I remember the first time I tried poppers. It was with my first serious boyfriend during my sophomore year of college in Orlando, Florida. He was older, sweeter than I deserved, and graciously showed me the proverbial and literal ins and outs of gay sex. It was one of those sweet, brief relationships that is more meaningful years down the road than in the moment.
But I digress. The first time he brought out a little brown bottle from his backpack, he was wearing only a jockstrap and we were in the limbo between foreplay and actual fucking. He told me to cover my left nostril with a finger and inhale briefly through my right. He explained it poorly, and I was skeptical. I don’t remember feeling anything but can confidently say today that I was absolutely fucking it up somehow. I think I took a quick sniff rather than the required seconds-long huff.
Initial fumbles aside, poppers have become a staple of the sex lives of myself and so many queers like me. Brands like Jungle Juice, Blue Boy, and (my personal favorite) Rush are ubiquitous at adult or adult-adjacent queer retailers across the U.S. Some well-known leather and fetish retailers make their own versions of the products, while homemade brands have taken queer culture by storm. I saw a poppers vending machine on Twitter a few weeks ago.
So when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this past June warned about the dangers of inhaling or otherwise consuming poppers, chemically known as alkyl nitrites, I wasn’t the only confused queer. Though certainly not for everyone, poppers are an ingrained part of queer culture, so much so that they feel almost out of the FDA’s reach, and certainly out of the agency’s consciousness. I’d love to meet the gay intern who reminded them about poppers in 2021.
Let’s step backward a bit. For those not familiar, to put it bluntly, poppers make it easier for bottoms to get fucked, though tops use the products too, certainly. Moments after a short, roughly four-second huff, your blood vessels dilate and your muscles relax. (That goes for your bootyhole muscle too, in case you haven’t caught on.) A head rush, flushed cheeks, and some would say voracious libido are soon to follow.
But the key to poppers is that huff. It’s almost ritualistic. Bottles pass from one partner to the next almost like an offering. After deep breaths come deep sighs, followed by deep euphoria.
Using poppers isn’t isolated to fucking. Many like to enjoy the head rush during a circuit party, on a nightclub dance floor, or other such social affairs. Celebrities like Sam Smith and Nicole Scherzinger have been seen using poppers, and rumor has it that John F. Kennedy was a fan himself. I gave one friend her first huff in my Upper West Side apartment over dinner.
On the outside, poppers may seem like a simple but niche sex enhancement. But Adam Zmith writes in recently published Deep Sniff, which details the history of poppers, that the brown bottles have a storied life that almost mirrors the criminalization and stigmatization of queerness and queer sex themselves.
After originating as a Victorian-era treatment for chest pain, poppers since at least the 1960s have been popular among gay men for the head rush that came with a huff of the vapors. In their early iteration, poppers were sold in small glass ampoules that made a popping noise when they were broken in order to release the vapors. (Hence the name “poppers.”)
The Stonewall Riots cemented the permanence and the resilience of the queer identity, and the rise of queer culture after that moment in turn increased the popularity of poppers. Over-the-top homoerotic ads selling poppers appeared in the decades following Stonewall, promising explosive orgasms, hard fucking, and beautiful, muscle-toned men. Poppers had attained their status as a gay sex staple.
But the hard-fought sexual freedom enjoyed in the 1970s was cut short by reports of a rare cancer soon seen among a small but growing number of gay men.
Years into the AIDS crisis, two gay activists in the U.S. published a book in the mid-1980s warning that poppers could cause or were at least a cofactor for AIDS, though their arguments were later entirely discredited. U.S. lawmakers banned butyl nitrate, a common substance in poppers, in 1988 and two years later banned the broad class of chemicals known as alkyl nitrites in the Crime Control Act of 1990, a bill sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden. Prosecutors at one point also charged two men for selling poppers in 1996, though sentences were minor.
But the products have faced harder attention abroad.
As Zmith writes, UK gay bars were raided repeatedly by police who were hunting poppers and using the arm of the law to stamp out queer sexuality in the mid-1980s. A stark symbol of the stigma gay men endured during the AIDS crisis, Zmith writes that some officers wore rubber gloves during the gay bar raids, apprently to protect themselves from the virus.
Both the UK and Australia have tried to ban poppers, and products containing alkyl nitrites are considered drugs in Canada and require a prescription.
And to echo some of Zmith’s writing, the crackdown on the brown bottles feels like a proxy for state-sponsored efforts to crush or at least antagonize queerness itself.
That includes the FDA’s recent disclaimer.
