'Sex Roulette Party' Panic: Menace or Myth?

A bizarre sex game with a sinister twist has intrigued the tabloid press, but, on closer investigation, many of the "facts" simply don't add up.

Over the past few weeks several news media across Europe have reported on a troubling new trend: orgiesin which one of the participants has AIDS. The story first appeared on the Spanish website "El Periodico" with the headline "Swingers in Barcelona have a secret AIDS patient as a guest in the orgy," followed by others including the self-explanatory "Daily Mail" headline "Sex roulette parties where one person is secretly HIV+ and nobody is allowed to use condoms are on the rise, warn doctors."

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It's a scary and bizarre activity, apparently pursued by clandestine sexual thrill seekers across Europe and perhaps around the world. Gavin Fernando, a reporter for the "New Zealand Herald," tracked the origin of the stories to a Josep Mallolas, a Spanish doctor who explained that "In the last two or three years, and in several large western cities like London, Paris and now Barcelona, there is a clear evidence of such 'parties' called Chemsex'."

Despite headlines suggesting that the medical community as a whole is aware of (and concerned about) this trend, Dr. Mallolas appears to be the sole source of the reports, though a second person identified only as "a Serbian stripper called Tijana" offered a corroborating anecdote in some news stories.

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The problem, Fernando notes, is that while "Chemsex" parties exist (essentially drug-fueled, mostly-gay sex parties), "'Chemsex' parties are in no way the same as the 'Sex Roulette' parties reported in the media now. In fact, by conflating the two, Dr. Mallolas may as well be admitting the latter is not really a thing."

There is the added unsettling element of so-called "bug chasers," people who are said to actively seek out HIV infection through unprotected sex with partners known to have AIDS. It's an extremely rare fetish, but one that should not be confused with either Chemsex or the Sex Roulette parties. Urban legend fact-checking website Snopes.com also looked into the story and concludes that it is indeed a myth.

Scary Legends

It's important to understand the context of these stories. AIDS (and specifically the threat of catching it) has been the subject of rumors, legends, and folklore for decades. The theme has appeared in various conspiracy theories (such as that the U.S. government created the disease to kill off homosexuals or the African-America population) and has been used to stigmatize the gay population (as sexually promiscuous and callously indifferent to public health).

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As folklorist Gillian Bennett writes in her book "Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Contemporary Legend," versions of the legend date back decades: "By 1986-1987, rumors and stories were circulating on both sides of the Atlantic about HIV-infected gays who were deliberately spreading (or threatening to spread) the virus among the straight as well as the gay population." And such rumors continue today; in 2014 a Seattle man claimed he was attacked outside a bar one night by a mysterious woman with a needle who stabbed him and then said "Welcome to the HIV club," suggesting that he had just been infected with the AIDS-causing virus. It turned out to be a hoax or misunderstanding; no assailant was ever found, and no disease was transmitted.

Sociologists Joel Best and Kathleen Bogle, in their book "Kids Gone Wild: From Rainbow Parties to Sexting, Understanding the Hype Over Teen Sex," examined the pattern of social media stories about sex panics: "In each case, claims were made that these new forms of sexual behavior [and] inspired a wave of commentary: Journalists, cable TV pundits, bloggers, and ordinary citizens repeated the claims ('Do you realize what kids today are doing?') and debated their significance."

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Rumors such as the "Sex Roulette" parties circulate in part to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency in the face of a deadly disease that has lost its fearsomeness over the years as treatment and medicines to treat the syndrome have improved. Health care professionals and others may feel that an occasional scary story or legend about the dangers of AIDS is worth spreading to remind the public of its danger- even if it's perhaps not quite true.