Poppers: Queer Cultural Norm or a Harmful Chemical Enhancement Not Worth the Rush?

If someone told you that there was a drug that could completely enhance your sexual experience, would you try it? Would you even think twice or would you dive right in? 

Most people would probably take a step back and consider the factors here. What is it exactly? What does it do? How long does it last? Or, if you’re like me, you’d just give it a shot because you’re vibing on the dance floor with seventeen twinks, a couple of butch daddies, and some throuples flailing about to Cascada. The drug in question here is poppers.

Belonging to the chemical classification of alkyl nitrites, poppers were first synthesized in 1844. They were primarily used as medicine to treat people with angina, chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. The drug slowly became popularized in club culture during the 1960s, especially from within the gay community. People soon discovered that experimenting with poppers provided muscular relaxation and sexual enhancement. Once they hit, they really hit. Resurfacing again in the 70’s disco scene, and, once again, in the 90’s rave scene. Ever since then, they’ve been here and they’ve been queer. But how much do we really know about them?

Poppers are marketed very similarly to energy drinks and, often, sold as cleaners or solvents. Rush, Jungle Juice, Liquid Gold, and Double Scorpio, just to name a few, are all very popular brands. The FDA has officially stated that “ingesting or inhaling nitrite poppers can cause severe injury or death,” establishing the drug as being unsafe. If you’ve ever done poppers, you’ve probably experienced some side effects such as drop in blood pressure (causing headaches for some) and a possible shortness of breath. The FDA also reports adverse effects to poppers, including difficulty breathing, extreme drops in blood pressure, decreases in blood oxygen levels, seizures, heart arrhythmia, coma, and death. While you’ve probably never heard of anyone dying from poppers, there has been an increase in hospitalizations from the drug usage, prompting a warning against inhaling or consuming poppers, but not altogether banning them.

A close friend of mine, Warren, used to consume poppers on a daily basis for about 3 years of his life and still does on occasion. As a local expert, Warren knows the primary basics about poppers and how they operate in our bodies. I went to him for a few questions about his usage and the potential risks.

“I know that they are…nitrites,” he said. “And they work through your bloodstream and lower your blood pressure.”

Coming from a healthcare background, Warren informed me of the potential dangers of using poppers with certain medications, such as blood pressure medicines, heart medication, and vasodilators (aka Viagra). He also pointed out that, even though most do, you probably shouldn’t drink while using them as well. He brought up some common side effects he’s heard of from people while using poppers. Long-term, repetitive usage of poppers, for some people, can induce erectile dysfunction and similar symptoms. The most common side effect that we had both heard of from people is headaches; however, Warren stated that he’s never experienced this before.

“Oof. Does that mean I have high blood pressure just like all the time?” he questioned.

A couple other friends I talked to also experience the headache sensation that typically occurs in the comedown. While Warren did not even try poppers for the first time until 2016, he says that he used poppers on a daily basis from 2017 to 2020.   When asked why he used them so frequently, he responded that he started using them to relax himself during sex. He shared that because he gets really anxious, poppers helps him feel more in the moment, giving him some of the best orgasms of his life.

He says he primarily buys them online, but has also bought them in various places around town before.

“You used to be able to buy them on Amazon,” he said.

“If poppers were to disappear or become less accessible, how would that impact your life?” I asked.

“I feel.. I hate to say it, but I feel like it really would impact my life. I feel like it has given me a lot more sexual liberty. Not that I’m dependent on it, but it really would make things a lot more difficult. And I could definitely see a potential risk with a possible rise in other types of drug usage to make up for the loss.” Potential for new street drugs?

The rising restrictions being put on the drug brings up just as many issues as improper consumption does. 

For one: LOTS of unsatisfied gays, that’s for sure. The increase in restrictions and regulations on the drug has been referred to as a ‘war on bottoms’ by PinkNews, in a piece discussing the crackdown on poppers in Australia and how it’s affecting the gay community. When I asked my other friends about the drug, I pretty much got an array of answers – anything from “I can’t live without them,” to “I’ve never had them and don’t ever plan to.”

When we think of poppers, we often go to gays and bottoming, right? But something you probably haven’t heard of is poppers being used for female sexual pain. And it absolutely makes sense, given the body relaxation effect. The gays are onto something, for sure, but let’s reassess the dangers. 

One study done from Gregory M. Taylor, D.O. at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital suggests that poppers can be extremely dangerous in excessive amounts and for people with underlying health conditions.

“The patient was picked up in an adult novelty store after employees noted he kept falling, looked ill and finally collapsed to the floor shortly after checkout,” the study said. The patient was a 69 year-old male with a long history of hypertension who was experiencing methemoglobinemia. Methemoglobinemia is a blood disorder where an abnormal amount of methemoglobin, a form of hemoglobin, is produced. With methemoglobinemia, the hemoglobin can carry oxygen, but cannot successfully release it to other bodily tissues. While the patient was struggling to breathe and basically passing out in the store, he was out of the emergency room within two days, thanks to treatment provided by the Indiana Poison Center. 

In a different study conducted by Daniel Demant from the Australian Centre for Public and Population Health Research, popper usage   was examined among 836 Australian gay and bisexual young men aged 18 to 35 years to learn more about their risks and side effects. The study concluded that among this particular group of individuals, poppers had proven to be pretty harmless over all. “A regulation of poppers with a harm reduction approach may present a valuable public health intervention.” But is regulation a reasonable reality when poppers have played such a huge role in club scenes for decades now? 

A national anti-drug advisory service developed by the Department of Health and Home Office of the British government explains the impact of mixing poppers with other drugs, alcohol, and Viagra or other erectile dysfunction medication. The risks listed on the site describe the drug as being most harmful when mixed with other substances, or when consumed by people with underlying conditions, specifically those related to heart conditions and blood pressure issues. 

Another problem associated with the drug is how people often use it: namely, the duration in which people inhale them, as well as the repetitive consumption of it within short periods of time. Homoculture writes, “Popperbating is the perfect solution when you need a wank, but don’t feel like getting hookup ready.” Although popper porn (interactive porn videos designed to watch while using poppers) has been taken down from the majority of porn websites, if there’s a will, there’s a gay. Warren said popper porn is something he used to be extremely interested in, stating that most of the videos were about an hour or longer. Gay lifestyle publication, Homoculture, says that when watching and indulging in popper porn, there is a possibility of your lips and fingernails turning blue from consuming the drug for prolonged periods of time. It can also cause shortness of breath, prolonged dizziness, and headaches. They suggest “taking a break” to recenter and doing them for shorter periods next time.

Overall, it seems as though poppers definitely can be harmful, depending on your lifestyle and usage of them. However, just like any other drug, there is tremendous stigma around the usage and lots of misunderstanding surrounding the actual facts. If you’d like to know more about the past, present, and future life of poppers, check out Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures by Adam Zmith.