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  • Bug Chasing, Barebacking, and the Risks of Care
  • Gregory Tomso (bio)

barebacking (n.): intentional unprotected anal sex

gift giving (n.): intentional unprotected anal sex performed in order to infect another person with HIV

Responding to what some experts and activists are calling a failure of public health, practitioners in the fields of public health, psychology, and sociology have recently turned their attention to the emerging phenomena of barebacking and bug chasing.1 They are motivated by an altruism that aims to stop the spread of HIV and to protect the lives of those whose behaviors may expose them to the virus. Gay activists, too, are interested in these relatively new sexual behaviors. Some see them as proof of a proclivity toward self-destructive, sexual excess inherent to gay life while others regard barebacking and bug chasing as powerful acts of political resistance to conventional sexual morality and scientific orthodoxy.2 Popular journalists have also turned their attention to these practices, using lurid graphics and fear-mongering prose to sensationalize them for mass-market audiences.3 In short, barebacking and bug chasing have emerged as important catalysts in ongoing popular and professional debates over the meanings of gay sexuality and epidemic disease, and they offer a compelling point of entry for investigating the social and political dimensions of public health and social science.

This essay looks closely at contemporary accounts of bug chasing and barebacking across a wide range of venues, media, and genres. It begins with the assumption, drawn from critical science studies and discourse studies, that bug chasing and barebacking exist as phenomena [End Page 88] largely because of what Foucault would call the constitutive, disciplinary operation of scientific, activist, and popular discourses about them.4 This is to say that those who are currently investigating and writing about these phenomena, as much so if not more than the men whose sexual lives are the subjects of these investigations, are epistemologically accountable for the emergence of bug chasing and barebacking as social "problems." A corollary to this assumption is that bug chasing and barebacking are not manifestations of an empirical crisis to be solved but, at the level of discourse itself, that they are terms whose meanings and referents cannot be taken for granted. What, exactly, makes bug chasing and barebacking so frightening and so powerful for those who write about them? What can we learn about the formation of sexual knowledge—and in particular about the construction of gay identity—from these recent debates?

To answer these questions, I will compare accounts of bug chasing and barebacking in mainstream magazines like Poz and Rolling Stone with scientific articles from a variety of health-related fields. These seemingly disparate sources all draw upon what might be called a cultural unconscious of gay male sexuality. They employ common rhetorical tropes, such as depicting the Internet as a breeding ground for sexual deviance. They also rely on explicitly emotional and moral modes of argumentation. In addition, both popular and scientific accounts provide evidence of a renewed social interest in investigating and policing gay men's sexual "intentions," an interest that often collapses the conceptual distinction between barebacking and bug chasing. Finally, these emerging discourses seem motivated, at least in part, by a prurient interest in gay male sex that may be the result of cultural anxieties about anal penetration and a growing fascination with gay sex as an erotics of suicide and murder. As an article in Rolling Stone recently put it, bug chasers are men "in search of death."5

In teasing out the overlapping strands of discourse surrounding barebacking and bug chasing, we can see more clearly how these phenomena both shape and are shaped by larger cultural understandings of gay sexuality. Of particular interest in this regard are signs, as I will discuss in detail, of a seemingly irresolvable ethical dilemma that emerges from the troubled intersection of public-health imperatives and new modes of gay self-expression. This dilemma takes the form of a double bind of care and violence in which caring for those at risk of HIV infection can be seen as a violent limitation of gay men's freedom. I mean freedom here not...


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pp. 88-111
Launched on MUSE
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