Despite the theme of togetherness that dominates the psychedelic experience, there is an uneven distribution of power in psychedelic communities. Those partaking in psychedelic ceremonies are vulnerable, existing in an altered state of reality that requires them to be wholly trusting of their leader.
This dichotomy of power between participants and leaders comes with a risk of abuse – a risk that is not hypothetical; it is real and it is prevalent.
Whilst it may be hard to fathom that this sacred, healing tool could be doing harm as well as good, countless tourists who have embarked on ayahuasca journeys in pursuit of spiritual healing have returned with even deeper psychological wounds. Accounts of sexual abuse in psychedelic retreats are piling high.
Psychedelic retreats: the what and why
With the flourishing field of psychedelic medicine and the growing mainstream fascination with mind-altering drugs, Western tourists are seeking psychedelic retreats in increasing numbers.
Ayahuasca ceremonies, in particular, are proving particularly popular amongst spiritual seekers. This ancient ritual involves drinking the hallucinogenic brew under the guidance of a shamanic leader and is said to have lasting psychological benefits. Now that modern scientific research is revealing just how psychedelic drugs impact the brain, it is clear that ayahuasca ceremonies can have a deeply transformative impact on people’s mental wellbeing.
Traditionally, the intentions for ayahuasca ceremonies were to connect with a spiritual realm, contact the souls of ancestors, or heal physical and psychological ailments. Similar motivations are in place today, with many partaking in ayahuasca rituals to shift their perspective on life or to work through traumatic memories.
Many claim the experience to have altered the course of their life – for the better, mostly, but for the unfortunate few, these ayahuasca journeys have left them with lasting psychological scars. As the ayahuasca tourism industry grows, so do accounts of sexual violence.
Laura Mae Northrup, an author, educator, and psychotherapist, describes sexual violence as a form of spiritual abuse. “Any violence that attacks sexuality is an attack on the human spirit and in its wake leaves a spiritual wound. I would argue that sexual violence crushes the human spirit,” Northrup tells Psychable. And thus, due to the crucial spiritual influence on psychedelic ceremonies and the threat that sexual violence on the spirit, the prevalence of sexual abuse in ayahuasca retreats is deeply unsettling.
Sexual abuse within ayahuasca ceremonies
Let’s make one thing clear: a person cannot consent to sex during a psychedelic ceremony. In this altered state of consciousness, an individual is in no position to offer capacitated consent.
It is the responsibility of the facilitator – the healer, shaman, or leader – to keep the participant safe. However, all too often, a leader will take advantage of their position, using the combination of their power and psychoactive drugs to facilitate their sinister sexual endeavours.
In a 2019 article, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) detail the spectrum of abuse that has occurred during past ayahuasca ceremonies, including “verbal persuasion, invasive touching, “consensual” sex between healer and participant, and rape.”
Research shows that “some women stand by their decisions of mutual consensual sex with shamans or their assistants and have no regrets,” according to MAPS. Here, however, the issue lies with the imbalance of power between a leader and a participant. The Cut tells the story of an American student, Lily Ross, who initially claimed that she and the shaman “fell in love” during her stay at an ayahuasca retreat in Ecuador. But dig a little deeper into this seemingly “consensual” relationship and it is clear that Ross was a victim of sexual assault, coerced into a sexual relationship whilst under the influence of a drug.
“It’s a lot of power in these people’s hands,” Ross shares. Not only are shamans solely responsible for the welfare of highly vulnerable and trusting individuals, but they are often highly romanticised in Western culture. With this sense of moral superiority, alongside the unfamiliarity of Eastern psychedelic rituals to Western tourists, inappropriate acts can be disguised as a form of “spiritual advancement”, going unnoticed and unhindered.
It is, however, important to note that “abuse happens across cultures and within them“, according to Emily Sinclair, a British doctoral student researching ayahuasca. Western men have, too, learned to take advantage of spiritual seekers from all corners of the globe. No matter the context, sexual violence is wrong and a blatant contradiction of the sacred nature of the psychedelic experience.
In 2019, Rebekah Senanayake’s story was published by the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. In the article, titled “Great Shamanic Deception: Using Ayahuasca as a Conduit for Sexual Fulfillment”, Rebehak wrote, “like many women, I was coerced into sexual acts by an ayahuasca “healer” through a carefully constructed series of manipulations and “spiritual” justifications.”
Then, in 2020, the BBC told her story. In her 20s, Rebekah visited a psychedelic retreat in Peru. On her second visit, she was sexually abused. “He also promised me a lot of spiritual advancement or a lot of spiritual power, if we had a relationship,” she shared.
And Rebekah isn’t alone. The BBC also told the story of a woman in her 40s, whom they named Anna. On her visit to a popular ayahuasca retreat, Anna was intimately and inappropriately touched by a shaman when under the influence of the drug. Then, two years later, Anna was raped by a healer during an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.
These distressing stories aren’t just limited to South American retreats. Western psychologists have, too, abused their position of power within psychedelic research. According to Quartz, Richard Yensen, a therapist involved in a MAPS MDMA study in 2015, was accused of sexually assaulting a trauma patient, Meaghan Buisson. At the time of the alleged assault, Yensen did not have a license to practice and was working alongside his licensed wife. In a civil court case, Yensen claimed that Buisson had consented to a sexual relationship and the case did not go to trial, but MAPS have since described Yensen’s actions as “ethical violations”.
