By Max Owens
Poppers, the “video head cleaner” that gay men use when they want to get their head cleaned, are now doing brisk business on Taobao, available in 10ml vials under various street names, like Rush, Jungle Juice, Locker Room and so on. These alkyl nitrites (including isobutyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, and amyl nitrite), when inhaled, have the effect of relaxing muscles throughout the body, in particular the sphincter muscles of the anus and the vagina, and have been popular among urban homosexual men and some women since the 70s as a recreational drug during sex and as a club drug.
In the United States, butyl nitrites were officially banned in 1988 and alkyl nitrites in 1990, and it became illegal to manufacture, distribute, or sell any commercial product used for inhaling to induce euphoric effects — as it is in many countries across Europe today. But this didn’t stop entrepreneurial poppers sellers from reconfiguring the chemistry of the inhalants and then bringing new nitrites back onto the market as polish remover, room odourisers and video head cleaners. Over the last decade or so, while the over-the-counter sale of poppers has either been banned or severely curtailed in most developed countries, a multi-million dollar industry has been spawned on the Internet, with online stores that promise to ship anywhere in the world1.
Chinese law, as far as Shanghaiist understands, hasn’t gotten around to controlling nitrite inhalants, and this is perhaps the reason why Taobao has closed one eye to the sale of these products2 that are now being openly marketed as a “情爱芳香剂” (lit. sex/love fragrance) that is sold at an average price ranging from RMB98 to RMB300. Tiny 1ml “trial vials” are going for as low as RMB9.90 a pop and there are even FAQs for newbies that explicitly instructs buyers to “place 1cm away from the nose and inhale deeply 2-4 times”. And the choice is astounding — as there are now several hundred Taobao sellers (our estimates) offering a grand total of 2,086 poppers products. Whether these products are imported, made locally in makeshift labs, and/or go through any form of safety testing is anybody’s guess.
The use of nitrite inhalants has received little attention from the Chinese media, although we did note with interest that poppers headed a list of “best sex buddies” that appeared in Esquire China’s October 2008 edition [see image below] alongside other products such as Viagra and Cialis. While the editors of Esquire China saw it as a great product to recommend to its predominantly heterosexual male audience, it was also quick to claim that poppers have “almost no side effects”, going so far as to state that the product is “so safe you can use it as a daily necessity”. The feature also instructed readers on how to use the product — ie., plug one nostril, sniff through the other nostril and repeat for the other side. What it conveniently forgot to tell its readers was that the combined use of poppers together with drugs like Viagra can lead to fainting, stroke or even heart attack.
In addition, the jury is still out on the link between the use of poppers and HIV/AIDS. While health practitioners are caught up in the ongoing debate on how the abuse of nitrites may weaken the body’s immune system and make it more susceptible to contract the HIV virus, one thing is clear — the use of poppers, like any other drugs, can impair judgement and lead to unsafe sex. The old warning bears repeating — it pays to be careful when it comes to anything you’re going to put in your mouth or up your arse or shoot through your veins. And if you’re going to take any form of sex pills, drugs, aphrodisiacs, these should come from your doctor, not from any anonymous guy selling online, and certainly not at any of the adult shops around here. Be warned. People have given their lives for it.
1: Poppers are not available on the world’s biggest online auction site, Ebay.com.
2: Just to be especially naughty, we keyed in street names for other drugs such as GHB, LSD, cocaine and ketamine and managed to find absolutely nothing on Taobao.
The Poppers Story: The Rise and Fall and Rise of ‘the Gay Drug’
Poppers – The End of an Era
Esquire on poppers [Oct 2008]