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The Gift

january 28, 2014

By: Bob Leahy, Positive Lite

I had heard about the documentary The Gift but never seen it until recently. So it was interesting to stumble upon it on YouTube and see what all the fuss was about. It’s available to view below: if you have an hour or so, it’s worth watching if only as an introduction to the topic, which some would argue has received far more attention than it deserves. I would tend to agree with them.

Like many others, I’m more than sceptical whether bug-chasing/gift giving is a phenomenon of any size or import – the research is sketchy at best and there is nothing here to change that opinion. It is, after al, easy to confuse the fantasy language that exists aplenty on bareback sites such as BarebackRT.com, language that even features in the odd court case, with a man's real and authentic desire to infect or become infected. It is also easy to confuse the barebacking that has become extremely common in the gay community with eagerness for transmission to occur, when research indicates dispensing with condoms reflects a multitude of alternative factors, notably an assessment that the risk is not large, or if it is, that the consequences of infection are perceived as entirely manageable. And of course who can deny the largest single factor of all - the pursuit of pleasure and unlimited intimacy (as Tim Dean calls it) which makes barebacking attractive in and of itself.

In any event, the film annoyingly mixes together conventional barebacking with no intent of transmsission and so called "conversion parties" and makes little distinction between barebacking where both partners are poz or where one is undetectable, thus exposing the negative partner to extremely minimal risk of transmission. Thus all barebacking is painted as evil and misguided here, which many, including myself, would argue is an unfair characterization.

So is all this a storm in a teacup? Said one review of the film at the time “ "Bug chasers" are currently getting the greater share of media attention because the intent to attain HIV is unfathomable and repugnant to many.” That’s clearly born out by many of the comments to the movie on YouTube which are best described as vitriolic.

A controversial Rolling Stone article of the same era “In Search of Death" in 2003 by freelance journalist rergory Freeman also added to the mythology surrounding bug-chasing. Sayswikipedia "The article quoted San Francisco health services director Dr. Bob Cabaj as saying that as many as twenty-five percent of new HIV infections a year (about ten thousand people) were from men who had contracted it on purpose. Cabaj disputed the quotes attributed to him but Rolling Stone remains behind the story. Dr. Marshall Forstein, the medical director ofmental health and addiction services at Boston's Fenway Community Health, was reported to have said that the clinic regularly saw bug-chasers and warned that it was growing. He called the statements "entirely a fabrication," but Rolling Stone also stood behind them .Steven Weinstein, then editor of the New York Blade, an established gay newspaper, called the article "less than truthful" .

Many others have dismissed bug-chasing as largely the product of gay mens fantasy worlds. Will Nutland, then head of health promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust has said "The concepts of 'gift giving' and 'bug chasers' are definitely based more in fantasy than reality" and Deborah Jack, then chief executive of the National AIDS Trust said, "There is very little evidence of people trying to get infected with HIV."

Here in Canada, my recollection is that Barry Adam, now head of Prevention Research at the OHTN, had an interest some years ago in conducting research on bug-chasing in this country but had to abandon the idea for lack of research subjects.

In any event, watch the movie and judge for yourself. Get past the odious title sequence (see below) and it's quite watchable albeit annoyingly, misguidedly preachy and, I'd suggest, largely unhelpful to understanding why gay men bareback.

An interesting aside is that The AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT)'s assumptions campaign or at least the SF version which it copied comes under attack in the movie as being muddled and unhelpful also.


About The Gift: Here’s how wikipedia describes it:   The Gift is a 2003 documentary by filmmaker Louise Hogarth documenting the phenomenon of deliberate HIV infection; bug-chasing. The film follows the stories of two "bug chasers" who are seeking "the gift" of HIV infection. Interviews are also conducted with AIDS activist and author, Walt Odets, PhD, and HIV positive and negative men. The film explores the normalization and glamorization of HIV/AIDS and discusses the isolation and division caused by HIV status in the gay community.