Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (circa 1782). Public domain
For gay sex, poppers are a stock item—not compulsory but definitively advised. A sniffable liquid comprised of nitrites, their effects include a mild euphoria, a blush of face and body, before a loosening of muscles in and around the anus, which make receptive anal intercourse not just easy but—while riding the petit poppers dragon—urgently necessary.
In 2020, poppers (also known as rush) were on the table to be rescheduled as an illicit substance in New Zealand, following the proposal of a total ban and eventual policy reduction to restricted status of the drug in Australia. Despite little here in New Zealand that would warrant public scrutiny of poppers as anything but a statistically harmless substance, this process finally led to a decision that “standardizes” and, in theory, subsequently legalizes poppers: a supplier can have an upstanding racket of poppers production and distribution so long as the product in question meets a given criteria of safety and efficacy testing. Fair enough, right?
Wrong. So wrong. Historically, New Zealand’s scheduling of the stuff has been a veritable live and let live, existing in a gray area in tacit acknowledgement of its relative benignity. Through a bureaucratic compulsion for NZ’s pharmaceutical listings to be tethered to those of Australia, that gray area has become black and white in the worst way. Naysayers might argue all the new scheduling has done is make properly legal a substance that for the longest time has remained in a state of quantum vulnerability, neither wave nor particle, whose availability has rested on a prudish public ignorance about the stuff and its predominantly gay-male target market. But what this recent ruling fails to grapple with is the logistical improbability of poppers ever finding a committed supplier to pass it through said trialling in order to be legally purchased.
For example, how exactly do you author and execute trials for a butt-sex drug? Who except ardently committed bottoms would present themselves for such trialling? This doesn’t even touch on the fact that a substance enjoying the discretion of lenient scheduling has been mostly supplied by independents, who certainly don’t have the disposable cash to cover the minimum two hundred grand such an endeavor entails. And perhaps more importantly, between existing demand and this unlikely emergence of a standard product—with a Big Pharma tick—what actions are being taken to prevent the harm of emergent black markets, volatile poppers-substitutes, and the re-criminalization of gay sex practices the ruling implies?
The answer, to date, is none whatsoever. Not a single measure.
It’s no secret gay sex and drugs go together like vodka and soda, or vodka and cranberry, or vodka and my mouth. Pop the words “chem sex” into a Google search and you’ll get no end of salacious fear-mongering reportage barely concealing cultural assumptions of self-harm while peddling journalistic neutrality. All of this to me screams of societal mores unable to frame legalities around sex and drugs from a conceptual ground of pleasure, as if pleasure were an incoherent notion, or one at hypoallergenic odds with anti-erotic precepts still lethargically couched in Judeo-Christian ethics. These aren’t merely Christian ethics though—an innate rigidity towards the passions has voluble iterations as far back as Socrates and Plato, whose proto-fascist management of the arts frequently shares oxygen with nervous advocacies for chastity and continence. Socrates himself refused to consummate his love of boys, even if much classical musing on proper conduct rubbed shoulders with the kinds of libidinous boy-crazy monologuing you’d be mortified to find in your DMs (though as I write this it’s a miserable sexless winter in Auckland City, and beggars can’t be choosers I guess).
In the fourth volume of The History of Sexuality (published posthumously as Confessions of the Flesh in 2018), Michel Foucault delineates a historical distinction between continence and chastity as emergent valuations of bodies and their myriad delights, a how-to for harnessing unwieldy flesh towards greater state-building. In these triangulations, Foucault demonstrates how pleasure has been regarded in a centralized way, albeit a negative one: Western subjectivity, in its chaste obsessions, is utterly fixated on sex—and in being so fixated, distorts its influence (via repressive regimen) with the implication that if left unchecked sexuality might upend society itself. Obviously this default pitting of society against the corruptive influence of sexuality is a false dichotomy, the premise that circuitously bemoans the thing its most obsessed with, a generative schizophrenia that forfeits coherence for a sophisticated cocktail of guilt and pleasure—as if guilt were pleasure’s key ingredient. Much has been written about the perverse glee of the law, and how the law, in categorically creating its perverse obverse, shares the guilty pleasure of its felons. The law as machine and gaze focuses its prohibitions on the thing it watches the longest and the hardest. A clear indication of just how delusional this collective obsession with regulating sex is: that ever-elusive concept of “us” sits on a sliding scale, from nun to prolapsed pussy-boy.
