Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate, Surrey, offered the British media a late Christmas present when he admitted to being a user of the drug amyl nitrite, more commonly known as “poppers”, during a House of Commons debate on the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which would see them banned.
While he didn’t remark on precisely why he and other gay men he knew used the drug, The Sun enlightened its less worldly readership the following morning, labelling poppers a “sex drug” used to “boost sexual pleasure”.
While the use of amyl is not restricted to gay men, the drug has had a long association with gay male subculture. Cinematic and pornographic representations of gay sex and gay life have regularly featured men sniffing from small glass bottles. There were even urban myths of poppers being pumped through the air conditioning systems of gay clubs in the 1970s and 1980s. As someone coming of age on the Brighton scene in the early 1990s, the gay world was a multi-sensory experience, a subculture I could smell as much as I could see and touch.
Beyond the cheeky hilarity of having poppers discussed in Westminster, Blunt’s admission underscores the central role that recreational drugs continue to play in the lives of many gay men.
Those working within the field of gay men’s health are increasingly concerned with the use of crystal methamphetamine, GHB and mephedrone (among others) on the scene. The term “chemsex” has become ubiquitous, and some men report taking alarming risks during sex while intoxicated.
Organisations such as 56 Dean Street are now offering needle exchanges for gay men who have started injecting drugs. Terrence Higgins Trust has pioneered a service that takes safer sex products to house parties, in an effort to reduce the spread of STIs.
To some, it will no doubt look as though gay male culture is hell-bent on destroying itself. Certainly, more research into why and how gay men are using the panoply of recreational drugs available is needed.
But before anyone jumps on the moral bandwagon to denounce Blunt for supporting recreational drug use, they have to face a few facts.
While mephedrone, ketamine and crystal meth (“tina” in chemsex parlance) are all already illegal, only once the psychoactive substances bill passes will poppers be sanctioned.
Put simply, poppers lower your blood pressure, helping relax your muscles; they come with a dizzying head rush and sometimes heightened sexual excitement. And while amyl nitrite may potentially have side effects, it is not addictive. There’s a yawning chasm between sniffing poppers and smoking, snorting or injecting crystal meth.
In any case, Blunt was not pushing an ideological libertarian drug policy, but a pragmatic one: he wants to keep poppers legal to stop men having to go to criminals to buy their amyl – criminals who might well be selling far more dangerous stuff, too.
But perhaps most importantly, his surprisingly personal admission points to an often unspoken truth about gay male sexual practice: anal sex can be painful. Done wrong, it can hurt, especially for the inexperienced. Of course, if it weren’t often great fun, people wouldn’t do it as often and as enthusiastically as they do – but like everything sexual, it simply isn’t for everyone.
Getting it right requires some degree of proficiency and relaxation, and this is where poppers come in; they’re both a psychological and physical relaxant, and simply make the whole thing easier.
That this is sometimes difficult to concede owes something both to taboos around anal sex itself and to gay pornography, which celebrates anal sex as the pinnacle of “real sex” while simultaneously overwriting any notion that it might be a challenge for a great number of men, or simply not their thing.
This much was alluded to by Blunt’s parliamentary colleague Mike Freer, who argued that poppers could help some men be “intimate” with their partners, contributing to their “emotional well being”.
There is a good reason why poppers have been around on the gay scene for decades, and why they continue to be popular. Whether we like it or not, for many gay men, enjoyable anal sex often relies on the use of amyl nitrate. Blunt’s courageous admission before the house is testimony to that fact, and a much-needed alert to the harm that this much-derided bill might inadvertently cause.