As of yet, no research has been conducted into exactly how prevalent sexual abuse is in psychedelic spaces, but online forums offer an indication of the scale of the issue. One article mentions “a blog where over 300 responses were left by women who had felt violated at an ayahuasca retreat.”
So how is this still happening? As detailed by MAPS, “one of the first obstacles we face in attempting to address sexual abuse in the ayahuasca community is the widespread disbelief that sexual abuse is indeed a problem.”
What drives the culture of silence?
After surviving her sexual assault, Lily Ross was “told explicitly that [she] might single-handedly re-instigate the war on drugs and undo all of the advancements in the field of psychedelic research since the 1960s.
“There’s the idea that psychedelics are so important and so wonderful that the train has to keep going. We can’t slow down to get the rapists off the train,” Ross tells Quartz. Since so much work and campaigning has gone into getting these drugs back into clinical study, many victims and witnesses stay quiet to avoid tarnishing the reputation of psychedelic medicine.
Others believe that the prevalence of sexual abuse is a result of the commodification of this ancient Indigenous practice. As one Reddit user writes in response to the aforementioned BBC article, “ayahuasca is supposed to be a sacred ritual, not a touristy experience,” claiming that the “expanding tourist industry” is responsible for the rise of “[unscrupulous] ‘shamans’”.
But these perspectives only push the narrative that the victim is to blame – that tourists should protect themselves. Sexual abuse in psychedelic spaces is not the fault of the ceremonies, nor the drugs; it is always the fault of the perpetrator. As cultural activist Zoe Helene tells The Cut, “this is a much older, larger problem about the abuse of power.”
Going further, there is also reason to believe that the legal status of psychedelics contributes to this issue. Despite being legal in several South American and European countries, there is a considerable lack of regulation and licensing surrounding ayahuasca retreats. This means that abuse can go unspoken due to fears of bias, judgement, and legal repercussions. As Lily Ross asks, “how does one handle this power with integrity when there’s no governing body, no network of accountability?”
What can be done to stop this?
Sexual violence in psychedelic communities is a dark topic that needs to be brought into the light. The best thing we can do is raise awareness of the issue and, in turn, drive change – either through better safeguarding or stricter regulations.
In 2019, the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines shared guidelines to raise awareness about the contexts in which past abuse has occurred. These are intended to help tourists to make informed decisions when visiting psychedelic retreats. The guide was crafted through the collaboration of “Indigenous as well as Western victims and survivors of abuse, ayahuasca healers and ceremonial facilitators, and anthropologists who…have longstanding experience with ayahuasca communities”.
In short, the guidelines encourage participants of ayahuasca ceremonies to drink with trusted and experienced friends or companions. They also encourage tourists to research retreats by checking out the location, reviews, and reputation before they visit.
The guidelines also emphasise to tourists that sexual activity is not considered to be appropriate in ayahuasca ceremonies. In fact, it is deemed “spiritually dangerous”, and nudity or intimate touching is not required within the ceremonial setting. And due to the power dynamics at play within this ceremonial context, all forms of drug-assisted sexual activity, whether deemed “consensual” or not, are considered assault.
But aside from educating tourists and raising awareness, urgent change is clearly needed within the industry itself. In both the clinical and ceremonial setting, facilitators should be given proper training to handle transference – that being, “a psychological concept when a person projects or displaces feelings for someone in their life onto their therapist or healer,” according to Psychable.
In some instances, transference could manifest as a form of sexual or romantic attraction towards the facilitator. MDMA, in particular, is known to induce “loving and trusting feelings that…can make patients more vulnerable to sexual pressure,” says the head of MAPS, Rick Doblin. With these heightened emotions and urges, it is easy for lines to be blurred – but it is the responsibility of the leader to maintain boundaries and keep people safe.
Since there is currently no certifying body that registers shamanic practitioners, one solution is to distribute official qualifications to trusted leaders. With this, however, there is a risk of neglecting the rich history of ayahuasca and its spiritual influence, as trying to license and regulate shamanism could be seen as Western colonisation of a sacred tradition.
Instead, just as we are seeing in the field of psychedelic medicine, modern practitioners should be trauma-informed. With training on sexual trauma resolution, power dynamics, and rape culture, leaders would not only be equipped with the tools to heal sexual trauma, but also be able to recognise and interrupt sexual violence.
How this could be enforced, however, is yet to be determined. Frustratingly, the onus is still very much on the individual to ensure that they are seeking out a trusted ayahuasca retreat. But with increasing awareness, responsibility and accountability in psychedelic spaces, we can only hope that abuse and harm will soon be eradicated from the community.
Resources for survivors
Sexual abuse is a complex and nuanced topic, with countless interrelated sociocultural factors at play. Although this article focused solely on sexual misconduct within psychedelic communities involving male perpetrators and female participants, the following resources are intended for survivors of all genders who have experienced any form of sexual assault.
Here, the NHS provides a list of resources for medical, practical and emotional support after experiencing rape or sexual assault. For victims of sexual abuse in psychedelic communities, Chacruna has compiled legal resources that provide information about policies in place and contacts where one can seek support from trustworthy organisations.
Abuse is never the fault of the victim. Do not be afraid to speak up and reach out for help.