Poppers, queer sex and a Canadian crackdown: Examining the experiences of alkyl nitrite use among young sexual minority men

Int J Drug Policy. 2020 Mar:77:102670. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102670. Epub 2020 Mar 3.


Background: Poppers (i.e., alkyl nitrites) are commonly used during sex by gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (sexual minority men). Poppers act as vasodilators when inhaled, resulting in a sensation some users refer to as a 'head rush', while also relaxing smooth muscles and facilitating penetration during anal sex. In 2013, Health Canada initiated a crackdown on poppers products. The current study aims to examine the experiences and perspectives of young sexual minority men who use poppers in the context of the federal crackdown.

Methods: We draw on 50 semi-structured, in-depth interviews collected from 2018 to 2019 in Vancouver with sexual minority men ages 15-30. We used a combination of both inductive and deductive techniques during data analysis to identify several key themes.

Results: Participants' discussions reflected positive effects of poppers use relating to sexual pleasure and bodily control. Participants used poppers to enhance pleasure, reduce pain and injury (e.g., from tears in anal tissue), and improve their capacity to "let go" and enjoy sex. Conversely, some participants described a loss of control resulting from poppers use, including experiences of dependency on poppers for sexual pleasure. Poppers were also discussed as linked to participants' personal identities as sexual minority men. In the context of the federal crackdown, uncertainty about the health effects of poppers use was high, while knowledge to safely and comfortably procure poppers in Canada was, at times, low.

Conclusion: Poppers play an important role in the experience of sexual pleasure and the ability to reduce harms during anal sex. Unfortunately, the current crackdown restricts access to a safe and regulated supply while creating uncertainty and confusion about poppers use. We call on the federal government to bring the voices of sexual minority men to the forefront in the revisiting of the federal crackdown on poppers in Canada.

Keywords: Alkyl nitrites; Poppers; Sexual minority men; Sexualized substance use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Canada
  • Homosexuality, Male*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Nitrites*
  • Sexual and Gender Minorities*
  • Substance-Related Disorders*
  • Young Adult


  • Nitrites
  • alkyl nitrite