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