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A Fascinating History of Poppers

How the gay party drug has made anal sex easier for half a century

The first time I tried poppers was in the back room of The Cock — a sleazy, smoky, East Village dive bar where groping is encouraged and not-yet-dried semen sometimes sticks to the sole of your shoes. I was grinding with a faceless set of pecs when a tiny brown bottle magically appeared under my nose. I reflexively inhaled and a tidal wave of warmth proceeded to envelope my core as my internal organs began vibrating, in time, to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydreamblasting from DJ booth.

Is it legal to fuck someone on a dance floor in the state of New York? I wondered, as visions of animalistic copulation flooded my woolly brain. Did I just piss in my pants? I worried, but was relieved to discover it was just sweat. “What was that?!” I asked out loud to no one in particular, grasping again for that little brown bottle…

1.“Poppers” is a slang term for amyl nitrites, historically inhaled recreationally by the gay community during sex. To evade anti-drug laws, poppers are often labelled as room deodorizers, leather polish or tape head cleaner. “Poppers are like a sneeze you snort,” explained the Rooster Magazine in 2017. “The high is intense, but momentary, something you don’t have to commit to for any longer than ten, crazy seconds.”

2. The drug was originally packaged in small, mesh-covered glass vials, which could be crushed with the thumb and fingers and the vapors inhaled. The vials became known as “poppers” because of the sound they made when crushed.

3. As explained by Dr. Lucy Robinson, Sussex University history lecturer: “If you trace the bottle of poppers through late 20th-century history, you trace the legacies of gay culture on popular culture in the 20th century. We wouldn’t have had rave, disco or club culture as we know it today without the gay community.”

4. Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton, a Scottish physician, originally pioneered amyl nitrite use to treat angina pectoris, a heart condition marked by chest pains and shortness of breath. It dilated blood vessels, causing the heart to get more oxygen and thereby relieving the pain. One of the side effects, however, was a dizzying burst of euphoria.

5. According to drugs.com, inhaling nitrites relaxes smooth muscles throughout the body (including the sphincter muscles, making it particularly helpful to gay bottoms.) “Poppers cause the vessels to dilate, resulting in an immediate increase in heart rate and blood flow throughout the body, producing a sensation of heat and excitement that usually lasts for a couple of minutes.”

6. Dr. Ronald Wesley Wood, professor of toxicology at the University of Rochester, was among the first to identify the acute toxicity of nitrite inhalants in 1988. “Aside from the spectrum of effects desired by the user,” he tells me now, “there are less desirable side effects and frank injuries associated with the use of these products, including skin and tracheobronchial irritation, acute toxicity and the induction of a substance abuse disorder.” (One freak accident also involved a 15-year-old boy going blind after heavy popper use.)

7. While severe addiction to poppers is relatively rare, explains treatment4addiction.com, it’s often abused by addicts in combination with other mind altering chemicals. “Severe consequences could arise, including asphyxia, neurologic dysfunction and carbon monoxide poisoning.”

8. “I think poppers are fascinating,” says Matt Breen, my former editor at the Advocate. “It’s likely remained a gay thing because it’s easier to receive anal sex.” (Due to the aforementioned sphincter smoothing.) Poppers are even making their way into gay porn, Matt tells me, suggesting I go on Pornup and search “gay poppers” and find a series of ‘training’ videos meant to build up one’s endurance to be able to huff for longer periods of time.

9. As Paul Nelson, a clinical sexologist at The Men’s Sexual Health Project in New York, warns, “If someone is using vasodilators for erections (i.e., Viagra, Cialis, Levitra) they shouldn’t use poppers because ED drugs substantially lower the blood pressure. Since poppers are another intense vasodilator, the combination can be lethal.” To wit: In 2010, Atlanta gay activist Greg Barrett died after inhaling poppers while on Levitra.

10. “The first time I used poppers I was having sex with a very hot man in a bath house,” explained LGBT activist and longtime HIV/AIDS survivor Hank Wilson in 2008, the year he succumbed to lung cancer at age 61. “The orgasm I had was incredibly intense — like a flood. But I started getting concerned about poppers after reading the first public reports in the news. We didn’t know about the dangers — we were just using it as a sex toy.”

11. According to Ian Young, author of The Stonewall Experiment: A gay psychohistory, an unspoken agreement emerged between manufacturers and regulators that amyl nitrite could be sold as long as it was labelled as a “room odoriser” and marketed only to the gay community.

12. “When I was 20 I would drive up to LA from San Diego to meet with a very wealthy businessman in Malibu,” explains Matty, now 32. “Let’s call it what it was, I was there and being paid for my time. As we began to play he was fingering me and introduced poppers. It was exhilarating and made me feel sexy, boosted self confidence and lowered my inhibitions. I had a toy chest at his house with every monster size dildo you can imagine. Upon arrival, every time, he would greet me with a fresh bottle of poppers.”

13. “Another group uses poppers for dancing,” Lauritsen says, because it makes them feel light-headed and intensifies the sound. Joseph Raspolich called poppers “a major player in the disco and rave culture that developed at the end of the 20th century.”

14. As Ian Young explains in “The Poppers Story: The Rise and Fall and Rise of ‘The Gay Drug,’” during the Vietnam War, GI’s made their tours of duty more tolerable by getting strung out on a variety of mood-alternating substances. “For the boys in ‘Nam,” young writes, “nitrite inhalants were a welcome addition to the chemical stew. They were legal, easy to carry, and being shipped in from the States by the crate-full — touted as an antidote to gun fumes. When surviving GIs returned home, many of them were eager to keep up their poppers habit, and under heavy pressure from manufacturers, the FDA made a ruling sanctioning over-the-counter sales. Suddenly, poppers were available without prescription to the American public.” (The FDA would reverse this decision in 1969 and require a prescription for amyl nitrite thereafter.)

