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Is Deliberate HIV Exposure a Rite of Passage
The term barebacking originated in the gay community as a slang for unprotected anal intercourse. The term is also used but not as frequently in the heterosexual community as a reference to unprotected sexual intercourse. Who uses the term is not important. What is important is the link between HIV and barebacking. And as unlikely as it would seem, Health professionals and HIV prevention specialists are seeing an unbelievable phenomenon among a small group of gay men. These gay men have expressed the desire to to get exposed and in some cases hope for HIV infection.
Can This Be True?
Often called "bug chasers" among the gay community, these men seek out other gay men who are infected, in hopes of having unprotected sex, barebacking, in an effort to become infected with HIV. Across the Internet, chat rooms and newsgroups are advertising "conversion parties" where negative men seek out those who are positive in hopes of getting infected. This practice of having deliberate unprotected anal sex has the potential to cause widespread HIV infection, especially among gay men and men who seek out anonymous sexual partners on the Internet
How Common is This Practice
The number of gay men looking to become positive seems to be growing. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (The CDC) reports a new surge in the incidence of HIV among gay males, in part due to this unthinkable practice. But what can drive such a desire? Why would a life with HIV be desirable to some?
Why Do Healthy Men Want To Be Infected?
There are some very strong beliefs at work among men who bareback looking for HIV infection.
• No More Isolation
For some men, being infected is a way out of their isolation and loneliness. Social stigmas and prejudices add to an already strong feeling of isolation. The belief is that once infected, they will be welcomed into a supportive community where prejudice and stigma does not exist. For these men, HIV is a rite of passage into the gay community. Being positive gets you into the "family."
• A Different Perspective
When asked about being infected, men who are seeking out HIV infection show little fear. These feel HIV is simply a nuisance that can be treated with a few pills; a small price to pay to be a member of such a close knit group. One gay man reported an incredible feeling of belonging when he learned of his positive HIV status. Just as a teen-age boy joins a gang to belong to a family, so does the gay man who practice barebacking in hopes of becoming HIV positive.
• A Sense of Relief
Others who become infected feel a profound sense of relief. Some sexually active gay men grow tired of living with the uncertainty of if and when they will become HIV positive. Some are so troubled by that uncertainty that multiple HIV tests become the only means of dealing with what they feel is the inevitable. One man's face glowed with a sense of relief after his doctor told him he had been infected. He would never again have to worry if he had been infected because now he knew he had.
• A Sense of Intimacy
Still others are longing for a sense of intimacy. To these men, anal sex feels better and more intimate without condoms. They feel condoms decrease sensitivity and spontaniety. Others feel barebacking is a type of sexual intimacy they equate with mating and infection is equated with impregnating. Some even go as far as choosing the man who will "father" their infection. One gay man reported the most incredible feeling of intimacy being united with other gay men through HIV. Another allowed his positive partner to infect him as a way to show how deep his commitment was. Oddly enough, as soon as he found out he was positive, the man and his partner began using condoms.
• What Drives the Gift Giver?
But what of the positive man who infects the willing. What drives them to knowingly give an illness to an otherwise healthy man? One "gift giver", as positive men are often called, reported,
"It was the most incredible feeling of power. I was going to take something from him, and that power gave me a rush I'd never known."
Among this population of barebackers there is a distinct connection between masculinity, sexual prowess, and intentional unprotected anal sex.
Deliberatly seeking out HIV is a practice few of us would understand. Is such a practice a cry for help, a sign of depression or just a symptom of social stigmas and prejudices? Whatever drives this practice, one thing is for certain; it helps drive the epidemic. But before we can address the issue we have to understand it. As one gay man stated soon after he found out he had become HIV positive, "It's impossible to know how great it feels unless you have been where I have."
Halkitis, PN. "Intentional unsafe sex (barebacking) among hiv-positive gay men who seek sexual partners on the internet."; AIDS Care 2003 Jun;15(3):367-78.