Sex talk
Speaking of Poppers

Simon Sheppard,

"Poppers" is slang for the drug amyl nitrite (and its close chemical relatives butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite).

Used medically to relieve pain in people with heart disease, amyl is a vasodilator - it causes blood vessels to open wider, easing the heart's labors, allowing blood to flow more freely, and temporarily increasing the pulse rate. Originally, amyl nitrite was inhaled from little glass capsules that broke with a pop - thus "poppers."

Somewhere around the 1970s, people, especially gay-male-type people, found that poppers had quite another use.

Inhaling them during sex provided a hell of a rush. Voila! A new gay fad was born. I'll let a poppers aficionado describe it for you: "You open the little brown bottle, stick it under your nose, and inhale. A few seconds later, your heart starts pounding, your consciousness changes, and you become utterly absorbed by sex, or at least I do.

Instead of being 'me having sex,' I become sex itself, and the experience can be overwhelming. Poppers can make mediocre sex good, and good sex spectacular."

That's just one slut's opinion, of course. Other people find the poppers rush disorienting, unpleasant, and headache-producing. And - as is the case with so many things that can make you feel good - using poppers is not awfully good for you, though just how not good is a matter of debate.

People with heart disease, blood pressure problems, glaucoma, and liver disease should stay away; in any of these cases, serious damage, up to and including death, may result. And the combination of Viagra and poppers can be deadly, too; who wants to be a stiff stiff?

Back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, some folks suspected poppers might be the cause of Kaposi's sarcoma, perhaps of AIDS itself. The KS link is now pretty well disproved. There is evidence that using poppers does lower immune function, though the damage is undone in at most a few days.

People with impaired immune function should certainly think twice before taking a hit, but the idea that amyl use causes permanent immune-system damage is speculative at best.

As with the use of other recreational drugs, when it comes to poppers, moral issues can overshadow good medicine.

The "Just Say No" crowd views poppers as a menace. But Dr. Andrew Weil, author of From Chocolate to Morphine, calls amyl nitrite "one of the safest drugs in medicine." Weil, whose approach to drug use centers on harm reduction rather than outright prohibition, explains that "when inhaled, amyl nitrite breaks down quickly and leaves the body easily."

Safe or not, overuse of poppers can make you feel like shit - headaches, dizziness, a sort of crappiness all over. (If you start feeling that way, put the little bottle away, open the windows wide, and take a deep breath. And remember, no matter how disorienting a poppers rush may be, it only lasts a few minutes.) The combination of temporary ego-loss and becoming a total fuck-pig can also tempt guys to do riskier stuff than they otherwise might.

Guys who use poppers while they're getting fucked often feel it helps them loosen up their sphincter, but it also enlarges the blood vessels in the anal lining, which might facilitate infection by HIV, should a couple be foolhardy enough not to be using a condom.

Also, the prohibition of the over-the-counter sale of amyl nitrite for medical use means that the poppers sold for recreational use (and labeled "video head cleaner" or "room odorizer") are bootleg blends of anonymous chemicals unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

On balance then? A lot of people think using poppers really enhances sex. If you're otherwise healthy, and if you don't drink the stuff or get it in your eyes, there's no hard-and-fast evidence that occasional, moderate use of amyl nitrite poses much of a health risk. But hey, I'm not a doctor, just your average, everyday sex-hound.

Oh, and two other dangers. First, the use of poppers may convince you that the stranger in your bed is the love of your life. And second, the stuff is really flammable. Watch that romantic bedside candle, or your next orgasm might turn out to be quite literally explosive.

Simon Sheppard is the co-editor of Rough Stuff: Tales of Gay Men, Sex, and Power (Alyson Books)

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