Dear MKE SEX,
As a gay guy in my 40s, I’ve been using poppers for more than 20 years. Personally, I’m a big fan! I’ve had sex with and without them. Sex without them is definitely good, but I really enjoy sex with them a little more. It just feels really free to me. Why do poppers trigger people to let go of their sexual inhibitions?
Poppers is a slang term for a few types of amyl nitrites that are used recreationally, often during sex. (Poppers actually have so many different nicknames that it can be hard for a middle-aged person like myself to keep track! They are known as rush, liquid gold, head cleaner, leather cleaner, and air freshener. And maybe a few other things that I don’t even know about.) Alkyl nitrites, a group of chemical compounds, were first synthesized all the way back in 1844 by a French chemist. Alkyl nitrites have had several medicinal uses over the years (an antidote to cyanide, relief of angina, and others), and was first documented as a recreational drug in 1964.
Within a few years of alkyl nitrites’ debut as a recreational drug, it was adopted by the LGBTQ community. Queers of all sorts were taking poppers to the discos, bathhouses and cruising sites. For lots of gay men in particular, poppers were just as much a part of their sexual history as beefcake magazines and the hanky code. LGBTQ+ folks today are still using poppers for the same reasons.
Poppers are inhaled, and within seconds cause the smooth muscles in your body to profoundly relax. Because our blood vessels are surrounded and controlled by smooth muscles, this sudden relaxation causes a head rush, a decrease in blood pressure and an increase in heart rate. Some people experience this as a euphoric state. It also relaxes sphincters in the body, including the ones in the anus and the vagina which makes penetration easier from a strictly physical standpoint. But the effect of poppers only lasts between 60 seconds and three minutes. So that euphoria and relaxation leaves almost as quickly as it comes.
It is illegal in the United States to manufacture or sell poppers for recreational use, they are still manufactured as prescription-only pharmaceuticals. Additionally, the poppers most people buy for fun are manufactured for “commercial use” and marketed as video head cleaner, air freshener, and so on.
Whenever we consider combining substance use with sexual activity, it is helpful to learn as much as we can about how that substance might interact with our body, as well as to how it might affect our ability to enjoy sexual activity in a safe and healthy way. For example, it’s important to know how it might interact with a medication or supplement we’re taking, or if it might pose a higher risk to us if we have a certain health condition. We also should know how a substance might affect our ability to give our informed consent or recognize the informed consent of our partners. And we should talk openly about these topics with our partners! That way we can better assess potential risks, and our tolerance of those risks, as we make decisions around our sexuality.
With poppers specifically, the potential side effects can range from uncomfortable to potentially deadly. Sinusitis, migraine, watery eyes, and broken blood vessels in the face are not infrequent consequences to using poppers. Dizziness and fainting are less common but still a risk. The sudden drop in blood pressure is potentially dangerous as is the rapid rise in heart rate (both of which can lead to stroke). People with heart conditions, high or low blood pressure, anemia, glaucoma or intracranial pressure are at the highest risk. Additionally, alkyl nitrites can cause negative drug interactions, especially with other vasodilators like Viagra (sildenafil), Levitra (vardenafil) and Cialis (tadalifil). Alkyl nitrites are also contraindicated for use with several mental health medications. You can see a more complete list HERE.
But what you want to know is about poppers and lowered inhibitions. While this is not a universal experience, you are definitely not the first person to comment on this!
Inhibitions are a complicated thing. Sometimes they get in the way of our being able to enjoy sexual activity, due harmful baggage and shaming that has been heaped upon us in a culture that is often profoundly sex-negative. Inhibitions of this type hurt our ability to enjoy our own bodies and genuinely connect with others. Lowering these types of inhibitions may feel liberating!
At other times, our inhibitions can prevent us from doing things that might be riskier to our well-being, or slow us down so we can proceed with caution. For example, if lowering our inhibitions makes us less likely to protect ourselves (like choosing to use a condom, or taking the time to negotiate or give consent, or trying something new at a pace we’re comfortable with), then the effect of suddenly lowered inhibitions may have negative outcomes.
Because our inhibitions are often a tangle of many factors, and we often don’t fully understand all their connections physically and emotionally, there isn’t an easy answer to your question! Hopefully this has given you some new information – not just what poppers are and how they work, but also about risks, rewards, inhibitions, and, ultimately, what we hope to get out of sex, both for ourselves and for our partners.
Lucky Tomaszek, LM, CPM, knows that Black Lives Matter.