This article originally appeared on VICE India.
On an evening like any other, I was outside a bar, getting ready for my stand-up act. Beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, I stepped out with my friends for a smoke, when one of them immediately pulled out a bottle of amyl nitrite—more famously known as poppers in the gay party scene—from his bag. While my hetero smoking buddies were curious, I knew far too well what he was holding. As he uncapped the bottle and sniffed in the strong, yellow, pungent fumes emanating from inside, I was tempted to partake. And so I did.
There are certain drugs that should be rightfully banned. And then there are poppers. No, you should not get a clown to pop these at your kid’s birthday parties.
When French chemist Antoine Jérôme Balard first synthesised amyl nitrite in 1844, he wanted to help alleviate chest pains in patients. Soon people figured out that the side-effects of amyl nitrite outweigh its momentary benefits: constant migraines, difficulty in breathing, blood pressure dropping and elevated heart rates being some of them.
But somewhere between the 19th and 20th centuries, gay men figured out that inhaling amyl nitrite renders their muscles relaxed, and in turn, their rectums, thereby facilitating the deed of anal penetration. Basically, you put together condoms, lubes and poppers, and you’re good to go. Why risk all the side-effects just to have better butt sex, you ask? Why, it’s better than being beaten up for being gay, for starters.
Poppers found fame mainly in the disco era of the ’60s and ’70s before popping back in the rave era in the ’90s. Gay men, like the pioneers that we are, wouldn’t stop telling the world how awesome it was. They are commonplace in gay porn too; several popper companies find brand placement through this holy integration (something I can’t link here but I’m looking at you, PornHub). The end of the 20th century also saw the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the gay community, and poppers played a prominent role there too.
Now the internet is rife with the many issues the continued usage of poppers exhibit, and let me tell you, they aren’t too far from the truth. The only problem is, poppers are highly addictive in an obnoxiously good way. They might not be really addictive, as a study says, but for gay men, there has ben a pattern of depending on them to make sex more enjoyable. It’s like the moment you do it, you feel like an invincible rail bogie that can charge through pretty much anything. I was honestly fine with the regular beer-and-marijuana routine before getting in bed with prospective dates, but this one rainy evening, I was chilling with a long-time fuck buddy who just casually said he’s got a new batch of poppers. I asked him where he got it from. “Online. Comes all the way from England,” he said. He pulled out a bottle, no bigger than two AA batteries held together. Of course I was intrigued. I saw him inhale, his hair rising instantaneously, and he slumped a little. I took the bottle and like a professional, like I was born to do it, I shut one nostril with one hand, and inhaled the fumes from the other. I slumped too, the back of my neck feeling like it had just undergone a serious Balinese massage. If I had to explain what inhaling amyl nitrite for the first time really feels like, I’d say it’s like witnessing a hundred goosebumps in one go. Your blood flows faster, your heart beats harder, your penis throbs like pulsating lava. Truly, poppers are made by the heavens.
This happened three more times. By the fourth time, I realised I was only meeting him because he had this seemingly never-ending supply of poppers, each with a name weirder than the other. He realised that too and our meetings stopped. Like a true junkie, I was losing my shit. I wanted more of that elusive feeling. Throughout my 20s, sex was something personal, something you did with someone you liked beyond that one night. But poppers flipped the game for me. Now every dude who could afford to have poppers was a supplier for me, and they were just body bags I could hump to to feel that release that only certain drugs can facilitate.
Now having encountered that first hand, both on the giving and receiving end, I can safely say that it does work wonders for both the participants involved in anal sex. But continuous dependence on poppers, much like with any other drug, increases your immunity to the high. So you consume more to get to that same first-time rush. The next time I was offered free poppers during sex was by a much older gentleman a year later in Bengaluru, through Grindr. I travelled an hour and a half away from my hotel just because he said he had some. We had sex twice that night. The second time, I was so involved in sniffing the fumes, I hurt him and didn’t even realise. He had to beg for me to stop. There was a beast in me that had gone berserk. I walked away from the encounter entirely angry with myself, but not having learnt my lesson.
Soon I wanted some more of the high without wanting to damage anyone’s rectum. So I googled and found out that it’s pretty easy scoring poppers online. While amyl nitrite is not classified under the 344 drugs (and their combinations) banned in India, authorities do not allow sellers to sell them for sex purposes. So they market them as “room odorisers”. Until recently, they were available on popular shopping websites most of us use all the time. But most sites import them from the UK and Amsterdam and ship it to your doorstep. The prices can range anywhere between Rs 900 to 5,000 per bottle. Don’t worry about not being able to identify a bottle because they seldom have subtle names. The names on the bottles range from Purple Haze and Jungle Juice to Liquid Gold and the too-on-the-nose, Bang!
While I got my hands on some poppers easily (although I had to get it shipped to a friend’s apartment because I didn’t want my mother adding Jungle Juice to her coffee), some other Indians are apparently not so lucky. There are forums online where Indian men are looking for poppers and some kind white men are there to help. Once I scored a bottle, it would last me anywhere between three to six months, depending on the people who were absolutely comfortable partaking in it. When no one did, I just pulled one off myself whilst sniffing the fumes. They have a term for that too: Popperbating.
Then came the migraines. I was almost always ill as a child because of sinusitis and tonsillitis, so my ignorant brain just put the blame on too much ice cream, but I kinda also knew it was the poppers. The headaches got too intense and my eyes were constantly watery. I had just started dating seriously then so I confided about this to my partner. Thankfully, he understood what I was going through. Yet even after we started dating, we experimented with poppers and the side-effects started catching up. The fumes were now going in harder almost as if they were corroding the inside of my nostrils. We decided together to kick this horrid habit out of our lives and enjoy lovemaking without any additives. The last bottle of amyl nitrite I owned was emptied down a gutter, and the bottle went in straight after. I had harmed myself enough.
Being in a steady relationship now for over a year, it’s good to know that a human can have the same (if not better) effect on you while making love. The crazy “rush” those bottles packed in, also was a skin allergy hazard. I knew it. But if I go back and read what I wrote about the feeling poppers create, I know I’ll want it one more time. That’s just how drugs are. Over time, several queer friends have opened up about it. Some of them still use it, because for many gay men, poppers still fall in a grey area between ultimate pleasure and stifled morality. There’s always a caveat. In the end, I think the lesson I have learned from this experience is that it’s okay to experiment, as long as you know when to walk away. And being broke works, because then you just can’t afford drugs.
Now that I have been constantly googling poppers for the purpose of research, the internet is already recommending buying room odorisers to me and the thirst this time is real. As usual.
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