The February 6 issue of Rolling Stone magazine includes a controversial four-page feature story on HIV-negative gay men who are deliberately trying to become infected with the virus through unprotected sex with men they know are HIV-positive. The HIV-negative men, dubbed "bug chasers" in the article, view the disease as "beautiful and sexy" and refer to the HIV-positive men who may infect them as "gift givers."
The article quotes Bob Cabaj, MD, director of behavioral health services for San Francisco County and former president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, as saying that approximately 25% of all gay men now infected with the virus deliberately sought infection. However, in a Newsweek Web story posted Thursday, Cabaj says the attribution is erroneous. "That's totally false," he said. "I never said that. And when the fact-checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable." Cabaj added that there is no way of knowing what percentage of gay men are deliberately seeking HIV infection but added that it's likely the numbers are very small.
Another doctor interviewed for the story who reportedly said that "bug chasing" is a growing problem also disputed information attributed to him in the article. Marshall Forstein, the medical director of mental health and addiction services at Fenway Community Health, a clinic that serves Boston's gay and AIDS communities, said that a sentence in the story claiming that Forstein sees "bug chasers" regularly at the clinic is false."That is entirely a fabrication," Forstein told Newsweek. "That is ridiculous. I said, 'We have seen a few cases, but we have no idea how common this is. It is not very common.' "
Most of the article's other sources called the "bug chasing" phenomenon an extremely small subculture and say the few men who do engage in the practice may get a sexual thrill from being exposed to the deadly virus or may "feel lost and without any community to embrace them."
Questions about the validity of the story within gay circles began almost immediately after reports of the article surfaced. Conservative gay writer and Advocate columnist Andrew Sullivan wrote on his Web site on Wednesday that the story's precis "reads like Stephen Glass," referring to an infamous New Republic writer who fabricated stories, Newsweek reports. "This urban myth was peddled in the 1990s and couldn't get any traction. Is Rolling Stone that desperate for sales?"
The article's author, freelance writer Gregory Freeman, stands by the validity of his reporting and of the story, Newsweek reports. Rolling Stone managing editor Ed Needham also stands by the story.
Cathy Renna, news media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, worries that sensationalizing the practices of a small number of gay men who hope to be infected with HIV will mislead Rolling Stone readers about the vast majority of gay men. It's "an easy way to disparage all gays and lesbians as sex-crazed and reckless," she said in the magazine article.
The issue of Rolling Stone that includes the story, titled "Bug Chasers: The Men Who Secretly Long to Be HIV+," is currently available on newsstands.