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The Gift: Bugchasing/gift-giving, assimilation, and managing the gay body

Jonathan Stafstrom

The Gift:

Bugchasing/gift-giving, assimilation, and managing the gay body

During the mid-1980s, HIV emerged as an epidemic-level viral crisis in the gay male communities of America and the Western world. At the time, mainstream medical, legal, and social discourses marginalized homosexuality as a fringe and immoral lifestyle; hence, federal and mainstream medical response to the crisis was sluggish and negligent at first (Barry, 333). However, as HIV’s death toll rose, government agencies as well as hospitals began to actively mobilize significant efforts against the spread of the virus. The effect of these responses was sweeping. Prior mainstream constructions of homosexuality as a deviant, antisocial behavior quickly gave way to a redefinition of the gay community as a besieged and sympathetic minority (Barry, 334). A plethora of literature promoting safe sex in the gay community arose, charging gay men to alter their sexual practices and adopt socially and morally responsible sex lives; the gay man, incorporated into mainstream medical-legal discourse, was reconstituted as a moral agent. From the perspective of gay communities, a similar transformation took place. Mainstream society, which had previously functioned as a source of anti-gay violence and exclusion, was reimagined as a sympathetic refuge offering resources and medical aid to the besieged gay community (ibid). Like any totalizing discourse, these narratives, which sought to reposition gay men as sympathetic moral subjects and participants in mainstream society, spawned numerous rival counter-discourses. Perhaps the most extreme and violently contrarian of these is known as bugchasing.

In outright defiance of emerging mainstream attempts to simultaneously manage HIV and the sexual practices which contributed to its spread, a very small fringe of gay men began to voluntarily and actively seek infection. Adopting the terms “bugchasers” (HIV-negative men seeking the virus) and “gift-givers” (HIV-positive men who participated in spreading it), these men covertly organized “conversion parties” (The Gift), in which uninfected men would participate in group unprotected sex with infected partners. The goal, of course, was infection with HIV. Bugchasing and gift-giving practices will hereafter be abbreviated BC/GG; the reader is advised to keep in mind the dualistic nature of this abbreviation, as it refers to both bugchasing (receptive/“passive”) and gift-giving (penetrative/“active”) roles.

BC/GG practices are consistently looked upon by mainstream society as beyond the pale of sanity and comprehensibility, dismissing it as a serious psychological sickness or simple idiocy. Such dismissals greatly oversimplify the complex sexual, medical, and political discourses through which BC/GG speaks, reaffirming mainstream ideologies of health and selfhood while failing to genuinely examine BC/GG’s rich amalgam of perverse discourses as well as the unique structure of its contrarian relationship the dominant discourses it defies. This paper will attempt such an investigation.

BC/GG can be classed as an extreme subset of the barebacking scene, itself a marginal group within the larger world of gay sexual practices. Barebacking refers to unprotected anal intercourse among men who reject condom use. Barebackers frequently describe their antagonism towards condoms as simply tactile, describing them erotic anathema (Barry). Additionally, many HIV-positive barebackers partner exclusively with other infected men, rendering irrelevant the transmission-preventative function of condoms. While all bugchasers and gift-givers are barebackers by definition, BC/GG dramatically extends the premises of barebacking. BC/GG practices reject condom use, but not on simply physical or practical grounds. Rather, bugchasers and gift-givers violently challenge the ideology of condom use at its root.

Individual members of the BC/GG subculture tend to defend justify their radical choices through the deployment of one or more of BC/GG’s most common defenses. Although these classes of rationale often overlap heavily in the accounts of individual men, they are generally distinguishable into three categories, namely the medical, the erotic, and the communal.

The medical defense of BC/GG responds most directly to mainstream attitudes and practices regarding the prevention and regulation of HIV. In this account, bugchasers generally describe an overwhelming anxiety about the virus, and point to seroconversion as the only true form of relief. As a young HIV+ man who acquired the disease through bugchasing states in Louise Hogarth’s documentary The Gift (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003):

“Give me the gift. Then I won’t have to worry about it no more. You’re gonna get [HIV] no matter what. So why not?”

Such accounts describe HIV as an inevitability to which sexually active gay men are doomed; in conjunction with this pessimism, bugchasers often implicitly or explicitly condemn the medical community’s failure to find a cure for the virus, and claim that seroconversion—“giving in”—is the only true solution to their feelings of deep fear and anxiety about HIV.

