Poppers are engrained in queer culture — but anal sex can be great without them

Maxine McCrann
Originally Published: 

For those uninitiated into the world of anal sex, a “popper” may be better known as a bar snack, or an ineffective kiddie firework, or simply a machine used to make popcorn. For people who love and regularly practice anal, it’s a recreational drug that provides a door — the back one, to be specific — into a vast sexual wonderland.

Poppers generally come in the form of a clear or yellow liquid that belongs in its own class of drugs. It is most often sold at sex stores and branded as “nail polish remover” which is technically why it can be sold legally, according to the FDA. Poppers usually come in tiny bottles with conspicuous names like “RUSH” and slogans like “Never Fake It!” The alleged trick is to inhale them before penetrative sex and it unclenches your booty muscles so that you can successfully bottom. That’s partly because the nitrite dilates your blood vessels and lowers your blood pressure, according to Healthline.

The Internet completely lost its mind last week after the FDA released a warning against inhaling or ingesting alkyl nitrite, which is poppers’ government name. Among the reasons to stop sniffing, the FDA cited an uptick in “deaths and hospitalizations with issues such as severe headaches, dizziness, increase in body temperature, difficulty breathing, extreme drops in blood pressure” and “blood oxygen issues.”

Of note: Poppers are completely illegal in Canada. In the UK, you’re allowed to buy them even though the Conservative Party has tried to outlaw them for years. In the U.S., poppers are legal for commercial use, as long as they’re not advertised for human consumption and for having “euphoric or physical effects.”

If you’ve incorporated poppers into your sex life but want to heed this warning, you might be worried about how the absence of poppers might affect your sex life. I get it. Poppers tend to be important for people who are anal about enjoying good anal.

Now, the FDA has a point: Alkyl nitrite can be super dangerous when used “incorrectly,” and poppers have been linked to riskier sex behaviors (read: getting wrapped up in the moment and not wrapping it up). But also I suspect that part of the stigma around poppers has to do with the fact that our culture still stigmatizes sex that is purely for pleasure — especially queer sex. And there are few things more hedonistically gratifying than a girthy inhale of liquid nitrite while you’re receiving.

You can, however, still have a deeply satisfying anal sex life without that particular high. You can sub in drug-free alternatives and still experience relaxation and pleasure. But first, it is important to take inventory of what poppers actually are, what they do, and why you might be taking them in the first place.

In my experience, the high from a single whiff feels like a wave of warm water rushing through your body. Your heart rate accelerates, your face gets piping hot and you feel a light-headed giddiness that lasts for several seconds. Did I mention it also makes you incredibly horny?

Some online popper enthusiasts believe the FDA’s warning might be overblown. In its statement the government agency warned against inhaling as well as “ingesting” popper. Who on God’s green earth is guzzling a bottle of nail polish remover?

And back to that queer sex stigma: There’s good reason for people in the LGBTQ community to be skeptical of the warning. This isn’t the first time the government has freaked out over a bottle of RUSH; early in the AIDS epidemic, some scientists speculated that poppers were causing HIV.

Poppers are an integral part of queer culture. Many of us were introduced to bottoming via the liquid, and any warning or ban against it will likely be met with cheekiness or defiance. But according to Michael Ian Rothenberg, a Florida-based sex therapist and founder of the Center for Counseling and Sexual Health, there may be even deeper reasons why queer people feel such a strong affinity to nitrite.

“Historically, sexual expression for many queer people has, unfortunately, coincided with feelings of both guilt and shame,” Rothenberg says. “It’s also important to note that for some of my queer patients of color who deal with minority stress that comes from the intersectionality of being both queer and a person of color in America, poppers allows them the ability to have a brief respite from these daily, and often incessant, stressors.”

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Fortunately, there are still ways to ease shame and anxiety without the use of poppers, says Rothenberg. They include being more mindful while having sex. “My top tip would be to find avenues to be more present during sexual contact,” he says. “I often help patients to get out of their heads and into the present moment by focusing on the things that they can see, smell, taste, touch and hear.”

He says that taking note of your breathing helps, too, so you can do more feeling rather than thinking. Often, the anxiety around bottoming comes from fear of not meeting a partner’s sexual expectations or the lingering concern that there is something inherently wrong about anal sex. That’s why being vocal and feeling comfortable with telling someone to go slower or to stop is essential.

More foreplay and self-massaging are also a great ways to get your anal muscles to relax without poppers, a tip from Evan Goldstein of Bespoke Surgical. For people with extra-sensitive nerve endings, pressing down and massaging the anus so it gets used to feeling pressure can help a great deal. You might not even realize that you’re clenching your anus, so remember to push out when you want something in there.

It’s my belief that no one is born with the innate ability to bottom — it takes preparation, patience, and practice. For many, part of that preparation has always involved poppers. Whatever you decide to do with the FDA warning, the most important part of anal sex is that you keep having a safe and positive experience with someone who respects your boundaries.

And, of course, use lube. Lots and lots of lube.