According to recent news reports, so-called "sex roulette parties," in which one person is secretly infected with HIV and nobody at the party is allowed to use condoms, are allegedly "on the rise" across Spain, mostly among gay men but not exclusively. It sounds completely shocking, and it suggests, as Dr. Josep Mallolas of Hospital Clinic Barcelona told the Spanish newspaper El Periódico, that people have "lost respect" for HIV.
Partygoers have been said to enjoy the "thrill" of not knowing whether they'd end up infected. However, it's not clear how big this risk actually is: Mallolas said some of his patients attend "blue" parties, where attendees take anti-retroviral medication like Truvada to reduce their risk of infection.
In an email to Broadly, Mallolas acknowledged that he didn't know exactly how big the phenomenon was. "I really don't know how often it occurs because I only know some anecdotal reports from some of my patients," he said. He also indicated that, contrary to what some outlets have claimed, the practice isn't contributing to a statistically significant rise of STDs treated by his hospital.
But even if sex roulette isn't happening on significant scale, it's still befuddling that anyone would treat the prospect of HIV infection as a game.
David Moskowitz, a professor at New York Medical College and an expert on so-called "bug chasers," or people who actively try to contract HIV through sex, thinks the people who attend sex roulette parties have reached a level of boredom with all other sexual avenues and are looking for something risky to get their adrenaline pumping again.
"They've exhausted a traditional sexual experience or even diverse and elaborate sex, like having an orgy or engaging in BDSM," he says. As a result, it can be thrilling for these people to have sex with someone who's HIV positive and not become infected. "It reinforces the fact that you did something somewhat dangerous. Nothing bad happened, but it still felt good."
They've exhausted a traditional sexual experience or even diverse and elaborate sex, like having an orgy or engaging in BDSM.
In an interview with the website the Body, one avowed bug chaser described the threat of infection as arousing.
"Every bit of sex I had was a real turn on [sic] because I knew there was a chance of getting it," he said. But once that goal was met, sex became less pleasurable. "Nowadays, I can't even get an erection most of the time," he continued. "It's just not the same."
For those who do want to experience the risk of being of being "bred" or "initiated into the brotherhood," having any other kind of sex can feel like a letdown. Moskowitz likens it to having sex on meth frequently.
"It's the same thing with chemsex, which allows you to do lots of diverse and dangerous things," he says. "Once you've allowed yourself to get high and have sex with ten people or get fisted and do water sports, how can you ever go back to having plain Jane sex?"
Nevertheless, Moskowitz said he doesn't think many of the attendees actually want to be infected—they just wanted to think that infection is a possibility. "For those who are taking Truvada, the risk is very low. It's sort of like playing around with a gun without any bullets in it."
Christian Grov is a sociologist who teaches at CUNY and has been working in HIV prevention since 1999. He thinks the number of people who get off on things like sex roulette is low. After asking if he could take a second to close his office door, he gave me the lowdown.
"Look, for every fetish that's out there, you can find someone who's into it," Grov said. "If you want to find someone with one leg who wants to dress up in a clown costume and have a threesome with you and a rubber duck, you can find this person in the world. So certainly these parties are real and possible. But is it a thing? Probably not."
Grov would know; he wrote the book on it. Back in 2006, he published what would be his last paper on bug-chasing—a topic he believes was overblown.
"The people who identified as bug chasers—or 'gift givers'—are already a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the population, and their behavior didn't match up with how they identified. You had people who were HIV+ but who said they were bug chasers; you had people who said they were gift givers, but they were full-time bottoms.
"That's why, from a personal standpoint, I didn't feel like [bug chasing] was a public health crisis," he continued. "If we were going to channel our resources to try to stop this epidemic, channeling them here would do very little."