AAHHH poppers! A staple of many gay males’ sexual lives. From the twist of the small cap on the little brown bottle to the first huff, this has been the stuff of dreams for more than a few generations. The rush of blood through the body makes your skin feel sensitive and soft, inside and out. Almost euphoric as your inhibitions fall and your heart rate pulses. First known to be widely used in the 1960s, poppers found their claim to fame In the 1970s. They became so big that even straight people were known to casually use them on the dance floors of famous disco clubs. Rumors say Studio 54 and others would pipe them into the air conditioners. The liquid gold in these bottles would soon become the scapegoat for the AIDS virus and change views about gay male anal sex forever.

What are Poppers?

To be very clear, this is a generic slang term for a mixture of chemicals that has changed formulations over time and even countries. They are substances in the group of chemicals known as alkyl nitrites.  Originally amyl nitrites were used, and now isopropyl nitrite tends to be more common. Poppers are usually sold in small bottles in the form of liquids that produce a vapor that can be inhaled.

The most common places to find poppers for sale are in local sex shops, “dirty book stores”, leather/fetish stores, and, of course, the Internet.

Poppers AIDS Controversy

Poppers have fallen in and out of favor with the American Food and Drug Administration since the early 1960s, making them by prescription only in 1937, until 1960, reversed in 1968, then a year later, 1969, illegal. But by then, it was too late. Renewed interest and research began once the AIDS epidemic emerged, specifically, Karposi syndrome (KS).

Mr. Ian Young wrote an interesting article about poppers, usage, health warnings, and AIDS for the now-defunct gay magazine STEAM. Here Mr. Young outlines some of the most popular myths/facts/conclusions regarding this substance. How much of the below is true is unknown and up for debate, but the issues still swirl around the gay male community and the stigma of its usage.

NOTE: This article was written sometime in the mid-1990s when speculation about the cause(s) of AIDS was still high. Many gays did not believe HIV was the sole cause and, like many straights, blamed poppers for cancers like KS. In short, he was a conspiracy theorist, but he was not, and is still not alone!  But, you be the judge.

“The ban on amyl quickly became ineffective when an enterprising gay medical student in California, Clifford Hassing, altered its atomic structure slightly – it isn’t hard to do – and applied for a patent on butyl nitrite. The genie was changing form, as genies will.”

Soon, Hassing had been muscled out of his thoughtful minor home-lab operation by more prominent ‘entrepreneurs,’ nominally-independent operators controlled by organized crime syndicates. They made further chemical changes and came up with butyl and isobutyl nitrite – less pure, more toxic, and even faster-acting than the original amyl. And with the post-Stonewall rise of the urban, drug-based ‘gay lifestyle,’ gays were seen as the ideal market sector for a new aphrodisiac.

“At this point, the FDA wanted nothing more than to be done with the whole business, and a modus vivendi was established. The unwritten agreement seems to have been: public distribution of poppers would be permitted – as long as they were labeled ‘room odorizer and marketed only to gay men. With this cynical unwritten agreement, poppers became a multi-million dollar business for the Mob.”

“During the Seventies and early Eighties, much of the gay press, including the most influential glossy publications, came to rely on poppers ads for a huge chunk of its revenue, and poppers became an accepted part of gay sex. There was even a comic strip called Poppers by Jerry Mills. The unwritten agreement was almost never breached: poppers ads appeared only in gay publications. The few exceptions were women’s magazines with a large gay male readership, like Playgirl.”

“Before the first official reports of AIDS in 1981, relatively few voices had been raised to question what health problems poppers users might be causing themselves. A few attempts were made to curb sales, but the manufacturers always got around it by changing either the chemical formula or the product name. And the gay press, dependent on revenue from ads, did not care to blow the whistle on its own advertiser. One researcher contacted Robert McQueen, the Advocate’s editor, to warn him that poppers “strongly suppresses” the immune system and could contribute to KS and Pneumocystis pneumonia. But McQueen said he wasn’t interested. The Advocate ran a series of ads promoting poppers as a ‘Blueprint for Health.’

