When HIV Is Considered A Gift
We talked to an HIV+ man about why some Danes are purposely contracting the virus.
Picture via Wikicommons.
Today, it’s quite hard to tell precisely how many people are infected with the highly contagious disease. Some estimate that more than 40 million are infected with the HIV virus.
Despite the terrifying statistics surrounding the virus, a new tendency has seen the light of day within some Danish homosexual subcultures, where people are deliberately looking to get themselves infected with HIV by a so called "gift giver". The phenomenon is known as "bugchasing".
The idea being, that it’s the ultimate sexual taboo to have unprotected sex with an HIV positive person. Not only that, but the rush from having sex with someone infected is supposedly extremely alluring and arousing. The immediate question that comes to mind is of course, why?
Some figure they are going to end up with HIV eventually, so why not beat it to the chase? The thing is, unfortunately it is possible to get HIV twice. This might sound a bit abstract, but there’s something called a cross infection or a “super infection”. The virus constantly mutates, meaning that HIV is not just one disease. So when engaging in bareback sex with two separate gift givers, you can actually catch two different kinds of HIV. This will of course make treatment more difficult, as it may result in rapid disease progression and resistance to treatments.
I asked the Director of the Copenhagen HIV Programme, Jens Lundgren, about super infections. He explained that “most of the HIV viruses, that circulate worldwide, are receptive to the preparations that are available. There has, though, been incidents where the virus has become resistant to components of the treatment. If such a patient passes on the infection, the newly infected person will also be immune to the same treatment as the donor. There have been accounts, where the person infected the first time was fully receptive to the medication, but then later on became infected with a resilient virus. This is a super infection and that’s a whole other situation.”
Bugchasing thrives on internet dating forums like barebackcity.info and homospot.dk. Here bugchasers can meet and search for gift givers and conversion parties. What makes this dating site different from the ones you already know is forum topics like “penis amputation”, “cum collector” and “fisting - is it difficult?”. Profiles on the site feature the usual specs like age, height, interests and so forth. However, they also include stuff like length, girth, whether or not you’re HIV-positive and whether or not you care.
Here, I came into contact with the HIV positive Martin Wichmann. He’s been an active member of the Danish barebacking fetish scene since he was 27 and agreed to help us shed some light on the subject.
VICE: How prevalent is bugchasing in Denmark?
Martin Wichmann: It’s much more widespread than you would think. I usually see it on homospot.dk, where people call themselves something to do with bugchasing. It’s not something that people hide when it comes to bareback sex. I could log onto my phone right now and find 10 bugchasers online in Denmark. Last night, there was more than 70 online. And that’s just in Denmark. The other day, I saw a 13-year-old on the chat room. He was quickly thrown off. I find it very worrying that high school students have unprotected sex to that extent. They didn’t live in the 80’s and they don’t have the same level of information about the risks and that’s a big problem.
Luckily, the guy that manages Homospot links to information about STDs.
Screenshot of barebackcity.info
What role do these chat rooms play in bugchasing?
You can be whoever you like online, because you’re hidden behind your screen up until the actual physical contact. But the really dangerous people are the ones who don’t know their HIV-status. There’s also some who deliberately keep their status a secret, because it’s a turn on for them to pass on the virus. They feel like a part of them is inside another person. And being infected is not so terrible, because the medicine is so good at keeping you alive. Online you can also encounter folks who are willing pay to have sex with people who have HIV. They pay between 500 – 1.000 kroner. And it’s not a problem finding a “donor”.
There’s also plenty of porn using bugchasing as a theme. What’s your view on this?
It’s called TIM-media; Treasure Island Media. That’s solely bareback sex. I don’t think it’s a good thing to glorify this tendency. I know of a lot people who gets a kick out of it, but I only see it as a thing that helps to make it less of a taboo.
Worrying. So, on these forums, you can also state if you are positive, negative or if you just don’t care. How can you not care?
I’ve been engaged in the fetish and barebacking subculture since I was 27 and it has always been about the most extreme sex possible. The ones who don’t care are the bugchasers – they just strive to get infected. But you’d be surprised how many prominent people I’ve seen in the barebacking community. We’re talking journalists, doctors, academics and celebrities.
Really? What’s the appeal then? Is it the ultimate taboo?
