Rolling Stone is an odd magazine -- sort of a rock/pop/rap biweekly featuring music news and interviews along with regular investigative reports on subjects as diverse as heroin use and presidential elections. It's always been a publishing hybrid in search of relevancy and prestige, not unlike Playboy -- a magazine that's really all about naked women and sex despite regular bits of serious journalism. Some men claim to read Playboy for the articles; how lucky for them that the words are squeezed between photos of airbrushed babes in their birthday suits. Similarly, Rolling Stone tends to feature pop and hip-hop stars wearing next-to-nothing while simultaneously running articles designed to give the magazine an illusion of substance and depth. It's a rather calculated pitch for relevance that, more often than not, reeks of desperation.
Take Rolling Stone's February 6th issue, for instance. Shania Twain graces the cover. Directly to the right of her exposed navel and slightly higher than her awfully short skirt, is a little graphic touting a special report on "bug chasers," gay men who say they want to get infected with HIV. Yes, these men exist. It's a minor phenomenon of the last decade. It's real. It's controversial. HIV prevention advocates and public health officials acknowledged "bug chasers" at least four years ago. Credible studies estimate that one to two percent of infected gay men sought out infection, nearly always in rash behavioral decisions that they later regretted. Oops. That sage medical journal, Rolling Stone, doesn't care much about any of that ... unless twisting and distorting it can generate greater newsstand sales.
Rolling Stone's bug chaser article was written by Gregory A. Freeman, a married freelance writer and former Associated Press employee currently living in Roswell, Georgia. According to Freeman's bio, he's "an award-winning writer with 20 years experience in journalism and historical nonfiction." A graduate of the University of Georgia and author of two books, his publicist asserts that "Freeman's books are scrupulously researched and entirely factual, yet they read more like novels because he weaves the personal stories of his subjects into a compelling narrative." Hmmm.
According to Freeman's Rolling Stone article, a mind-boggling 25 percent of new gay male HIV infections are due to bug chasing. And Freeman bases that astonishing statistic on one doctor's completely unsubstantiated estimate. That doctor, Bob Cabaj, is a psychiatrist and Director of Behavioral Health Services for San Francisco County. Within days of publication, Cabaj denied giving Freeman the 25 percent figure. Admitting he has conducted no studies on the matter and has no hard data, Cabaj told Newsweek, "That's totally false. I never said that." Is there a study to support that 25 percent figure? Nope.
It gets worse. Dr. Marshall Forstein of Boston, quoted by Freeman as saying that "bug chasers are seen regularly in the Fenway health system, and the phenomenon is growing," declares the quote "is entirely a fabrication." Forstein reports he actually told Freeman, "We have seen a few cases, but we have no idea how common this is." Who do we believe? Conveniently, Freeman did not tape his conversations with the doctors, suggesting maybe his memory and his notes aren't as specific as he'd like the general public to believe.
Freeman's story has completely fallen apart. How many actual bug chasers did he interview? A grand total of two, one of who is undeniably mentally disturbed and quoted under a pseudonym -- hardly representative of a trend. Freeman's article consists of one anonymous source; one named source; two doctor's completely unsubstantiated remarks; and lurid details from some Internet Web sites (the kind of Web sites where virtually all gay men are hot and generously endowed). When the only two medical professionals you quote both claim to have been grievously misquoted and none of the major AIDS and gay activists interviewed agree that bug chasing is a major phenomenon, let alone responsible for 25 percent of all new HIV infections, you don't have a story. Apparently, that did not deter Gregory Freeman from making one up.
That aside, Freeman's estimate of the number of bug chaser-related cases of HIV infection ultimately discredits him. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there are roughly 40,000 new HIV infections in the United States each year. For his calculations, Freeman uses the made up 25 percent figure and merely applies it to the CDC's 40,000 statistic. From that, he concludes that 10,000 gay men a year are deliberately getting infected with HIV.
Apparently, Freeman failed to realize the 40,000 statistic is for all people, male and female, regardless of sexual orientation. According to the CDC, male-to-male infections only make up 42 percent of the overall 40,000, or roughly 16,800. Not only does Freeman's 25 percent figure have no basis in reality, but he also applies it to a statistic he doesn't even understand.
America's mainstream media has never been very good at reporting on HIV. Gregory Freeman's Rolling Stone article on bug chasers is a vivid example of how not to write a story about HIV, and yet it's typical. The interpretation of HIV statistics requires scientific precision; Freeman is all about buzzwords, faulty number crunching and groundless conclusions.
Note to Mr. Freeman: In the future, tape your interviews, leave the stories about HIV and gay men to qualified journalists and consider writing about cars or sports or Victoria's Secret models from now on ... unless your goal is to develop a reputation as an unethical, homophobic dumb ass.
Why would Rolling Stone print such a shamefully distorted article full of fabricated quotes and fake science? Having already lost its identity and now losing readers to hipper publications, Rolling Stone is using shoddy journalism and semi-naked pop stars to generate interest. Bug chasers are real and the phenomenon deserves scrutiny. Who are these guys that want HIV in their bodies? Are they confused individuals who put too much faith in today's HIV treatments? Or desperately lonely guys who would trade their health for any kind of intimacy or sense of belonging? Do they believe HIV infection is inevitable anyway and have given up on safer sex? Are they self-loathing? Mentally ill? Why would they knowingly put themselves in harm's way? Are they hedonistic guys who just don't care about anything beyond their next orgasm? Rolling Stone was not compelled to explore those possibilities. The editor and publisher opted to print a preposterous, wildly exaggerated piece of crap that could only be relevant to right wing, fundamentalist, gay-hating crazies looking for a new opportunity to denigrate homosexuals and call for AIDS funding cuts.
Note to Rolling Stone_: Stick to reviewing CDs and interviewing boy band members -- or better yet, let's hear you expound upon whatever lurid logic or compulsion makes pop divas like Shania Twain and Britney Spears tart themselves up like hookers for an appearance on your cover. Sounds juicy!_
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist and AIDS educator living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a Georgia co-chair of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, leads safer sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.