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The first time I encountered poppers, I watched a nun do them. I was in fifth grade. One nun had found a suspicious-looking bag in a high school bathroom and presented it to Mother Superior Mary Regina. Once alone, Reverend Mother rummaged around in the bag and pulled out a small, brightly-colored glass bottle.
Unscrewing the bottle, Mary Regina immediately revulsed at the harsh chemical smell contained within, but not before taking an unintentional whiff of the potent fumes. Soon the straight-edge sister experienced a sensual head rush of biblical proportions. Only, this one was about as far as you could get from a convent.
There are countless brands of similar-sized bottles just like RUSH. Men who were part of the gay nightlife scene in the 70s, 80s, and 90s say you could walk into a club and immediately smell poppers. The scent was a backdrop for the triumphs and trials of queer men in the latter half of the 20th century. Now, it conjures collective memories of the gay bars of yesteryear: tight pants, dark spaces, and speakers blaring Donna Summer and The Village People.
The Stonewall uprising of set a cautiously optimistic tone for the 70s, one that suggested to queer people that their rights to be with each other unapologetically were on the horizon. Following the broader sexual liberation movement of the decade, more queer men became eager to explore themselves as sexual beings. And decreased police raids on gay bars, clubs, and discos like the one that triggered Stonewall popularized spaces allowing that exploration. For many, using drugs in these clubs was a way to combat the still-pervasive stigma of not being straight. David Wohlsifer, a psychotherapist and sex therapist, says drugs and sex are often inextricably linked.
Drugs reduce sexual inhibitions, which are often caused by feelings of shame, trauma, or body dysmorphia. He says queer men especially deal with a lot of shame related to their identities both in and out of the bedroom. Fifty years ago, when society was even less accepting of homosexuality than it is today, that shame could feel overwhelming. A few seconds after inhaling deeply from the amber glass bottle, you can feel your face warming as blood rushes to your head—and everywhere else in your body. A minute or two later, the sensation subsides, and you can do it all over again.
Of course, alkyl nitrites are far from a Greek myth: Their immediate physiological effects are well-documented. When inhaled, they quickly relax involuntary smooth muscle. They also act as vasodilators that widen blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and increasing blood flow throughout the body. That surge of blood means extra oxygen and causes a head rush which, along with the release in muscle tension, le to the giddy high Mother Superior Mary Regina so elegantly depicted.
For many men who have sex with men, poppers have obvious practical applications. But the story of poppers started long before gay bars and glass bottles—when French chemist Antoine Balard first synthesized amyl nitrite in Fifteen years later, British chemist Frederick Guthrie described other physical effects : throbbing arteries, flushing of the face, and increased heart rate.
British physiologist Benjamin Ward Richardson believed no other known substance at the time produced such a profound effect on the heart, and even passed around samples of amyl nitrite at a medical conference so his audience could try it for themselves. In , he was the first to theorize that the chemical caused vasodilation. At the start of his career as a physician, while making his rounds at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on a cold December night, he noticed a patient whose bouts of angina pectoris were concerningly severe, frequent, and long-lasting.
One of the most common symptoms of cardiac disease, angina pectoris is chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is starved of blood. Exhausted of all options, and suspecting that an overly-tense artery caused the angina, Brunton put several drops of amyl nitrite onto a cloth and had the patient inhale it. Physicians eventually caught on, and amyl nitrite became one of several vasodilators used to treat angina pectoris. By the early 20th century patients were receiving tin boxes containing glass ampules of the chemical wrapped in cloth , like pieces of saltwater taffy.
Doctors used poppers as a standard treatment for angina for decades before replacing them with modern vasodilators like nitroglycerin, but how they transitioned to the clubs of The Castro and Greenwich Village is still somewhat of a mystery. In Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics , Richard Davenport-Hines assumes patients prescribed amyl nitrite must have noticed some pleasant effects happening outside their chests.
In , after nearly a hundred years of documented medical use of amyl nitrite with no associated fatalities, the FDA approved poppers as an over-the-counter drug. But shortly after reports of high recreational use, they reinstated the prescription requirement. It was a different form of alkyl nitrite with similar effects called isobutyl nitrite, a way to get around the prescription requirement. Soon, practically everyone in the club scene had gotten a whiff.
