I put this nicely?--are gutless wonders. People who work in HIV/AIDS have told me things in on-the-record interviews that they denied saying once their quotes were published and the shit hit the fan. On the other hand, Freeman goes on to make such a huge, glaring, obvious error that any reasonable person has to doubt his skills as a reporter--and his motives. After trotting out the 25 percent figure, Freeman writes this: "With about 40,000 new infections in the United States per year, according to government reports, that would mean around 10,000 each year are attributable to that more liberal definition of bug chasing."

Uh, no. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are "approximately 40,000 new HIV infections occurring in the United States every year," only 42 percent of the total figure are occurring in men who have sex with men. (The rest are attributed to heterosexual sex and IV drug use.) That means the number of new infections in gay and bisexual men each year is roughly 17,000, not 40,000. Even if that sensational 25 percent figure is accurate--and that's one motherfuckin' huge if (there's no data backing it up, only a disputed quote)--then that would mean there are "only" 4,200 conscious and subconscious bug chasers getting infected every year, not 10,000. What's worse, by lumping conscious bug chasers (a very small number of very crazy assholes) in with subconscious bug chasers (a comparatively large number of self-destructive gay dopes), Freeman dishonestly distorts the scale of the problem.

Considering how badly Freeman botched some relatively simple stats and how he distorts the size of the problem, Freeman's entire piece is easily dismissed. But the damage has been done--thanks in part to Drudge--and the 25 percent figure, as Andrew Sullivan complained in Salon last week, "will soon be accepted as fact," despite the story having "completely fallen apart."

But I don't think Freeman's story has completely fallen apart. While the 25 percent figure is clearly bullshit, the barebacking websites Freeman writes about are real and some men with HIV are only too willing to engage in unprotected sex with guys who aren't HIV-positive. And before gay men congratulate themselves for "only" making up 42 percent of all new HIV infections, consider this: Gay and bisexual men make up only three percent of the population. Regardless of how gay men are getting the virus--bug chasing? stupid risk taking?--they are getting infected at appalling rates.

And why are gay men getting infected at such alarming rates? There's a clue in the Rolling Stone piece....

When I read Freeman's story, I didn't think that the now-infamous "25 percent" stat was the most shocking quote in it. To my mind that honor goes to Daniel Castellanos, assistant director of community education at Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York. Castellanos was asked if he would attempt to talk someone out of trying to catch HIV. "If someone comes to me and says he wants to get HIV," Castellanos replied, "I might work with him around the why.... But if in the end that's a decision he wants to make, there's a point where we have to respect people's decisions."

While active "bug chasing" may only account for a handful of new infections in gay men, the inability of HIV/AIDS educators to aggressively challenge gay men surely accounts for a large chunk. Since the arrival of effective treatments for HIV, gay men in urban areas have been busily re-creating the kind of sexual subcultures that laid out the welcome mat for HIV in the 1970s. The infection rates of HIV and other STDs are soaring and--who knows?--perhaps some unknown STD is gaining a toehold in urban gay scenes, just as HIV did in the '70s. And at the same time that the infection rates of HIV and other STDs are rising among gay men, the education strategy in vogue at GMHC and other AIDS organizations is this: We must respect the decisions gay men make--up to and including the decision to get infected with HIV for shits and giggles. That strategy seems as bizarre as it does ineffective.

Perhaps it's time for GMHC and other AIDS groups to start telling gay men the truth. Taking stupid sexual risks--even if risk turns you on--is reckless; anal sex on the first date--even with condoms--is a bad idea; giving someone HIV--even if he wants it--is immoral; being a huge fucking slut--as popular as that might make you--has physical and emotional consequences.

So long as AIDS educators refuse to challenge gay men, HIV infection rates will continue to rise. That's the real scandal, CTD, not the link on Drudge or the story Freeman wrote or the ineptitude of Rolling Stone's editors.

mail@savagelove.net

 

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