I work at a sex shop. Want to know what we sell the most of?

Poppers. No, not the jalapeño kind (I wish). Different poppers. Little amber bottles of amyl or butyl nitrate, liquid chemicals whose inhalable vapors can enhance sex, incite uncontrollable giggling, and give users an intense and pleasurable head-rush-body-high that lasts about as long as a red light. Poppers are like a sneeze you snort — the high is intense, but momentary, something you don't have to commit to for any longer than ten, crazy seconds.

Yet, that's precisely what makes them fun. 

That, and the aforementioned sexual enhancement. Visit any sex shop or adult bookstore and you'll see rows of them lining the shelves, their colorful labels beckoning you with names like Rush, Jungle Juice, Amsterdam and my personal favorite, Man Scent. They're there because they make cheap (under $20) and easy sex intensifier — amyl and butyl nitrates are vasodilators, meaning they relax both smooth and skeletal muscles as they fill them with blood. This is especially handy when it comes to anal sex, where a relaxed anal sphincter makes penetration easier and less painful. 

Because of this, poppers have a historic association with the gay community. They were huge in bathhouses, bedrooms and gay clubs of the '70s, and, although they were originally developed a century prior to treat angina and other heart conditions, they remain a staple on many gay men's grocery lists today ("Gym, tan, poppers" is an endearing phrase I've heard countless times while I ring someone up for a big batch of them). Sure enough, a recent survey found the use of poppers to be 25 times more common among gay men than straight ones.

However, since everyone has a butt that may or may not benefit from poppers' relaxing effects, and young people are having more anal than any recorded generation in U.S. history, they've recently started trending amongst young, straight people who are just now catching on to the vogue the gay community championed back before the dawn of time.

"There are more straight people buying them now than ever," Koko, a sex educator and adult performer who works with me (and has access to our sales data) says. "They're just now catching on to 'gay drugs.'"

That might be because, in addition to making people's butts feel more accommodating, poppers also relax the muscles of the vagina and throat, too. This makes them fit for use across all sexuality spectrums, in spite of their traditional history as a gay man's game.

"A lot of people I know use them at the point of orgasm to make it even more intense," Koko informs me. Makes sense — a rush of blood and relaxation would make an orgasm even crazier. Even if you don't use them while coming though, she says they can still provide an momentary sense of euphoria and dissociation during all types of sex. Sounds like a good time and a half to me.

Today's young, popper-rabid generation isn't just using them for sex, though. Poppers will fuck you up for party's sake and party's sake alone, whether or not something's headed up your butt.

"People are definitely using them to party," Koko explains. "That's why the people who use them tend to be gay guys or younger kids."

Together, we come up with the grandiose theory that this is because poppers are probably the easiest high you can get when you're a young person or a non-drinker. They're affordable, they're portable, you can buy them OTC, and the high goes away just in time for curfew.

I'll confirm this. Packs of over-18 teens frequent my place of business looking for poppers, casually dropping Benjamins on the little vials with the same cavalier attitude they would as if they were buying cigarettes.

However, like anything that sounds too good to be true, poppers aren't without their dark side. Inhaling the fumes can lead to a dangerous drop in blood pressure and less blood going to the brain, leading to dizziness, headache and in some cases, unconsciousness. Nausea can be a problem, too. And freak accidents, like one report of a 15-year-old boy going blind after heavy use, combined with their demonstrated ability to increase the risk of Kaposi’s sarcoma in young men, make them a convenient drug with some highly suspect side effects.

That's probably why getting your grubby lil' hands on a bottle is fraught by an inconvenient level of stigma and red tape. Although they're usually part of any good sex shop's inventory, they're rarely available elsewhere, and are hard to come by in the majority of U.S. cities. Currently, they're illegal in Canada, and were almost banned last year in the U.K. Stateside, you can buy poppers online to your heart's content, but they're "technically" illegal here, or at least they are if you call them "poppers." However, calling them Electrical Contact Cleaner or VHS Head Cleaner in a retail setting and being intentionally vague about their usage to customers skirts this law.

Still, though, poppers are safer than most legal drugs (prescription opioids are the leading cause of accident-related death, and 88,000 people die from alcohol-related illness every year). And according to Koko, you can even combine poppers with other, non-stimulant drugs like weed or molly, making them a versatile, and relatively mild option.

If you do try poppers though, follow Koko's sage advice.

"For one, you can't put them on your skin. It'll burn. You can't drink them. You could get sick or die. Just whiff the vapors. And of course, you can't just go around snorting the vapors all day long, day in, day out, or you could damage your brain. You could say the same thing about paint, nail polish remover, or glue, though."

She also recommends using them with someone who's done them before, and trying them while you're sitting or laying down first as they can give you a potentially dangerous head rush that might cause you to pass out.

However, used sparingly and responsibility, the most likely thing you'll actually have to worry about is a simple headache. A headache you can smell.

If you do choose to indulge, be a smart human and do some research to determine the authenticity of the product and what it's actually made of. There are tons of online forums (like this one) and communities of users with limitless experience on the topic who I'm sure would be more than happy to discuss proper usage of their favorite drug with you.


Here's to hoping this trend assumes its next form — mom acceptance. Pretty soon Kathy or Nancy will be texting you from her newly purchased iPhone, asking you pick up a bottle of Man Scent on the way home so you can have a truly lit mother-childing bonding experience.

That, is actually, something Koko has seen.

[originally published May 02, 2017]