From their appearance on the iconic Queer as Folk TV series to their popularity in clubs and LGBT events, poppers are intrinsically tied with the gay community. But they aren't just for the club scene; people of all sexual orientations use them to relax and enhance arousal, including during sex. Despite their near-ubiquity, few people know exactly what those tiny bottles contain and how they work. Harm reduction specialists shared their knowledge of the drug and why it's so popular with LGBTQ+ people.
Often sold under the guise of air fresheners and household cleaners, poppers are potent vasodilators made from alkyl nitrites. When inhaled, the chemical compounds vaporize and provide short-lasting sensations of warmth and euphoria. Popular types of the drug include amyl nitrites (as found in poppers) and butyl nitrites, both of which are legal in the US.
Amyl nitrites are especially popular with gay people for their ability to ease the muscle tension in the anal sphincter and facilitate receptive anal sex (Colfax et al. 2001). They're also known to increase orgasms and make intercourse feel more powerful and comfortable.
Though Zmith doesn't recall the AIDS scare of the 1980s, those days "really did damage to poppers' standing" because the drugs were associated with increased chances of getting HIV by lowering immunity or causing mutation in cells. Still, he doesn't think that the stigma against poppers is driven by anti-gay attitudes. Instead, he believes that manufacturers and regulators have reached an unspoken deal: zero explicit advertising and less scrutiny than other drugs get in exchange for safety. Adam Zmith is the author of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures, published by Repeater Books. He's a writer living in London, UK.