“During the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, poppers came under suspicion as a possible contributing factor. But after 1984, when the Reagan administration pronounced a single retrovirus to be the only cause of the growing list of AIDS illnesses, the health hazards of poppers were dismissed. All attention and funding was directed to HIV. Eventually, through the efforts of a few dogged activists and researchers, state legislatures began to get into the act, and finally, most jurisdictions made poppers illegal – despite a well-financed campaign by a leading manufacturer, W.J. Freezer, the ‘Pope of Poppers.’ But even then, information about poppers was still not widely available.”

To be clear, there has never been a peer-reviewed and agreed-on study linking popper usage and HIV/AIDS or any other disease or long-term illness. 

What are poppers’ effects on the body?

  • The “good”: They open blood vessels, increase blood flow, and frequently reduce blood pressure while increasing heart rate. Users often report getting a dizzying ‘head-rush,’ a sort of high, in other words. Poppers work very quickly, producing an almost instant “rush” of warm sensations and feelings of dizziness, similar to phenomena of extreme alcohol intoxication. The effects come on very quickly after inhaling the drug, but unlike drugs such as alcohol, they only last for seconds or minutes. Poppers give the user a feeling of mental and physical relaxation, increased sexual arousal, and makes anal sex easier and less painful due to the relaxation of the anal sphincter.
  • For this reason, poppers are sometimes (LOTS OF TIMES) used to facilitate anal sex. In addition, some users find that using poppers during sex increases sexual sensations and intensifies orgasms. Even though some users prefer to perform sexually with them, they are not addictive.
    • A survey of over 800 men aged 18 to 35 found little evidence of typical dependency characteristics, including health, social, legal, and financial problems, and no correlation between popper use and mental health or psychological stress.
  • The “bad”: Poppers are a skin irritant, and huffing can cause sinusitis around the nostrils. They can also trigger allergic reactions accompanied by wheezing and breathing difficulties. As poppers can be scented, allergic reactions can also be triggered by inhaling the perfumes in poppers. Headaches, which can range from mild to severe, are also common due to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Poppers can also increase the fluid pressure in the eyes, known as intraocular pressure, which may be problematic to people at risk of glaucoma. Because of the sudden change in blood pressure, some guys report loss of, or inability, to gain and sustain an erection. If you have heart or blood pressure problems, poppers can be dangerous because of the way they lower blood pressure and increase heart rate.  And for similar reasons, it’s a bad idea to take them with Viagra.
  • The “Ugly”: Swallowing poppers (rather than inhaling the vapor) may cause cyanosis, unconsciousness, coma, and complications leading to death. Methemoglobinemia can occur if poppers have been swallowed. Poppers are also highly flammable and should be kept far away from open flames. In the truest sense of the word, poppers are a drug. This means that they alter the body and mind to varying degrees depending on the person, body mass, and mix of other medications or drugs, including alcohol.                                                                                                                                                
  • Numerous studies have linked popper usage to an increase in risky sexual behaviors, increased number of sexual partners, and infection of STDs, including HIV. But, it is not considered to be the cause of the increase; instead, one of the drugs used by those seeking out those types of encounters. Also, they are one of the minor “party drugs” and are not harmful as crystal meth or MHB.

Some things you might want to know:

The American TSA does not allow poppers in checked or carry-on luggage, and this model is followed in most parts of the world. 

For some reason, there is a high stigma surrounding those who use poppers. Many gay males deny being users even though they are sold almost all over the world and in every major city.

Though technically illegal as a nitrate, poppers are sold under names like “head cleaner” and “room deodorizer”.

Some form of poppers can be found all over Western Europe, with formulas known to be stronger than in the United States.

Poppers, by any name or formula make-up, are illegal in Canada and Japan, and they cannot be sold under any name.

Poppers are sold under many brand names, strengths, and sizes.

To preserve freshness, many are known to keep poppers in the freezer.

Some Internet idiots may try to convince you to make your own poppers at home. Don’t try this! It even sounds stupid.

The cost of poppers will vary, but in the USA, they range from 15 dollars to as much as $40. In Europe, small bottles are 10 Euros, and large ones are 15. So we are told.

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