He thinks the disco scene was a key element in the journey of poppers from the medicine cabinet to the nightstand. A staple of midth century counterculture, disco was originally where marginalized folks went for a pleasurable rebellion —they were kaleidoscopes of identity and experience. Dance floors were a nightly hotbed of interactions between people from all walks of life. Introducing poppers to this volatile, promiscuous mix created nothing short of an explosion.
They soon became popular in gay bathhouses, where queer men would gather to relax and engage in sexual activity. There were deeper motivations, too, says Jason Orne, a sociologist at Drexel University. He brings up the concept of minority stress , wherein stigmatized groups experience psychological pain through harassment, discrimination, and related experiences that puts them at high risk for physical and mental health issues.
It happens during religious experiences, concerts, sporting events, and, yes, at gay bars—and Orne says it helps create bonds between complete strangers. Flip through archives of LGBTQ weeklies from the 70s and 80s, and you can tell that poppers were part of queer hookup culture long before the digital age. Nearby, in the classifieds, entries advertised mail order poppers.
Some publications ran full- from poppers manufacturers themselves: Tom of Finland-esque drawings of buff, shirtless men riding motorcycles or swinging at each other in boxing rings told readers that all they had to do was sniff a bottle of Rush or Bolt to become Adonis. The tide started to turn on poppers in the early 80s, when the AIDS crisis began to take hold of queer communities across the globe.
Starting as early as the late 70s, rare and mysterious infections afflicted large s of people—mostly queer men—in cities across America. It would take another year for scientists to identify HIV as the cause , and more than a decade to trace the virus back to its animal origins. But during the days when AIDS was still a terrifying and fast-killing mystery without any real treatment , one potentail link stuck out: Nearly all queer men dying from the disease had used poppers at some point. About a year later, most AIDS researchers had discounted this theory. Still, a poppers hysteria rippled throughout the U.
But more than 30 years after doctors first identified AIDS, there remains no convincing evidence of its link to poppers. Callander says poppers could actually reduce the risk of HIV transmission in some people: Relaxing the sphincter muscle can prevent skin from tearing during sex, lessening the likelihood of the infection spread through contact with blood which is why HIV is so much more common in men who have sex with men in the first place.
Poppers may cause a brief period of euphoric wooziness, but they affect the body differently than other volatile chemical inhalants i. The former interact with smooth muscle, while the latter directly target the brain and nervous system. Rapidly altering your blood pressure can cause some uncomfortable, if mild, side effects: headache, dizziness, nausea, and a racing heart.
But he advises those with pre-existing medical conditions like heart disease to take care. Alkyl nitrites also have a potentially fatal interaction with erectile dysfunction medications like Viagra: Because both drugs cause vasodilation, using them together can lead to a catastrophic drop in blood pressure.
There have also been rare cases of more serious conditions associated with poppers use. The vaguely yellow liquid can also cause irritation and burning upon contact with skin. Alkyl nitrites are also highly flammable: A massive fire in San Francisco may have started at a warehouse full of poppers. In the United Kingdom, the Psychoactive Substances Act of included poppers on a list of drugs to be banned.
Several months before its enactment, a proposed amendment to exempt poppers from the legislation failed, prompting conservative member of parliament Crispin Blunt to out himself as a poppers user in a speech. The change was met with severe backlash from LGBTQ health professionals like Cornelisse, prompting the government to hold a community dialogue to better inform the legislation. The TGA is expected to reintroduce the revised version of the legislation this summer.
In the U. State governments began banning them during the AIDS crisis, worried about their proposed link to the disease. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of , a legislative staple of the War on Drugs, included language to classify alkyl nitrites as a drug unless they were produced and marketed for some purpose other than human consumption. Through it all, Orne says governments have never been driven merely by health concerns.
When actress Lucille Ball died in , an autopsy found traces of amyl nitrite in her system—though the fact that she suffered from cardiovascular disease later in life meant she was likely using them for their intended medical purpose.
In a memoir detailing her alleged racy affair with John F. Ted Kennedy was also smitten with the aphrodisiac, according to former aide Richard E. I want poppers! A front of the Wall Street Journal contained an extensive story about poppers and their use, and quoted an L. Today, young straight folks are catching onto the alkyl nitrite craze.
It may be because people, regardless of sexual orientation, are having more anal sex than ever before, or perhaps because relaxing smooth muscles can make vaginal and oral sex easier, too. Queer liberation has always centered around the radical decision to exist outside restrictive norms that deny us that.Bottle of rush
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