I don’t personally see it as the ultimate sexual taboo. I don’t understand how people can do this knowingly and willingly. One thing is to have sex without a condom, but it’s a whole other story when guys purposely choose to have unprotected sex with guys with HIV. I’ve had some ask me if I take my medication and when I say that I do, they reply that it’s a shame. Some can’t get it toxic enough. And they don’t care if you’re 50 or a 19-year-old high school student. They have no regard for the consequences.
Profile on barebackcity.info
They just don’t care?
I think that after the medicine came out and homosexuals no longer died like flies, it became more acceptable. I’ve heard people say: ”you can just take your medicine and then you’re safe”. That might be, but you do have to take your fucking medicine. It doesn’t work forever either. I’ve tried that myself. At the start of this year, I almost died because the treatment stopped working. I was down to 56 kilos and spent three months in isolation where visitors had to wear these space suits.
But why doesn’t that risk scare them off?
I think the problem is, that people aren't aware of the risks. It’s fine to have info nights at Rigshospitalet once a year, but the people who show up there are already sick. I reckon you can call the first 20 high schools in Denmark and none of them will have had any kind of lectures about the risks of unprotected sex. So the homosexuals see it as a form of freedom: ”I can do as I please and have unprotected sex, because I already have the disease.” Also, in Denmark you don’t suffer economical consequences if you get sick. I think if people had to pay for treatment themselves, they would take more responsibility. For instance, it would cost me around 7.000-8.000 kroner a month.
And some even refuse to take their medication?
It’s a kick for them. It’s part of the whole culture surrounding the virus and the fetish community, that it has to be as extreme as possible. A lot of people with the disease get the biohazard symbol tattooed to show that they’re contagious. It’s an obvious symbol. I had one made to avoid too many questions. Take it or leave it.
Wow. What’s being done here to advertise safe sex?
In Denmark we have safe-sex-nuns; drag queens dressed as nuns who go around handing out condoms and preach about STDs. They do it in a fun and humorous way.
Should more funding go towards info and advertising about STDs and safe sex?
I strongly believe that a bigger portion of government funding should go towards preventing the spreading of HIV. I feel that funds go towards research instead of information. Researching treatment is good and all, but that won’t stop the spreading of the virus. It’s not at all visible in the gay communities. And the education has to include everything from elementary school to high school. Most of the young gays I meet don’t know, what the fuck they’re doing. Another problem is all the young bisexuals on the less extreme forums like boyfriend.dk. A lot of them don’t care either. And then the virus isn't contained within the gay community.
Do you think, that the shift in focus from prevention to treatment has helped make it more socially acceptable?
The information mostly focuses on what you can do, once you’ve caught the virus, instead of how you can avoid it. And the propaganda never reaches the sex clubs. Amigo Sauna in Studiestræde is 800 square meters spread across three stories. The place is all about barebacking. They have condoms, but only in the lobby on the ground floor. When you get in, they give you one condom. And then you have to walk three stories down to get another. This doesn’t exactly promote safe sex. Back in the day, we had 20-liter canisters with lube and free condoms delivered. That’s not really the case anymore.
What can you do to keep safe, when contraception’s out of the picture?
I save peoples real names and online screen names on my phone. I do that, so in case I get, let’s say syphilis, I can call the people I’ve been with to inform them. Everyone should have a little black book, because you could potentially be giving people a death sentence.
I keep coming back to the question of “why”?
I think that people feel it gives them some form of freedom. You become blind to the safe sex propaganda once you’re infected. They also had medicine in the 80’s, but there’s no longer any advertising on STDs and safe sex, while millions are spent on research. The treatment is now just one pill a day.
Like birth control?
Yes. There’s also the “pep-cure”, in case the condom bursts. It’s like a sort of HIV morning after pill, that’s extremely hard on your body. You’ll be sick day and night for a week after taking that. I only recall one person, who has taken one of those.
So how do we solve this?
That’s a tough question. I would say more information in the media. More TV and social media awareness instead of posters. We have to show the downside of being sick, instead of just showing how well you can live on the medication. There should be a proper campaign to reach the young target audience on the platforms and devices they use. Air television commercials between Paradise Hotel and Teen Mom. And make it work with young people like a Coca Cola commercial would. No more finger pointing from doctors in white coats.
Thanks a lot Martin.
Follow Esben on Twitter @EElborne