I went onto the Drudge Report today and read something that must be a bunch of shit or a complete hoax: “MAG: 25% OF NEW HIV-INFECTED GAY MEN SOUGHT OUT VIRUS, SAYS SAN FRAN HEALTH OFFICIAL.” Is there any truth to this? The link was E-mailed all over my office today, and it makes gay men look awful if it’s true. Can you prove or disprove Matt Drudge’s outrageous claims? I sincerely hope that it’s not true and that Matt Drudge’s “journalist” badge is revoked! –Can’t Trust Drudge
Sorry, CTD, but we can’t take away Drudge’s journalism badge. First, there’s no such thing (good thing, too, since I probably couldn’t get one), and second, the claim that 25 percent of all new HIV infections in gay men are intentional wasn’t made by Matt Drudge. Drudge doesn’t do much actual reporting; any Drudge Report regular can tell you that his Web site is almost entirely composed of links to stories in other publications. (Where would the Washington Post Web site be without Drudge?) All he’s guilty of is disseminating a claim made in the February 6 issue of Rolling Stone.
Gregory Freeman wrote the story that Drudge–who seems to take a perverse delight in pumping stories that make gay men look awful–trumpeted on his Web site. Freeman’s piece focuses on so-called “bug chasers,” HIV-negative gay men who are actively trying to get infected, and “gift givers,” HIV-positive gay men who are only too happy to infect others. After a depressing slog through the cracked thinking of one bug chaser, Freeman whips out a little amateur psychoanalysis: “[Some] see HIV infection as inevitable…so they decide to take control of the situation and infect themselves. For others, deliberately infecting themselves is the ultimate taboo…and that has a strong erotic appeal for some men who have tried everything else.” Then he introduces Dr. Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral-health services for San Francisco County.
“Some men consciously seek the virus,” Freeman writes, paraphrasing Cabaj, “while many more are just as actively seeking HIV but are in denial and wouldn’t call themselves bug chasers.” Then Freeman spews the shocking sound bite that the Drudge Report made famous: “Cabaj estimates that at least twenty-five percent of all newly infected gay men fall into that category”–i.e., guys consciously or subconsciously seeking the virus.
The day after Drudge ran the link, Cabaj accused Freeman of fabricating his quotes. In an interview with Newsweek, Cabaj denied ever saying that 25 percent of new infections in gay men are due to bug chasing. Freeman told Newsweek that he quoted Cabaj accurately and implied that the doctor got cold feet once the story hit the cable-news talk shows. “I can only imagine that now that it’s getting a lot of attention,” Freeman told Newsweek, “people are getting worried.”
Who to believe? On the one hand, I know from personal experience that at least 25 percent of the people who work in AIDS are–how can I put this nicely?–gutless wonders. People who work in HIV/AIDS have told me things in on-the-record interviews that they denied saying once their quotes were published. On the other hand, Freeman goes on to make such a huge, glaring, obvious error that any reasonable person has to doubt his skills as a reporter–and his motives. After trotting out the 25-percent figure, Freeman writes this: “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.”
Uh, no. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are “approximately 40,000 new HIV infections occurring in the United States every year,” only 42 percent of them occur in men who have sex with men. (The rest are attributed to heterosexual sex and IV-drug use.) That means the number of new infections in gay and bisexual men each year is roughly 17,000, not 40,000. Even if that sensational 25-percent figure is accurate–and that’s one motherfuckin’ huge “if”–there would be 4,200 bug chasers getting infected every year, not 10,000. What’s worse, by lumping conscious bug chasers (a very small number of very crazy assholes) in with subconscious bug chasers (a comparatively large number of self-destructive gay dopes), Freeman distorts the scale of the problem.
Considering how badly Freeman botched some relatively simple and widely available stats, it would be easy to dismiss his entire piece. But the damage has been done–thanks in part to Drudge–and the 25-percent figure, as Andrew Sullivan complained on Salon last week, “will soon be accepted as fact” despite the story having “completely fallen apart.” Personally I don’t think Freeman’s story has completely fallen apart, nor do I think the entire piece should be dismissed. While the percentage is clearly bullshit, the bare-backing Web sites Freeman writes about are real, and some men with HIV are only too willing to engage in unprotected sex with guys who aren’t HIV-positive. And before gay men congratulate themselves for “only” making up 42 percent of all new HIV infections, consider this: gay and bisexual men make up only 3 percent of the population. Regardless of how gay men are getting the virus–bug chasing? risk taking?–gay men are getting infected at appalling rates.
And why are gay men getting infected at appalling rates? There’s a clue in Freeman’s piece.
When I read it I didn’t think that the now infamous and disputed “25 percent” was the most shocking revelation in it. To my mind that honor goes to the comment from Daniel Castellanos, assistant director of community education at Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. Castellanos, who acknowledges that the bug chasing phenomenon is real, was asked if he would try to talk someone out of trying to catch HIV. “If someone comes to me and says he wants to get HIV,” Castellanos replies, “I might work with him around why he wants to do it….But if in the end that’s a decision he wants to make, there’s a point where we have to respect people’s decisions.”
While active bug chasing may account for only a handful of new infections in gay men, the inability of HIV/AIDS educators to aggressively challenge gay men surely accounts for many of those. Since the arrival on the scene of effective treatments for HIV, gay men in urban areas have been busily re-creating the kind of sexual subcultures that laid out the welcome mat for HIV in the 1970s. The rates of HIV infection and other STDs are soaring, and–who knows?–perhaps some unknown STD is gaining a toehold in urban gay scenes just as HIV did in the 70s. Meanwhile the education strategy in vogue at GMHC and other AIDS organizations is this: we must respect the decisions gay men make–up to and including the decision to get infected with HIV for shits and giggles. It’s a bizarre and, judging from those HIV infection rates, shockingly ineffective strategy.
Perhaps it’s time for GMHC and other AIDS groups to start telling gay men the truth. Taking stupid sexual risks, even if risk turns you on, is reckless; anal sex on the first date, even with condoms, is a bad idea; giving someone HIV, even if he wants it, is immoral; being a slut, as popular as that might make you, has physical and emotional consequences. And, finally, gay men need to be told that stupid decisions don’t deserve anyone’s respect.
As long as AIDS educators refuse to challenge gay men, HIV infection rates will continue to rise. That’s the real scandal, CTD, not the link on Drudge or Freeman’s story or the ineptitude of Rolling Stone’s editors.