When I saw the disclaimer—which mentioned ingesting the chemical—nauseous waves, horror, and confusion filled the room like vapors from a Rush bottle. Nauseous because if you’ve ever used poppers, it is likely impossible to imagine actually drinking the chemical.
As any regular poppers user will tell you, even a brush of the bottle around the nostrils or on your lip will have you reaching for a rag. And I know more than a few folks who have ruined a set of sheets by spilling a bottle in the throes of passion. One friend who I spoke to for the article, whose friends call him a “poppers papa” thanks to his generosity with a brown bottle, said he sports a chemical burn on his chest from a spilled bottle.
A harm reduction group based on New York City’s Lower East Side recently posted a guide to safe poppers use on Instagram, with advice ranging from how to safely store poppers to which pharmaceutical recreational drugs to avoid mixing with the vapors. According to the group, mixing poppers with other stimulants like meth, speed, cocaine, and MDMA may increase your risk of fainting, a heart attack, or stroke, and using erectile dysfunction drugs with poppers can also cause a heart attack or passing out.
So the caustic, volatile nature of the chemical is certainly well known among actual poppers users.
When I shared with friends and sources that people had ingested a bottle like an energy shot, I was met with similar caterwauls of horror and nausea. Nearly everyone I told asked: “Who the fuck drinks poppers?”
It felt like a piece of institutional queer knowledge: how to use poppers, what they were for, not to drink them ohmygod. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has access to such knowledge, even in the age of the Internet, and these fumbles might be like mine in sophomore year of college, but with more severe consequences than unflushed cheeks and a still-tight butthole.
The FDA collects voluntary reports of complaints from consumers, health-care professionals, and product makers under its adverse event reporting system, and an FDA spokesperson told me that six reports, including two deaths, had been made to the agency between 2020 and 2021.
But there’s a glaring disconnect between the severity of the “increase in serious adverse event reports” cited by the agency and the half-dozen reports necessitating the alert. According to an FDA spokesperson, the agency has only ever received 20 adverse event reports about poppers, and according to documents obtained as part of a public records request, only nine of those have come in the past decade. Those numbers seem exponentially too small to warrant an FDA disclaimer during a pandemic (in which the agency is tasked with approving vaccines).
Some people about whom the complaints were made were mixing poppers with a litany of other recreational drugs (no shade!), so singling out poppers specifically feels inaccurate. Some of the reports center on patients who ingested poppers oftentimes not understanding how to use the product. Most confused the product with an energy shot, which calls into question the labeling more than the products themselves.
But Zmith says the labeling is its own tangled web that relies on a strange pact between retailers and the government: retailers agree to not label their products as being for human consumption, mainly queer sex, and regulators allow the products to be sold, albeit with labeling that doesn’t tell the whole story. They’re sold as solvents and cleaners, not butthole looseners.
Despite what feels like an endless list of poppers brands, a recent BuzzFeed investigation reveals that instead of the sleazy, sex-craven bathroom chemists that the FDA would like you to believe are crafting poppers, most of the production is done by everyday, blue-collar types making an honest dollar.
As the article states, many of the most recognizable poppers brands are made in a Pennsylvania factory, by Pac-West Distributing, staffed by workers who either don’t know what poppers are or don’t want to.
The article also explains in greater detail the complicated relationship between the government and poppers makers, dating back to 1974 in Los Angeles, just a year after the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to BuzzFeed, that year in 1974, a medical student trademarked one poppers product. And two years later, the massively popular Rush product hit the shelves, made by PWD, in fact.
The unspoken pact between regulators and poppers makers reeks of how the agency has historically thought of queer people: dirty, unhealthy sex fiends. We see that in the agency’s first responses to the AIDS crisis; in its delays in approving HIV drugs, leading to a historic takeover of its headquarters by the activist group ACT UP; in the ways the agency previously policed poppers; and in the way the FDA still bars gay men from most blood donation. As long as poppers makers don’t explicitly mention the use of poppers for gay sex, the FDA keeps its hands off their product.
The relationship between queer sex and the FDA is illustrated in one friend’s response to my findings. His skepticism turned to outright disdain when I told him that just nine reports had been made to the FDA in the past decade. Almost as if he were readying a nostril for a whiff, he turned up his nose.
His eye roll was legendary and as he shifted his weight between his hips, he said matter-of-factly, “I’ll probably use them more now.”
Over their lifetime, poppers have served as a near proxy for queer sex, met with much of the hand-wringing, “family oriented,” decency concerns lobbed at queerness itself. But the story of poppers and queer sex is one of survival, of resilience. For nearly centuries, police and health officials have tried to criminalize them into extinction. But in back rooms, in dive bars, on dance floors, and in the heat of passion, they survive.