Here’s an often forgotten page in the book of drug history. It involves the use of amyl nitrite (“poppers”) by gay men in the 1970s and ’80s and the subsequent fallout when the drug was temporarily linked to the AIDS epidemic.
Amyl nitrite was a prescription vasodilator used to treat angina (chest pain) in people with heart problems. When inhaled, it produces a “rush” that some people find pleasurable. What appealed most to frequent users was amyl’s relaxing effect on the anal sphincter, which made anal sex more pleasurable for men who engaged in the practice (though they were not the only group to abuse the drug…or to enjoy anal sex).
The 1970s were a period of sexual freedom in America, particularly among homosexual men. Promiscuity was a way of life for many men, who openly sucked and fucked in bathhouses, sex clubs, abandoned alleys and other public places as a political and personal act of freedom. Poppers were fuel for sexual liaisons that often involved multiple partners and dangerous acts like anal fisting, rimming, scat, BDSM and more.
Poppers were something of a health threat in themselves, causing side effects like carbon monoxide poisoning, cardiac depression, severe facial dermatitis and heart arrhythmias to name a few. They were openly marketed to gay men in magazines and other mediums with no interference from the federal government, who also looked the other way when gay men started dying of AIDS shortly thereafter.
Here are some of the ads from the late ’70s and early ’80s. Who do you think they were targeting?
When AIDS hit the scene in 1981, popper abuse was one factor examined by researchers as a possible cause of the disease. The theory was that amyl nitrite and other drugs suppressed the immune system, allowing opportunistic infections to take hold. While this theory was ultimately poo-poo’d, the role of popper use in the unsafe sexual practices of gay men at the time cannot be overlooked, nor can the government’s complacency in the spread of drugs and disease in the gay community.