On the web, sexual fantasies rule, according to the conservative gay United States commentator and net blogger Andrew Sullivan. You can be who you want, and ask for what your dreams desire, he essentially says, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will carry your cyber fetish out in real life.

The HIV-positive Sullivan’s comments might well have been a long awaited response about his own internet shenanigans -“ he was caught out some time ago advertising for bareback sex -“ but instead he was directing his ire at the US edition of Rolling Stone magazine, and its recent expos?n bug chasers, the new buzz phrase for gay men who deliberately seek to be infected with the virus.

The article did not appear in the magazine’s Australian edition, but the nub of its message has been promulgated by internet news services and even radio stations in this country: that 25 percent of gay men chase HIV. Not necessarily because they have a death wish, mind you, but bug chasers see the HIV-AIDS community as something to which they might belong.

The 25 percent figure was plucked from the air, attributed in the Rolling Stone article to a San Francisco psychiatrist who, like others quoted, has since said he has been misquoted. The dodgy accounting of men who go bug chasing used in the Rolling Stone article includes barebackers -“ men who seek and celebrate casual anal sex without condoms -“ most of whom would probably not see themselves as courting death, consciously or otherwise. I agree with Sullivan that this is shoddy journalism, at least in terms of its sensational number crunching.

But the article -“ and Sullivan’s decision to weigh into the issue -“ provides a useful context for the real, bigger problem. The parlance of barebacking has entered the Australian gay lexicon, and AIDS organisations are not sufficiently addressing it. Their safe-sex material and campaigns need to confront the Americanisation of the language and the misguided romantic notions of sexual outlawry that in this case go with it.

Granted, there’s nothing new under the sun about unsafe sex. But barebacking as a term ties the practice in a bright, euphemistic ribbon. It may well be fair enough for two people who are HIV-positive or two who are HIV-negative to decide to ditch the condoms.

Barebacking, however, is something altogether different for those on the sexual merry-go-round, where status is unknown and rarely divulged.

Last year, I had lunch with the Victorian AIDS Council’s president to discuss the rising numbers of HIV cases in that state over the past few years (oddly not replicated so far in figures in other states). I asked him about barebacking. He thought the term had some currency in Australia, but had not particularly caught on here.

I disagree. American culture very quickly becomes world culture. I’ve been approached with the question of whether I want bareback sex. Declarations by a small but significant number of gay men that they practise safe sex sometimes soon give way to the query: Do you bareback?

Quoted in the Rolling Stone article, poor young case study Carlos -“ not his real name, forgive the clich? probably gets to the heart of the bigger barebacking problem when he contemplates the consequences of his bug chasing: It’s like living with diabetes. You take a few pills and get on with your life.

The rejoinder to this proposition probably comes best from Melbourne drag queen Feral Beral in her posting on the Rolling Stone website: I’m HIV-positive and did not catch it through bug chasing. The story has made a strong impression on me to help teach others that HIV isn’t a picnic. No-one would willingly want to be HIV-positive once they knew what it is really like.

Rolling Stone’s Australian editor, Elissa Blake, says the article will not be appearing in the local version of the magazine, or its other five international editions, following a decision by the magazine’s US editors to restrict the story to the parent magazine.

AIDS Council of NSW president Adrian Lovney says debates about bug chasing, barebacking, and unprotected sex have swirled around Sydney for a long time. Introducing Louise Hogarth’s US documentary on these topics, The Gift, at the Mardi Gras film festival this year -“ also screened in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival last month -“ Lovney said his problem with the debate was that it mixes irresponsibility with those at the extreme end seeking infection.

It is true that there are a proportion of gay men who are deliberately seeking out exposure to the virus for some reason -“ described by others as -˜acting out’, he says. We must listen to these men’s stories because they are important to our overall response to HIV.

But it would be unfair and irresponsible to extrapolate their behaviour across the entire gay community as the moral majority in America have done.

Likewise, I’m not saying bug chasing doesn’t exist. Enough people here in Australia seem to think it’s a real phenomenon. Not necessarily new, mind you. One gay man told me: Well, they’ve finally put a name to it, have they? Bug chaser is both distinctive and catchy, and finally gives a name to some men I first encountered in Melbourne [several years ago].

There was a small group of gay men who were negative and, simply, wanted to be positive. Reasons varied: government entitlements -¦ a lover recently diagnosed -¦ [and] perhaps the most frightening, those who just wanted to experience what a -˜minority’ were experiencing.

Someone needs to do the epidemiological research on this phenomenon, regardless of what the outside (i.e. non-gay) world might think. Then, obviously rogue estimates like 25 percent can be easily refuted. That research simply doesn’t exist, here or anywhere.

Such research should not dilute a concerted effort going into educating barebackers, however. One offshore internet bareback site now has hundreds of men from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and other Australian cities advertising on it.

Adrian Lovney says men who have made a conscious decision sometimes not to use condoms are not dangerous, irresponsible, or evil. They’re human. I agree with Lovney that demonising such people who slip up is wrong. He made an analogy with drink driving -“ something we’re all tempted to do out of convenience.

But the growing march towards the bareback online chat rooms -“ to militantly insist that it is your right to bareback, to put pressure on people to do away with the condoms when they have already made it clear they only engage in safe sex -“ is worse than irresponsible. We have a reluctance to criticise our own in this regard, in both their behaviour and our response to it.

Says one man working in the gay media in Australia: AIDS education has gone down the pan. I can’t recall a
single memorable HIV education campaign from recent years.

So when the warning messages become stale, what then?

Are Australian men joining the bareback phenomenon chasing bugs? Mostly not, I’d say. Illicit thrills, maybe. Most bothersome are their answers to the pro-forma question of HIV status on the website. Most just have a question mark in that column.

Wake up, dreamy heads. Fantasy doesn’t explain it all.

USEFUL LINKS

The original Rolling Stone article

The Andrew Sullivan column

Michelangelo Signorile on Andrew Sullivan and barebacking

Steve Dow is a journalist whose pieces have appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of Gay, a collection of essays on gay and lesbian issues.

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