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HIV Conversion Parties: Dancing with Danger
by Andrew Davis

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Throughout the '80s and '90s, the gay community ( motivated by the mounting numbers of deaths due to the AIDS epidemic ) practiced safer sex. Now—whether emboldened by the presence of drug cocktails or ( erroneously ) thinking that they will eventually contract HIV anyway—a few HIV-negative people have taken the barebacking trend a step further by attending conversion parties ( e.g., 'bug chasing' ) and purposefully having unsafe sex with HIV-positive individuals so they, too, can become seropositive.

Windy City Times talked with Beau Gratzer of Howard Brown Health Center about this dangerous concept.

Windy City Times: First, define what a conversion party is.

Beau Gratzer: There are actually several different types. There are parties where HIV-negative and HIV-positive men get together with the intention of the negative men contracting HIV. A lot of these are put together online.

There are also other types. For example, the 'roulette' party has one HIV-positive party with HIV-negative men with the positive man being unknown.

However, I would say that the prevalence of conversion parties is pretty low. I do want to stress that. However, [ bug-chasing ] has been around for a while.

WCT: There are people who organize parties and charge admission to them. Doesn't this all seem a bit disturbing?

BG: 'Disturbing' is a good word; it's also sad. There is a number of reasons why conversion parties happen. With the advent of more effective HIV medications, some people think that HIV is less of a concern. Others feel that it's a way to gain membership into a group; they already feel isolated from the gay community. Some feel it's a rite of passage—and others are simply tired of taking HIV tests on a regular basis and worrying about condoms.

WCT: And yet others think that getting infected is just inevitable.

BG: Yes, and I think that we, as a community, have sometimes done a bad job of helping people feel that it's not inevitable; that the disease is serious; and that we still need to be vigilant about the prevention of HIV and the transmission of other STDs [ sexually transmitted diseases ] as well.

WCT: Let's say that you know someone who plans to attend one of these parties. What should you do?

BG: That's a great question. A lot of people don't readily admit to their friends that they're going to a conversion party; it's probably unlikely that would encounter someone where you would have to talk to someone about this.

I think if we were here to talking about this, we would explore some of the reasons why an individual's looking to get HIV along with reinforcing that HIV is still a serious disease with complications—and it wouldn't be from a judgmental [ stance ] .

WCT: It would also help if the people behind Web sites where people can post these parties be vigilant.

BG: That's a good point—except I'm concerned that if that happened, other sites would pop up that would start promoting [ the parties ] directly. We've worked with multiple Web sites in the past and have conducted outreach. The sites that are, more specifically, targeted towards barebacking or conversion are harder for us to reach, from a public health perspective; they pose a different challenge. I do think it would be helpful for Web sites not to encourage or allow it, but I still think it's going to happen—albeit, at very low levels.

This is not the largest source of spread in the HIV community; that would be unsafe sexual intercourse, period. I think, on the whole, our community has been complacent recently about HIV and STD risk—and that's something that I think we're vigilant about here at Howard Brown. We're trying to encourage safe-sex practices. There's more unsafe sex going on in the gay community than 10 or 15 years ago. We need to come together and remember why we had such a decline in HIV rates in the late '80s and '90s because we were so strong and vigilant; I think some of that has been lost.

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