The Complicated History of Poppers
Poppers are as ingrained in gay culture as Pride parades, bathhouses, and drag queens.
As a less illicit counterpart to stronger drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, poppers provide a high that won’t get you thrown behind bars. Plus, they enhance sexual pleasure and come in a bottle that could easily be mistaken for 5-hour energy. Though our community tends to be health-conscious, and often body-obsessed, a lot of gay men make exceptions for poppers. What is it about the little sex drug that resonates so much with us?
What Are Poppers?
In short, poppers are inhalants. They’re sold in miniature bottles filled with liquid that’s made from alkyl nitrites. The liquid gives off a vapor, which can be inhaled. The Independent reports poppers give you a head rush—the type most commonly associated with getting high. You feel flushed but there’s other stuff going on inside you. Your blood vessels are opening up, your blood pressure is dropping, and your heart rate is speeding up. Poppers are officially a legal high that generates less controversy than marijuana, but legality aside, there’s cause for concern. Before we get into that, let’s trace their history back to the source.
Poppers weren’t always used for a good time. According to Dazed, they were used to treat angina (chest pain) in the 1800s. But they were ousted once a more effective medication came along.
Fast forward to the Vietnam War. American GIs would do any drug they could get their hands on. Marijuana, heroin, opium—you name it. Poppers, known then as amyl, scored extra points because they were lighter to carry and helped fill the soldiers’ noses with something other than gunpowder. Those drug-loving veterans brought amyl back stateside, and manufacturers started selling it over the counter. (Imagine picking up a bottle at Walgreen’s.) Straight folks started using them during sex. But by the end of the 60s, they were prescription-only.
In the early 70s, poppers were rebranded as room odorizers. You know, to cancel out worry about all the legal stuff. It was then that the Mob got involved. But they were hands off once the gay media started to embrace it. By the mid-70s, poppers were an intrinsic part of the gay scene. Some clubs even sprayed the fumes in the air so no one was left out.
During the 80s, there was a lot of confusion and misinformation about the effects of poppers on a person’s health. It was unclear if they were dangerous or not. There were allegations that use of poppers increased one’s risk of contracting HIV. So, they remained underground for the rest of the decade. But they rose to the surface once more during the 90s rave era and never went away.
Despite how enjoyable poppers seem, not everyone escapes use without injury. And not everyone wants them to remain legal.
In 2015, the term ‘sudden sniffing death’ started circulating. The modern version of poppers had morphed into something more akin to huffing. Unlike the relatively pure nitrites sold decades back, today’s poppers often contain chemicals that are found in household cleaning products. Many guys are assuming they’re doing no damage, but they’re exposing themselves to toxic fumes without even knowing it.
Earlier this year, a 22-year-old man attending Australia’s Rainbow Serpent Music Festival died after drinking some of the liquid contained in poppers. While most people know not to drink it, it’s scary to think that something you’re inhaling (and assuming won’t harm you) could kill you if you change the method of consumption.
The LGBT Foundation warns that users could suffer loss of eyesight or heart irregularities after long-term use. Some studies have shown that poppers have the same effect on the body as carcinogens. And heavy doses could be fatal.
Last year, British MPs pushed for legislation that would ban poppers. The inhalants would’ve been included under a wide umbrella of drugs that provided “legal highs”. But those regulations were dead by March. Well, at least the portion that would have affected poppers.
Yet still, even though poppers narrowly escaped a ban, it’s a sign that they’re on the government’s radar. The war on drugs could finally expand to include the gay community’s favorite legal substance.
The Future of Poppers
The future of poppers seems unclear. Like bathhouses, their use is tied to an older generation. And, as that generation settles into a different stage of life, many of the “tools” they used are disappearing. The Advocate explored poppers’ role in the gay community and questioned if its legacy was one worth justifying.
Their conclusion? Gay sexuality and poppers were intertwined. So much so that they were impossible to separate. It was reported that gay men use them at 25 times the rate of straight men. And this is despite increased knowledge of the dangers.
Poppers continue to provide a form of escapism and enjoyment. The risks associated are outweighed by the benefits.
“Alkyl nitrate is connected with gay sexuality—something that remains too much for anyone other than queer men to stomach,” writes Advocate contributor Neal Broverman.
The next chapter in the history of poppers is an uncertain one. There’s risk involved for those who use them but they can also be a source of great enjoyment. It’s unclear if they’ll make the transition to the mainstream or fade in popularity like your local men’s only sauna. But for better or worse, it’s safe to say poppers will remain part of our community.