"I know what the risks are, and I know that putting myself in this situation is like putting a gun to my head," he says. Some of that mountain music that's so popular is playing, making the moment even more surreal as a Southern voice sings, "Keep on the sunny side of life" behind Carlos. "But I think it turns the other guy on to know that I'm negative and that they're bringing me into the brotherhood. That gets me off, too."
I met Carlos in New York's Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where he usually hangs out. He is tall, with a large build, and plenty of gay men find him attractive. His longish, curly-wavy hair is jet-black with golden highlights, and his face is soft and just a bit feminine. He has a very appealing smile and laugh, and he's a funny guy sometimes. The conversation veers from the banal -- his fascination with the reality show The Amazing Race -- to his desire for HIV. Carlos' tone never changes when switching from one topic to the other.
When asked whether he is prepared to live with HIV after that "erotic" moment, Carlos dismisses living with HIV as a minor annoyance. Like most bug chasers, he has the impression that the virus just isn't such a big deal anymore: "It's like living with diabetes. You take a few pills and get on with your life." Carlos spends the afternoon continually calling a man named Richard, someone he met on the Internet. They met on barebackcity.com about a year ago, while Carlos was still with his boyfriend. That boyfriend left because Carlos was having sex with other men and because he was interested in barebacking -- the practice of having sex without a condom. Carlos and Richard are arranging a "date" for later that day.
Carlos is part of an intricate underground world that has sprouted, driven almost completely by the Internet, in which men who want to be infected with HIV get together with those who are willing to infect them. The men who want the virus are called "bug chasers," and the men who freely give the virus to them are called "gift givers." While the rest of the world fights the AIDS epidemic and most people fear HIV infection, this subculture celebrates the virus and eroticizes it. HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold. Carlos has been chasing the bug for more than a year in a topsy-turvy world in which every convention about HIV is turned upside down. The virus isn't horrible and fearsome, it's beautiful and sexy -- and delivered in the way that is most likely to result in infection. In this world, the men with HIV are the most desired, and the bug chasers will do anything to get the virus -- to "get knocked up," to be "bred" or "initiated into the brotherhood."
Like a lot of sexual fetishes and extreme behaviors, bug chasing could not exist without the Internet, or at least it couldn't thrive. Prior to the advent of Web surfing and e-mail, it would have been practically impossible for bug chasing to happen in any great numbers, because it's still not acceptable to walk up to a stranger and say you want the virus. But the Internet's anonymity and broad access make it possible to find someone with like interests, no matter how outlandish. Carlos surfs online about twenty hours a week looking for men to have sex with, usually frequenting sites such as bareback.com and barebackcity.com, plus a number of Internet discussion groups. Most of the Web sites use the pretense that they actually are about barebacking, which is in itself risky and controversial but still a long way from bug chasing. For the Web sites, that distinction is at best razor-thin and more often just an outright lie. "We got Poz4Poz, Neg4Neg and bug chasers looking to join the club," the welcome page to barebackcity.com, which claims 48,000 registered users, up from 28,000 about a year ago, recently said. "Be the first to seed a newbie and give him a pozitive attitude!"
Within this online community, bug chasers revel in their desires, using their own lingo about "poz" and "neg" men, "bug juice" and "conversion" from negative to positive. User profiles include names such as BugChaser21, Knockmeup, BugMeSoon, ConvertMeSir, PozCum4NegHole and GiftGiver. The posters are upfront about seeking HIV, even extremely enthusiastic, possibly because the Web sites are about the only place a bug seeker can really express his desires openly. Under turn-ons, a poster called PozMeChgo craves a "hot poz load deep in me. I really want to be converted!! Breed me/seed me!" Carlos' profile on one Web site lists his screen name as ConvertMe, and he says he wants a man "to fill me up with that poison seed." His AOL Instant Messenger name is Bug Juice Wanted.
It's not uncommon to see people post replies to the profiles encouraging the men to seek HIV. One such comment reads, "This guy knows what he wants!! I would love to plant my seeds :)) Come and join the club. The more we are, the stronger we are." A Yahoo! spokeswoman confirms that the company shuts down such sites when it receives notice that the subscribers are promoting HIV infection or any other kind of harm to one another, but the company doesn't go looking for bug chasers in its thousands of discussion groups, most established by subscribers themselves. Recently, it was easy to find two discussion groups on Yahoo! that promoted bug chasing, one called barebackover50 and one called gayextremebareback. The first discussion group was established in 1998 and had 1,439 members at the end of 2002. Yahoo! closed the group after Rolling Stone inquired about it.
Condoms and safe sex are openly ridiculed on bug-chasing Web sites, with many bug chasers rebelling against what they see as the dogma of safe-sex education; constantly thinking about a deadly disease takes all the fun out of sex, they say, and condoms suck. Carlos agrees and says getting HIV will make safe sex a moot point. "It's about freedom," he says. "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."