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Accepted Paper:

Remember When Poppers Caused AIDS?: Rethinking Panic in Expert Cultures  
Joseph Jay Sosa (Bowdoin College)

Short abstract:

This paper traces how poppers’ changing purported link to AIDS, first as suspected cause of the syndrome, then as co-factor in immunosuppression, and last as impediment to condom use. Drawing on anti-poppers activist archives, I ask how panic within expert cultures manifests as lingering doubt.

Long abstract:

Poppers are the ‘bad object’ of historicizing AIDS etiology debates. Nitrite inhalant vasodilators used in anal sex, poppers were widely suspected for playing a role in AIDS before and after the HIV virus was discovered. Histories of public health experts and citizen science on AIDS cite poppers as a moral panic at the outset of the epidemic. But the intertwined significations of poppers and AIDS though the 1980s and 1990s reveal a more complicated story around the consolidation of an AIDS consensus and the porous boundaries between mainstream public health and AIDS dissidents. Well after the HIV consensus, a significant cohort of AIDS knowledge workers continued investigating poppers as a co-factor in immunosuppression, and then as a barrier to condom use and risk for seroconversion (the working theory of most public health scholarship on poppers today).

How did concern over poppers remain in the AIDS mainstream, even as activists and experts kept changing the goalposts over risks? I tell the story of The Committee to Monitor Poppers (CMP, 1981-2008), a San Francisco-based collective in constant correspondence with AIDS activists, epidemiologists, consumer-protection agencies, elected officials. CMP presented themselves as gay male advocates and emphasized poppers as an unregulated product that merited oversight. They counselled their different constituencies on how to frame poppers’ health risks. The connection between poppers and AIDS prompts challenges the moral panic model as punctuated unreason against established knowledge. This case study asks us to consider how panic lingers in expert cultures as an unwillingness to discount risk.

Traditional Open Panel P333
Knowledge of HIV/AIDS in STS: archives, science, and participation
  Session 1 Wednesday 17 July, 2024, -