It was an all-red, over-the-banner Drudge headline, guaranteed to grab attention. “MAG: 25% OF NEW HIV-INFECTED GAY MEN SOUGHT OUT VIRUS, SAYS SAN FRAN HEALTH OFFICIAL.” Drudge was referring to a four-page story by one Gregory A. Freeman, in Rolling Stone magazine, owned by gay media mogul Jann Wenner. It was quickly picked up by conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity, who never misses an opportunity to denigrate gay men. For many who witnessed the media onslaught, it will soon be accepted as fact.
That’s a shame, because not long after hitting the newsstands, the story has completely fallen apart.
The story centers on a bizarre sub-subcultural phenomenon known as “bug chasing.” A few HIV-negative gay men, for all sorts of deep and dark psychological reasons, appear actually to be seeking out HIV infection. Some HIV-positive men, it is also alleged, are just as willing to infect these troubled souls with HIV. This disturbing phenomenon is not new. There were occasional stories about it in the late 1990s, stories that fueled an urban legend but that never made it to the mainstream. Why? Because of simple lack of hard evidence that anyone but a very few disturbed people were involved.
How widespread is this phenomenon today? According to the Rolling Stone story, a jaw-dropping 25 percent of new gay male HIV infections are due to bug chasing. That’s an astonishing statistic, and it’s what made this sub-subcultural practice suddenly an actual news story, worth four pages of Rolling Stone and a headline on Drudge. It’s the hinge on which the merit of this story hangs. If true, we should indeed be alarmed.
But now for the obvious follow-up: Which study found this alarming result? The answer is: none. The entire premise for the story, as published, is based on one doctor’s “estimate.” And the more you read the story, the thinner it gets. How many actual bug chasers are interviewed? A grand total of two, one of whom — the one who provides all the most lurid quotes — is clearly disturbed and is given a pseudonym. How many HIV-positive “gift givers” are interviewed? None. So there you have it. One anonymous source; one named source; one doctor’s completely unsubstantiated estimate; and lurid details from some Web sites. None of the major AIDS and gay specialists interviewed by Freeman agreed that this was a major phenomenon, let alone responsible for 25 percent of all new HIV infections.
Freeman’s explanation for this universal view that, while troubling, bug chasing is a tiny facet of gay sexuality? All the experts, except his 25 percent-quoting doctor, are in denial, or engaging in a p.c. coverup.
Who’s the doctor? He’s Bob Cabaj, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral health services for San Francisco County. He has conducted no studies on the matter; he has no hard data; and he presides over a publicly funded body dealing with behavioral health, a body that would benefit from increased funding if this new alleged phenomenon is real. The piece doesn’t provide this context, and the credulous author seems to take every claim Cabaj makes more seriously than Cabaj himself does. Freeman doesn’t even provide any internal substantiation for Cabaj’s personal estimate — no anecdotes of how many such bug chasers Cabaj has seen over the years, whether that number is increasing, and so on.
Moreover, Cabaj says several apparently conflicting things in the piece. He first says of his fellow HIV specialists, “I don’t know if it’s an active cover-up.” Then he says, “Yes, it is an active cover-up because they know about it. They’re in denial of this issue.” Similarly, Cabaj first claims that a quarter of all new gay HIV infections are through bug chasing; then he says “it may be a small number of people … The clinical impact is profound, no matter how small the numbers.” So what is it? A huge phenomenon, amounting to a quarter of all new infections? Or a “small number of people,” who nevertheless have a massive impact on HIV transmission? It’s unclear what the experts in Freeman’s article are even trying to say.
There appears to be a good reason for that: As soon as the story faced any scrutiny, it began to unravel. On Wednesday, Cabaj responded to an e-mail from the blog site Morons.org and retracted the 25 percent figure altogether — and claimed he had asked Rolling Stone’s fact-checker to do just that. Then Thursday, Newsweek reported not only that Cabaj denies giving Freeman the 25 percent figure (“That’s totally false. I never said that”) but that Dr. Marshall Forstein of Boston, quoted in the Rolling Stone story saying that “bug chasers are seen regularly in the Fenway health system, and the phenomenon is growing,” says that quote “is entirely a fabrication” and that “I said, ‘We have seen a few cases, but we have no idea how common this is.’” This is the paltry evidence Freeman provides for his astonishing claim, and it’s been retracted within hours of being published. Way to go, Rolling Stone.
That didn’t stop the writer, a freelancer whose latest book is about a fire on a Navy ship, from writing a piece that implies gays are heading toward another selfish, disgusting and sickening AIDS Armageddon. The entire lead of the piece is written in a prose style that reads like Jerry Falwell channeling Hunter S. Thompson. Freeman’s pseudonymous bug-chaser’s eyes “light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV, will be ‘the most erotic thing I can imagine … 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.’” Freeman elaborates: “HIV-infected semen is treated like liquid gold.” Here’s one quote from an apparent infecter: “If I know that he’s negative and I’m fucking him, it sort of gets me off. I’m murdering him in a sense, killing him slowly, and that’s sort of, as sick as it sounds, exciting to me.” But then you realize this quote — relished by Sean Hannity — isn’t from anyone who has infected anyone. It’s from Freeman’s key source, imagining what it might feel like to be on the other side of the equation. How do we know this guy isn’t delusional? We don’t. He’s clearly deeply disturbed, but we are supposed to believe every word he says. Freeman doesn’t actually substantiate a single episode of unsafe sex between someone HIV-negative allegedly seeking infection and someone HIV-positive knowingly passing it on. His source offers to prove it on one occasion. Freeman says he declined to witness the encounter.
The piece is also riddled with unbelievably shoddy work. Take this snippet: “With about 40,000 new infections in the United States per year, according to government reports, that would mean around 10,000 each year are attributable to that more liberal definition of bug-chasing.” Huh? The 40,000 figure is a Centers for Disease Control number for all HIV infections per year. Anyone with the faintest knowledge of the HIV epidemic knows that men who have sex with men make up a declining number of this group — now 42 percent, according to the CDC. So even if you buy the bizarre 25 percent figure, you don’t end up with 10,000, you end up with 4,200. I mention this obvious point, not because 4,200 is somehow more credible than 10,000. No one, I repeat, no one, has any solid evidence for either figure. I mention it because no serious AIDS journalist would ever write such an ill-informed and obviously fallacious sentence.
Any other evidence — besides the now debunked 25 percent figure — that the bug-chasing phenomenom is widespread? The piece points to various Web sites where unsafe sex is fetishized. (Oddly, the only Web site cited where bug chasing is allegedly explicitly encouraged no longer carries that message. We are asked to believe that it “recently” did so.) But we knew that already. You can find Web sites all over the place with all sorts of fantasies. And online, our fantasies rule. Just because some people fantasize online under screen names about HIV transmission, it doesn’t follow that they actually carry out the act. I’m not saying they don’t. I’m just saying we can’t tell. Online many people express fantasies or adopt identities precisely because they are an escape from reality. What any serious piece of journalism would do is ask some hard questions and provide some real answers about how widespread this practice actually is. No such answers are found in the piece. None.
Again, I’m not saying we should be unconcerned about this phenomenon. It’s not made up. It’s been out there for years now. It is a problem, as many actual HIV counselors and officials cited in the piece clearly acknowledge. But the first thing a journalist has to do is find out if the phenomenon exists to any real extent, how significant it is, and how widespread it is — especially when it deploys the most sensational language to describe an already beleaguered and feared subculture. That’s why this piece isn’t journalism. It’s hysteria, wrapped in a homophobic and HIV-phobic wrapper. Sean Hannity and other gay-haters are pleased as punch. Jann Wenner should be ashamed.