The erotic justification for BC/GG replicates the rhetoric of its parent discourse, barebacking, in describing the technologies of HIV management, specifically condoms, as unpleasant measures which limit sexual enjoyment. However, BC/GG extends this antagonism to safe sex by actually eroticizing the HIV virus itself. HIV+ men are regarded within the BC/GG community with an admiration that translates to sexual desirability. This high status is linked to the internal hierarchal structure of sexual roles within BC/GG practice: bugchasers, HIV-negative men seeking the virus, significantly tend towards a receptive “bottom” role in anal intercourse, while gift-givers, possessing both the virus and its associated status, tend towards dominant, penetrative “top” roles (Grov and Parsons, 490). It is interesting to note that as much as these roles are socially constituted, they directly mirror the biological transmission pattern of the virus: receptive participants in anal intercourse are statistically more prone to HIV infection (ibid).

Finally, there is the communal defense of BC/GG, which is perhaps the most politicized and contrarian of the practice’s three major justifications. In this line of defense, bugchasers lament the assimilationism caused by the mainstream legitimatization and medicalization of gay sexual practices via HIV management efforts, and yearn for the reclamation of countercultural gay solidarity. Accounts of this kind are inflected by nostalgia for a gay identity and community defined by a sense of shared otherness: a dangerous, inassimilable, and common queerness.

Gay communities prior to the HIV epidemic had been thoroughly rejected by mainstream society. In response, some communities, such as the New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles gay bar and leather scenes, had established strongly countercultural social networks that rejected the mores and moralities of the straight world. Such communities had long been familiar with risk, as their very existence crouched in the shadows of heterosexist violence and exclusion; the HIV epidemic dramatically reconfigured that risk, relocating danger to the interiors (indeed, the very bedrooms) of gay communities while recasting the external establishment as a supposedly sympathetic and benign ally.

Let it not be said, however, that pre-epidemic gay men and gay communities were universally and completely barred from participation in society at large, nor that anti-HIV campaigning originated solely, or at all, in the mainstream heterosexual medical establishment. On the contrary, mobilization against AIDS was largely initiated by the gay men to whom it was a life-threatening reality (Hequembourg and Arditi, 666). Anti-HIV medical work was not limited to mainstream hospitals and providers: APOs (AIDS Prevention Organizations), many of them staffed and organized by queer people, sprung up swiftly in the wake of the epidemic. Nonetheless, the anti-HIV interventions of heterosexual mainstream authorities can be definitively credited with at least one of the most socially important changes brought on by the epidemic: gay assimilationism.

HIV panic within the gay community prompted widespread (and, as time has shown, widely successful) compliance with medical establishment authorities in the adoption of a safe-sex culture. Likewise, the newly sympathetic attitude in which mainstream discourse framed the gay community began to offer gay men previously unthinkable degrees of safety, opportunity, and acceptance within the heterosexual world. This dialectical “truce” effectively gave rise to the possibility of true gay assimilation—a teleology which, despite various setbacks, has only continued to gain strength since its inception in the early nineties.

Despite the “progress” trumpeted by both gay activists and mainstream culture, some gay men felt confused, alienated, or even enraged by this rapid redefinition of the gay community’s place in society (Hequembourg and Arditi, 670-71). Bugchasers were not the only gay men to react towards assimilationism with suspicion and anger; similar reactions could be found among many politically-charged groups and subsets within the gay community, such as the Radical Faeries and Gay Shame, which mobilized activist efforts against both mainstream society and the assimilationist gay leadership. Bugchasers and gift-givers are in some ways sons of this larger movement. Yet their response to assimilation was carried in out in a much less public and far more radical, dangerous form of activism. The radicalism of BC/GG took place not in the streets, but in privacy, in secrecy; it is not a political radicalism of theories and ideologies, but rather a physical radicalism of the body and its use.

It is precisely the use of the gay body—that is, its social, moral, and medical constitution—which assimilation aggressively redefined, and which BC/GG resisted so violently. Prevention campaigns made specific demands of gay men, which, although organized around specific sexual practices and behaviors, enforced far-reaching ideological consequences. Demands that gay men adopt the practices of condom use, HIV testing, and reduced promiscuity equated an ideological demand that gay men must adopt a self-policing culture of sexual morality, that they must take subjective responsibility for their own bodies as well as for the overall health of the gay community, and that they must cooperate with and abide by the attempts of the mainstream medical establishment to help them. In short, gay men were demanded to participate in a collective, individualized, cooperative, moral engagement with the technologies of HIV prevention. These demands, unquestionably, are identical to the demands of assimilation. They are the requirements for mainstream acceptance.

