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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
HIV 'bug chasers': Fantasy or fact?
By Richard Pendry
Producer and Director, "I Love Being HIV+"

Gay men fantasising about passing on HIV may encourage some to set out to become infected with the virus, a BBC programme has found.

Ricky Dyer
Ricky Dyer goes undercover in the world of bug-chasers and givers

According to previous media reports, HIV positive men, or "gift-givers", who want to transmit the virus to so-called "bug chasers" - HIV negative or untested men - do so in an apparently negotiated exchange.

HIV positive man Ricky Dyer, who investigates the apparent bug chasing phenomenon for a BBC programme, "I love being HIV+", says that an air of complacency about the realities of living with the virus may be one reason why infection rates have been rising.

Dyer tries to find out the truth behind the reporting by going online on a gay dating website, saying he is an HIV positive man who wants to talk to bug chasers.

"I'm not saying I am offering them sex...talk is all I want," he says in the programme.

Meeting men online fantasising about unsafe sexual practices could also send the wrong message
Ricky Dyer

However, Dyer is appalled to find dozens of apparent bug chasers contact him within days saying that they want to be "pozzed up" - infected with the virus.

Conversion parties

Several UK-based websites deal with the phenomenon, as do many more in the US, where the phenomenon of bug chasing was originally reported.

Bug chasers supposedly look for "conversion parties" where HIV positive men have the opportunity to pass on the virus to multiple partners.

Dyer finds that the overwhelming majority of the talk is pure fantasy.

Most gay men with HIV do not want to pass HIV on, and most gay men who do not have HIV do not want to get infected
Will Nutland

Men who say they are bug chasers and gift givers fail to stand by their claims on camera and one man who gave an anonymous interview subsequently appeared to be lying to the production team about his activities.

His findings are echoed by the HIV charities.

Will Nutland, head of health promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "The concepts of 'gift giving' and 'bug chasers' are definitely based more in fantasy than reality.

"Most gay men with HIV do not want to pass HIV on, and most gay men who do not have HIV do not want to get infected."

And Deborah Jack, chief executive of the National AIDS Trust said: "There is very little evidence of people trying to get infected with HIV.

"The real issue is why risk-taking behaviour continues when HIV positive men have no wish to pass HIV on HIV negative men wish to avoid infection."

However, the fantasy on the internet may give the wrong idea to young and ill-informed gay men coming out on the gay scene, according to Dyer.

The Sexual Health Survey of Gay Men in London found that in recent years 50% of men who identify themselves as gay had had unprotected anal sex at least once.

Diluted message

Charities trying to reach these men may have diluted the safe sex message, according to Dyer.

"Prevention campaigns which tell men who engage in unsafe sex that withdrawing before ejaculation may lessen the risk may confuse a young guy coming out on the gay scene today," he says.

"Meeting men online fantasising about unsafe sexual practices could also send the wrong message."

Though much of the bug chasing talk on the net is just that - talk, which previous reports seem to have taken at face value - in the programme, Dyer also interviews an ex-Jehovah's Witness named Chris, who is HIV negative.

Chris says that he is engaging in a great deal of unprotected anal sex. He knows he will become infected and has made a conscious decision to welcome it into his life.

HIV diagnosis

In the course of filming, Chris is diagnosed HIV positive and in an on-camera interview tells his story.

Chris came out as gay to his parents 14 years ago and was told he would be dead in the eyes of God and the Jehovah's Witness community if he embraced his homosexuality.

Chris chose to leave home and live as a gay man.

Though he engaged in a great deal of unprotected sex for years and welcomes the "inevitable" arrival of the virus, he says he is not a bug chaser.

"I wasn't scared of the consequences of getting HIV," he says. "But by accepting it, I'm going to take the sting out of its tail."

According to the Health Protection Agency there has been a steady increase in diagnosis rates in the UK among men who have sex with men from 1500 in 1999 to over 2000 in 2004 - a 30% increase in five years.

"I love being HIV+" is on BBC3 at 2100 BST on Monday, 10 April.

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