After I first saw the news brief online about the article'and my face wrinkled, hinting at my skepticism'I started asking other editors around the office if any of them knew where our latest issue of Rolling Stone was. 'Shania Twain is on the cover,' I offered, hoping for a glimmer of recognition in someone's eyes. No luck. So I quickly headed off down Hollywood Boulevard toward a newsstand to grab my own copy. As I found the title among all the other magazines I knew I was getting the issue I wanted right away. Emblazoned in a bold-blue'bordered box on the cover among the references to Missy Elliott, Bruce Springsteen, and Phish was one of the wildest things I think I have ever read''Special Report: Bug Chasers, the Men Who Long to Be HIV+.'
Now, I am not at all naive. I have heard of 'bug chasers,' HIV-negative men who seek out HIV-positive men so that they can become infected. I have even read some of their rationales: 'My lover died of AIDS, and I don't want to go on living.' 'I'm tired of being worried about safe sex. I know I'll eventually get HIV, so I want to get it over with.' As a matter of fact, the issue is well-known enough in the mainstream that there was a subplot on an episode of the TV drama ER that revealed one man was purposefully trying to become seropositive because his lover was. The two wanted their relationship to be on a more equitable level.
But despite this Rolling Stone article's drama factor, it was not pitched as fiction. The reporter quoted a San Francisco public-health official as estimating seroconversions from bug chasing at 25%. Stop the presses! This reporter had a story he needed to make known. But who could believe this? Of all new infections that occur each year, 25% are actually sought out? I will tell you one thing'I could not believe it.
I do believe that bug chasing is also a form of fetish. Many of these 'HIV-negative' guys are in reality heightening sexual thrills by allowing the fantasy that they are being seroconverted during a sex act. It is role play.
So as we started work on this issue of HIV Plus, I knew I had to explore this further. But I barely got my start trying to debunk the article when the very next day an online Newsweek report as well as a Salon.com article by journalist Andrew Sullivan ripped the Rolling Stone article to shreds. Not only had others also seen that the holes in the reporting were gaping, but when Newsweek senior writer Seth Mnookin contacted the public-health official quoted on the 25% figure and another official quoted in the article, they both denied they had said the things attributed to them.
Thank goodness for healthy skepticism and for a bit of journalistic peer review. It is never wrong to debunk'or debug, in this case'the press. Rolling Stone editors say they stand by their reporter. I stand steadfast in my disbelief'along with many others.
In this issue we address the flip side of sensationalism. In our cover story, on prevention efforts directed at HIVers, we talk with some of the volunteers in the HIV Stops With Me campaign. They are putting their faces before the public in several cities, reminding other HIV-positive individuals that the way to prevent infections is by not passing the virus on.
We also explore the campaign by Viacom, which is inserting HIV-themed content into many of its TV and radio shows as well as books. The story lines have already begun to appear and will continue for at least the rest of this year. The goal is simple: Destigmatize HIV, yet make people aware of how it truly affects lives.
Now, that is some reading that I can get into.