What is it about gay sex in Australasia that has the collective so enamored, its attention so enflamed as to suddenly introduce restrictions? Is it nostalgia perhaps, a timely rebrand for the “homosexual lifestyle,”’ which has inevitably seen itself decaffeinated in a series of (superficially) liberating but ultimately assimilative maneuvers towards heteronormative equivalence? Is there some conspiracy at play here with the gays trying to make themselves feel a little cooler, after a few decades of de-radicalizing pink-wash? Hold the cosmopolitans please; this Pride, we’re having Molotovs, etcetera.
There’s no equivalence between access to abortions and access to poppers because one is a consumer item and the other is or should be a universally accessible measure of healthcare. But as symptoms of a larger trend of managing bodies—and in that management, actively gendering bodies—the conflation of rights and commodities is the organic arrival point. The abysmal back-peddling around abortion in the United States and the rescheduling of poppers in New Zealand are both, in their very different ways, examples of the strategic dismantlement of a properly permissive milieu, making predetermined choices for different types of bodies—one the womb-bearing kind, and the other the male-fucks-another-male kind. To hammer on that old Foucault chestnut again, the idea that we’re living in a permissive age is inherently flawed if the cultural aspiration towards liberation and authenticity, sexual or otherwise, is steeped in systemic controls, which demand a regimen of performative gestures in exchange for the spoils of emancipation. With access to those spoils becoming increasingly privatized—spoils like abortion, spoils like sexual pleasure and safety—our notional emancipation has no more chutzpah than a job promotion. In this environment, liberty is a class-specific enjoyment: woe betide those finding themselves outside a permissive-enough socioeconomic rung. Despite the dialectic of “progress,” sexual freedom looks more and more like the exclusive privilege of the monied or those born in the right place at the right time.
What’s more, the notion of liberty and personal freedom often gets conflated with consumer freedoms, a distinctly American brand of the rights of the individual and the whackadoo blind spot of the libertarian. In this hot mix, if pleasure is relevant at all it’s as a proverbial carrot working in tandem with a judicial stick, together making the perfect motivation for autonomous disclosures both sexual and medical—with the endgame, perhaps, of totalizing sex in the register of medical commodity.
In the convoluted rescheduling of poppers, one of the proposed points of access was as a prescription-only medicine (that is, prescription-only access to a product that does not yet exist and with no viable avenues for independent suppliers to make exist). This would mean disclosure with a general practitioner was compulsory for buying something that, until recently, you could pick up at the sex shop with condoms (optional) and fresh lube (definitely not optional). This is so far from an accurate read of reality it boggles the mind, disregarding DL guys who (for whatever reason, none of your business) still live their lives to varying degrees of comfort in the closet. This singly demonstrates how disclosure forms identity: men who, despite occasionally fucking other men, wouldn’t necessarily identify as gay now would theoretically have to do so, or as good as much, to get a measly bottle of poppers.
The ball-park of sex and bodies (and rigorous management thereof) is frequently depicted as the site of a volatile tug-of-war between progress and its seeming opposite. This perhaps stems from assumptions of progress as a linear trajectory, which perhaps made sense when America projected itself as a hegemon of global liberalization, which perhaps was a PR-spin of converting every surrounding continent into markets to be plundered. Like the benefits of opting into centralized markets and all the spoils of “modernization” (read centralization), identity disclosure operates along these same lines, dangling the lure of “emancipated” pleasures in exchange for a hegemonic coherence.
We are most certainly living in the afterlife of Francis Fukuyama’s famed but misguided “The End of History?,” in which the political scientist announced the liberalization of free markets as a cure-all for Soviet-cleaved global disorders. Things were obviously more complicated than they must’ve seemed back then, because here we are seeing the fantasy of the free market fall apart a little more each day, along with the myth of progress as a simple road paved brick by imported brick. And as the dream of this straight and narrow path disintegrates, what’s revealed is a lingering obsession with women’s bodies no amount of Western “progress” has definitively expunged from the record, apparently. It’s disheartening to think that we’d be regressing in any capacity back toward women’s bodies being nothing more than units of reproduction, or back to gay sex being something either shameful and/or illegal—and yet poppers being rescheduled the way they have been does exactly this, a combination of classic kiwi prudishness and residual homophobia euphemized in the technically impossible permission of a standard product. Rather than history, if we’ve reached the end of anything it’s the collective delusion and subsequent complaisance of progress shuddering and backsliding on the training wheels of a presumed linearity. With fanged optimism, I say let the post-historical, post-delusional fuckery commence.
Samuel Te Kani is a queer Māori writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. He writes critically on art, film, and visual media, erotic science-fiction/fantasy, and published his first collection of short stories, Please, Call Me Jesus (Dead Bird Books), in November 2021.