history of poppers

Here’s a Quick and Dirty History of Poppers, the Gay Community’s Sexual Inhalant

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Many gay and bisexual men use poppers as a euphoric sex-drug: The nitrate-based inhalants provide an intense and disorienting rush of sensation that helps relax involuntary muscles in the throat and anus, assisting with oral and anal sex. According to writer C. Brian Smith, the history of poppers itself is long and interesting — let’s take a peek at some of his factual finds.

According to Smith, a Scottish physician named Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton began using amyl nitrate to treat angina, severe chest pains caused by a lack of blood flow to the heart. Amyl nitrate causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the heart, reducing pain and bringing with it a warm sensational rush to the skin.

Smith adds that poppers used to be sold in mesh-covered glass vials that made a popping sound when crushed, hence the name “poppers.” The mesh protected users’ skin from shards while they popped and inhaled the drug.

history of poppers 02
Some old-timey poppers in mesh sleeves

According to historian Dr. Lucy Robinson, poppers have appeared in numerous gay dance scenes throughout the 20th century including discos, raves and numerous nightclubs. The disorienting effects alter light and sound, making dancers feel euphoric and free, if only for a few seconds. They were also cheap, easy to carry around and easy to use without detection.

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Poppers used to be sold in the U.S. over the counter until the Food and Drug Administration started requiring a prescription for them in 1969. In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of certain poppers, but drug manufacturers kept altering their chemical recipes enough to avoid the ban.

“To evade anti-drug laws,” Smith adds, “poppers are often labelled as room deodorizers, leather polish or tape head cleaner.” You can often see them labelled as such in gay sex shops and bathhouses today.

Poppers do come with health risks. While the drug was misleadingly conflated with HIV during the epidemic’s earliest days, studies have shown that poppers can dramatically lower blood pressure, decreasing oxygenation to the brain and causing rapid, shallow breathing, blurred vision, dizziness and fainting.

Despite the sordid history of poppers, recent surveys have shown that one-third of all gay/bi men use poppers and its use is increasing among straight people as well.


Featured image via poppersking.com