A Rolling Stone magazine story alleging 10,000 gay men per year are knowingly contracting HIV in order to join the brotherhood has been labelled misleading and irresponsible by US journalists and gay rights activists.

Bug Chasers appears in Rolling Stone’s 6 February US edition, featuring the story of Carlos (not his real name), an HIV-negative gay man who surfs internet sites in the hope of finding a sex partner to knock [him] up with the virus.

Carlos’s story makes compelling reading. What else can happen to us after this? You can fuck whoever you want, fuck as much as you want, and nothing worse can happen to you. Nothing bad can happen after you get HIV, he says in the Rolling Stone article.

While the idea of a small number of men knowingly becoming infected with HIV is nothing new in Australia or the US, Rolling Stone writer Gregory Freeman did provide a new angle -“ San Francisco psychiatrist and county director of behavioural health services Bob Cabaj.

Freeman alleged in his story Cabaj told him approximately a quarter of new HIV cases in the US were bug chasers, gay men who deliberately picked up the virus.

The writer turned Cabaj’s estimate into a 10,000 men figure -“ of the approximately 40,000 people who contracted HIV in the past 12 months -“ ignoring the fact that only 45 percent of HIV infections in the US were related to gay sex.

Cabaj has since denied giving the figure -“ but he told Newsweek he denied it before the magazine hit the stands.

That’s totally false. I never said that. And when the fact checker [from Rolling Stone] called me and asked me if I said that, I said no, he told Newsweek.

The other medical source used in the story, Boston’s Marshall Forstein, has also denied saying the practice was widespread, regularly seen and growing.

That is entirely a fabrication. I have seen two such cases in the last three years, and I can count on one hand how many patients like that I’ve seen in the last 21 years. I said this was a small phenomenon, that it’s a real and significant phenomenon for a specific group of men. The real phenomenon in the gay community is that many gay men do not take safe sex seriously, Dr Forstein told the Washington Times.

Andrew Sullivan on Salon.com said the story read like Jerry Falwell channelling Hunter S. Thompson.

None of the major AIDS and gay specialists interviewed by Freeman agreed that this was a major phenomenon, let alone responsible for 25 percent of all new HIV infections, Sullivan wrote.

The first thing a journalist has to do is find out if the phenomenon exists to any real extent, how significant it is, and how widespread it is -“ especially when it deploys the most sensational language to describe an already beleaguered and feared subculture. That’s why this piece isn’t journalism. It’s hysteria, wrapped in a homophobic and HIV-phobic wrapper, Sullivan wrote.

According to Newsweek, Rolling Stone editor Ed Needham said he would stand by the story, the writer and the fact checker.

Australian Rolling Stone editor Elissa Blake said she had received the story but had not decided whether or not to run it.

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