It’s been almost 30 years since 46-year-old Jamie, a Minnesota-based art director, shuffled awkwardly into a small-town sex shop and sheepishly requested something called “video-head cleaner” from the clerk behind the counter. Initially confused, the clerk disappeared and re-emerged with a small, brown bottle. “Do you mean poppers for sex?” he asked.
Of course, Jamie did mean poppers for sex. Only 20 at the time, he was navigating new worlds of sex, desire and drugs as a recently out gay guy intrigued by rumors of the fabled high this liquid could provide. A few hours later, he took his first sniff alongside a straight friend in the parking lot of a country music bar. “It made me feel warm, fuzzy and horny,” he tells me. “My guy friend liked it too, but then he got a bit uncomfortable and said we should go inside — apparently, he was feeling too horny to be stuck alone in a car with only another guy!”
The curious, clandestine nature of stories like this underpin most histories of poppers, the best-known alias for a chemical class of liquid drugs called alkyl nitrites. There are different varieties available, but amyl and butyl nitrate are currently easiest to find, although they’re usually euphemized for legal reasons — hence Jamie’s “video-head cleaner” request.
These tiny bottles are easily found in dark rooms and dance clubs around the world, but what do the chemicals actually do to your body? And more importantly, what do they feel like and how long does the high last?
“When you sniff the vapor from poppers, it dilates your blood vessels, which in turn lowers blood pressure,” explains Adam Zmith, a poppers historian whose recent book Deep Sniff examines their ties to queer culture. “That means there’s more space for the blood to flow through, and it rushes through faster — so sometimes, with poppers, you can feel your heart rate going up.”
Basically, a poppers high is an intense, dizzying head rush that has the bonus side effect of relaxing your muscles — most famously, your butthole. This is why it’s used so often during anal sex to lower pain and heighten pleasure. According to Chemistry World, alkyl nitrites release nitric oxide when you sniff them, which then binds to “the haem group in the enzyme guanylate cyclase,” the control center of a complex series of internal conversions that ultimately trigger muscle relaxation.
According to Zmith, who collated various anecdotes for his book, the rush itself only lasts for “45 to 90 seconds, or a couple of minutes max” — likely due to the fact that the nitric oxide reaction is rather short-lived.
The short length of this high is corroborated by U.K.-based academic Lisa, who says she loves poppers for their “speed and intensity.” “It’s much like the rush of MDMA, but without the lasting high,” she tells me. In her eyes, there are other benefits, too. “I wish I knew the best way of saying this, but they just make me feel like a vile little slut,” she says. “They just make everything darker, seedier and nastier!”
During sex, Lisa, a pseudonym, has experimented with ways to prolong the popper high. Sometimes, she leaves a bottle open on her bedside cabinet as a kind of sexy, intoxicating makeshift air diffuser. Other times, she douses a rag with the liquid, which her partner holds under her face to sniff during anal sex. The key word there is “under” her face, not “on” it — poppers’ liquid is highly toxic and can cause chemical burns, so contact with skin should be avoided at all costs. It’s the vapor you want, not the liquid.
Because the high from poppers is so short-lived, kink enthusiasts have experimented with other ways to draw out the pleasure, too. Zmith says foot fetishists in particular love to sniff a poppers-drenched sock, whereas Jamie sometimes “wears a mask with a cotton ball soaked in poppers,” which he says prolongs the high for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on how long he wears it for.
Obviously, caution is key. Swallowing the liquid, which is highly toxic, can result in death — which is why the FDA warns against them — and using poppers regularly can cause negative long-term effects such as methaemoglobinaemia, a serious blood condition that can result in breathlessness and blue lips, as well as short-term effects, like the infamous “poppers headache.”
It’s better to keep these facts in mind than learn the hard way. Zmith also recalls one telling anecdote from a club-goer who dipped a cigarette into a poppers bottle (“cigarettes are good for absorbing liquid”) and passed it to their friends for a sniff. Sadly, one didn’t get the memo that poppers liquid is highly flammable, and tried to light the drenched cigarette, promptly causing a tiny explosion.
Not everyone wants to prolong the poppers experience, though. Thirty-one-year-old drag artist Fatt Butcher likes to savor their brevity, especially on the dance floors of queer clubs. For them, the rush lasts “a minute or two, but it’s a short-lived, all-encompassing experience, like trying to make a wave stay on the beach.” In their eyes, the drug offers a reprieve from a gnawing, constant desire for control. “Poppers give me the rush of escapism that I want, but with the guarantee that, in about 90 seconds, things will go back to what they were,” they tell me.
After all, they reason, there’s nothing wrong with a little quickie.