15. By 1974, poppers were ubiquitous throughout the gay scene, from bars to bathhouses to the bedroom. They were cheap, widely available and fun, explains Dazed Magazine. “Bottles would be passed around the dance floor and clubs would spray them through the air. For some, they also became a sexual crutch.” In fact, two separate studies in the 1970s found numerous gay men were no longer able to perform sexually without the use of poppers.

16. As Wilson explained: “My boyfriend couldn’t do certain things sexually without poppers. He was uptight, newly out and unrelaxed. But when he used poppers, you’d think he was a gay all star.”

17. In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of butyl nitrite, but manufacturers managed to stay a step ahead of the feds: each time a specific formula was banned, they would adjust by altering the chemical composition slightly. As of 2002, the newest popper was cyclohexyl nitrite, commonly sold in head shops as a cleaner for VCRs.

18. “I first found out about poppers when I was 23,” says Luca, now 67, who tells me poppers were especially popular among the gay Hollywood elite at the time. “I was hanging with a group of gay friends who were making motion pictures — studio bosses, directors, writers, set designers, composers, photographers, producers, and sometimes a famous ‘gay beard’ wife or two who were often lesbian or bisexual. Back then the drug of choice was amyl nitrate produced by Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals, obtained by prescription from one of ‘those’ Hollywood doctors.”

19. In 1983, Wilson and another gay activist, John Lauritsen, published a series of articles in the gay press attempting to educate the gay community about potential dangers of using poppers. But, as Lauritsen tells me, “We were dogged by a man named Bruce Voeller. who was supported during the last years of his life by the poppers industry and would write articles claiming Hank and I were anti-scientific and flat earthers.”

20. Fuller was hardly their most formidable adversary, though. As Lauritsen explains, “Pharmaceutical amyl nitrate was much purer than the mixture of things put out by the mob. I use the word ‘mob’ because these were not nice people: Hank and I both received death threats early on and had to decide whether or not to continue sounding the warning on poppers. We knew we had to continue to warn gay men about the dangers and decided the best way to protect ourselves was to be as public as possible so the mob would lose more by killing us than if they didn’t.” They were also considered “gay traitors” and, among other things, were called ‘homophobic,’ ‘anti-gay’ and were regularly heckled at gay bars.

21. Poppers were produced for pennies and gross profits were estimated to be $50 million in 1978. As such, Lauritsen explains, they were heavily marketed. “The gay press was flooded with ads. A publication with a meager amount of advertising would get thousands or tens of thousands of dollars of revenue from poppers. Bulging muscles were linked to a drug that is indisputably hazardous to the health.” Nothing was butcher or sexier than inhaling noxious chemical fumes, the ads effectively promised. Soon, hundreds of thousands of men were persuaded that poppers were an integral part of their ‘gay identity.’

22. Virtually one hundred percent of gay men initially diagnosed with AIDS used poppers, Lauritsen explains. Assuming there must be a connection between poppers and AIDS, he and Wilson co authored Death Rush: Poppers & AIDS in 1986. “I’m a recovering alcoholic of 50 years,” Lauritsen says now. “During the heyday of poppers I did not drink or use drugs. This is obviously anecdotal, but those of us who were clean and sober and didn’t use poppers didn’t get sick.”

23. “Most guys are introduced to poppers by other men,” Wilson points out. “It’s something gay guys initiate other gay guys in. It’s kind of like a subculture or initiation.”

24. “The person who introduced me to poppers died many years ago,” Lauritsen says. “A friend of mine was at a party and asked people ‘can you remember the first person who introduced you to poppers?’ Without exception, all of these people were dead. People have always said that Hank and I claimed that poppers were the cause of AIDS. We never said that. But I would say that poppers are the only tenable hypothesis for the occurrence of Kaposi’s sarcoma in gay men, a type of cancer formed in the skin and lymph nodes affecting more than 35 percent of people with AIDS. The biochemical properties are completely consistent with causing Kaposi sarcoma. I wrote an article in 1996 calling for research into the popper’s-kaposi sarcoma connection.”

25. In the late seventies, as Wilson explained in a 2006 documentary about the AIDS epidemic, full page ads in Playgirl attempted to market poppers to heterosexuals. “Here’s one with the headline ‘Rush Creates the World’s Greatest Lovers,’” he presents to the camera. “The caption read, ‘As with discos, Bette Midler, and designer jeans, aromas were first appreciated by gays.’ So we were really considered the experts pioneering this new sex toy.”

26. While a recent survey found the use of poppers to be 25 times more common among gay men than straight ones, increasingly, young, straight people are hopping on the amyl train. As Isabelle Kohn explained in the Rooster last year, “Since everyone has a butt that may or may not benefit from poppers’ relaxing effects, and young people are having more anal than any recorded generation in U.S. history, they’ve recently started trending amongst young, straight people who are just now catching on to the vogue the gay community championed back before the dawn of time.” That’s because, in addition to making people’s butts feel more accommodating, poppers also relax the muscles of the vagina and throat, too, making them fit for use across all sexuality spectrums, in spite of their traditional history as a gay man’s game.

27. Or as Jack, a 47-year-old man I met on Craigslist, put it: “I’m a married str8 guy who loves poppers and use them with TS escorts. Poppers turn me into a whore. In fact, they turned me from top to vers to maybe more of a bottom now.”