Such demands were not only addressed to individual gay men, but also to the gay community as a whole—that is, the gay body politic. The individual gay subject’s experience of initial HIV anxiety, followed by self-disciplining changes to sexual practices and, finally, the adoption of a new and privileged relationship with medical authorities and discourses, is a microcosmic reflection of the gay community’s assimilation narrative on the whole. The original problem of the HIV epidemic has, in social practice, been eclipsed by the scope and wide-ranging consequences of this narrative. Prevention discourses have succeeded in preventing not only HIV as an epidemic but also the collective, “epidemic” otherness of the gay body/body politic. The search for a cure campaign, fundamental to the discourse of HIV prevention, has effectively become a “cure” in and of itself. Its multimillion-dollar fundraising campaigns and its ubiquitous media coverage have succeeded in suturing the transformed gay self into mainstream society. The search for a cure has “cured” gay otherness.

The three justifications for BC/GG work together to function as a triple challenge to this narrative. Sardonically mocking the attempt to medically manage/control HIV, and standing by the notion that infection is the only real cure for HIV-related anxiety, BC/GG refutes and “queers” the teleological narrative of the search for a cure. On another level, BC/GG eroticizes and thereby deeply subjectifies the individual gay men’s relationship to the AIDS virus, reconstructing the objective menace presented by prevention rhetoric as a “gift” and fusing the biological roles associated with HIV transmission with personal sexual roles. Finally, BC/GG categorically refuses the subject position demanded by prevention discourse. It wages war—suicidal war—against the newly constructed responsible, moral, technologically and socially domesticated gay body.

BC/GG ideology can be understood as overwhelmingly negative, in the sense that it is focused on negating the discourses it antagonizes. BC/GG negates the discourses and practices of assimilation, their moralities, their demands for engagement. It negates the assimilationist gay body in both a conceptual and physical way, waging suicidal violence against it. Furthermore, BC/GG resistance to the assimilated, “cured” gay body (politic) nostalgically identifies with the “negative” subject positions of the pre-epidemic, pre-assimilation gay community. Its discourse recalls that earlier form of gay experience, a subjectivity lived out in the rigidly binarized pre-epidemic world: marginal, other, enclosed, antagonized by and antagonistic to straight society—in short, the negative Other to heterosexuality’s positive self. Whereas the reconfigured gay subject, saved by his assimilation, is “cured” of the marginality that once characterized the gay experience, bugchasers and gift-givers remember all to clearly the violent otherness of the past, inflicting it suicidally upon themselves as scars of a lost identity, a lost community.

Works Cited

Grov, Christian and Jeffrey Parsons. Bug Chasing and Gift Giving: The Potential for HIV Transmission Among Barebackers on the Internet. The Guilford Press, Vol. 18, No. 6 (December 2006), pp. 490-503.

Adam, Barry D. Constructing the Neoliberal Sexual Actor: Responsibility and Care of the Self in the Discourse of Barebackers. Culture, Health & Sexuality, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2005), pp. 333-346

Hequembourg, Amy and Jorge Arditi. Fractured Resistances: The Debate over Assimilationism among Gays and Lesbians in the United States. The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 663-680

The Gift. dir. Louise Hogarth. Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003.

One Response
  1. March 30, 2009

    I find this topic quite fascinating. As a mainstream heterosexual woman who grew up during the AIDS epidemic, I had never thought about the way that mainstream society was essentially forcing the gay community to abide by its rules. What I saw at the time was a disease that was killing people simply because they were homosexual men. I also saw (I was 16-ish at the time) a disease that threatened me as well. And that makes me wonder if some of the bugchasers/giftgivers considered this aspect of their activities. You seem to have covered most of the ground in terms of why and how this activity is countercultural, but this seems to me a gap. Does the mainstream (outside of seriously conservative people who think homosexuality is a sin) still feel physically threatened by AIDS as it is embodied in gay male bodies? Or would they if they knew of this practice? And if so, what would it mean to the BC/GG community? It seems to me they’re mostly concerned with the gay community (assimilated as it is, it’s still not entirely mainstream).

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