By Ben Briscoe – Contributing Writer

Easy Internet hookups and an increasing apathy about the possibility of contracting HIV and its implications lead to increase in infections

"I am a 29-yr-old man who for years has been collecting masks of famous past presidents. I have over 40 masks now of our governing forefathers and it is also somewhat of a kink of mine. I am looking for women into role-play who may have always fantasized about getting banged by a young Richard Nixon or perhaps done by a brash and sexy Abraham Lincoln? How about playing Jackie O with JFK? The scenarios are endless … and so is my presidential lust …. if this sounds like a fantasy you would be excited by … drop me a line … your commander and chief awaits you."

Teddy, who asked for his last name not to be used, posted this ad just three hours ago on Craigslist. Now he sits in his burnt red, almost orange, 2002 Dodge Durango with a broken air conditioner, stopped at the light on the corner of two busy Dallas streets. He is heading to a swank, newly constructed condo in Uptown to meet his future first lady.

Well, Clinton intern in this case.

Teddy is an American History Advanced Placement teacher (thus explaining his preference for U.S. political figures), but more importantly, he is a self-proclaimed "Craigslist-aholic."

"For the past two years, I have been posting an ad almost every other week," he said. "It amazes me still that one minute I can be sitting there typing something on my computer, and a few hours later I am having sex with someone I have never met before."

Teddy is far from alone in his obsession with the site.

According to Yahoo, Craigslist, which started in 1995, is now the seventh-most-visited site on the Internet.

Operating in 190 cites in all 50 states and 35 foreign countries, Craigslist is a true global hot spot for promoting the exchange of cultural ideas, the innermost desires of foreign nationals and unsafe sexual practices. Typical global ads range from "Tall, Blonde Swedish tourist in Hong Kong, looking for tour of city and bedroom," to "40something expiate seeking fun in Cairo," to "Chinese Dictator wants to improve foreign relations with you."

With more than 2 million ads for no-strings-attached sexual encounters in the past year alone, Craigslist has not only become one of the most traversed shady street corners in the world, but a place where people are picking up far more than a Julia Roberts-style "pretty woman."

When I placed an ad in the New York Men Seeking Men site asking for anyone who has gotten a sexually transmitted disease from a Craigslist experience to e-mail me for an informal study I was conducting, I received 106 messages by the end of the week.

While the afflictions ranged from the most common — herpes — to the rarest— 12 cases of HIV infection— it is clear that many users of Craigslist are leaving their experiences with more than just memories of lustful encounters.

So the question must be asked: Why, if there is so much knowledge about HIV and STDs out there, are people still having casual (and often unprotected) sex?

Craigslist user Teddy plays out his presidential fantasies with strangers he meets on the Internet.

Teddy said he does not think about such things when he gets together for his Oval Office romps.

"It never crosses my mind while I am doing it, but afterwards I always ponder on it. I start to freak out," he said. "Two months ago, I got really bothered by this feeling of guilt from it, so I went to go get tested and swore off Craigslist ads all together. You see how well that worked out for me. I keep coming back, and I don’t know why. I have pretty much accepted at this point, that if I am meant to get it, I will. If not, I won’t."

Sex therapist Gloria Brame says that it is complacency like Teddy’s that concerns her, but she notes that Teddy is far from alone in his feelings.

"For a lot of people on this Web site, the idea of anonymous sex is taboo, and that is what excites them," Brame said. "They are willing to overlook the fact that they might die, in order to get their rocks off. It is unhealthy, and it needs to be stopped.

"But it looks like the problem is getting even worse. There is now even a group out there who get turned on by the idea of being infected with HIV," Brame said.

This group, self-titled bug chasers, have a strong presence on Craigslist.

On a quick search for men seeking bareback, or unprotected sex, with other men in Chicago, 37 ads posted in the past two weeks alone come up.

While not all of these ads are bug chasers, Tom Tweed (not his real name), a 20-year-old Fort Worth bug chaser, says that the majority of the ads are "cover for what they really want. If a negative man says he wants to bareback, it means he is looking for someone to make him positive."

While Tweed knows that most people are shocked and appalled by his desire to become infected, it deters him little.

"I have two thoughts on this issue," Tweed said. "First, I was taught about AIDS from elementary school on. It seems to me that it is everywhere, and it is just not a big deal anymore. Everyone who is not a virgin is going to get it sometime, so I might as well take charge of the virus, and choose when and who I get it from."

In addition, Tweed said that he views HIV as no more serious than diabetes.

"They both can kill you, but with both of them, you just pop a few pills and you go on living," Tweed said.

"It is not the end of your life. It does not have to be anymore. HIV will not control me. Instead I will control it, by choosing when and by medicating against it."

Keith Wienstein of the (British) National AIDS Trust, was responsible for the recent release of a study proving that not only has the public misunderstood the power of new drug treatments, but that many in the Western nations’ younger generation, such as Tweed, "fail to grasp the seriousness of the threat to their health."

"The really worrying thing is that young people know the facts about HIV but choose not to use condoms," Wienstein said.

European AIDS Treatment Group Director Jill Stanford sees this new revelation as far more worrying than the continued spread in Third World countries.

"What bothers me is that the Western nations have for the most part already controlled the AIDS epidemic through education," Stanford said.

"When the other nations do that, the problem will be so much better, but now it looks like a culture can get to a point where it is too aware about AIDS.

"These Western youths have become desensitized to the issue. They no longer care because we have told them to care too much along the way.

The real issue, I hate to say, is that we all have worked so much at removing stigma from HIV sufferers that there is no deterrence factor left," Stanford said.

Ronald O. Valdiserri, a sociologist who studies AIDS’ impact on culture, holds a different viewpoint than Stanford. For him, the issue is not too much education about AIDS, but instead that too much scientific evidence is available, and not enough information about the individual sufferer.

"Downs [1972] identified a related phenomenon in his description of the ‘issue attention cycle,’" Valdiserri writes.

"He hypothesized that problems gradually fade from ‘the center of public attention.’ … It must be recognized that emerging priorities, whether health related or otherwise, compete with HIV/AIDS for the attention of the public and policy makers."

With topics such as terrorism, SARS and now the slowing economy dominating newspapers’ front pages, AIDS has been pushed out of the way.

No longer is there room for a media outlet to run a feature story about what an HIV sufferer endures. AIDS only makes the news if there is a new scientific or policy breakthrough.

Its coverage has lost emotion. That is the real problem facing Western nations today, some experts say.

Even comments that Teddy makes shows he agrees with this idea.

"In the late ’80s you heard stories all of the time about AIDS and people who where getting it. They would go on the news and tell about all of the symptoms they have and sappy stories about dreams they will never be able to achieve," he said.

"You don’t hear that stuff anymore. The problem must not be that big."

For Teddy, and 2 million other Craigslist users, it is this philosophy that might be leading them to the grave.

"I will definitely post an ad again," Teddy says.

"As a matter of fact, I already know what I am going to say. I am not sure of the exact wording, but it’s going to be some kind of pun on Theodore Roosevelt’s, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’"

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 21, 2008
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