Ayahuasca community guide for the awareness and prevention of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse and misconduct towards female participants in ayahuasca circles are, unfortunately, quite prevalent occurrences. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, as most cases never come to light, but the issue is common knowledge within the ayahuasca community. As an organization dedicated to providing public education and cultural understanding about plant medicines, we at Chacruna do not wish to dissuade women from drinking ayahuasca, but rather to raise their awareness about sexual harassment, and offer practical guidelines in the interest of keeping female participants in ayahuasca ceremonies and communities safe. 

Why Does Sexual Assault Occur in Ayahuasca Healing Contexts?

Sexual assault of female participants by male healers and facilitators in ayahuasca ceremonial contexts is, like any sexual assault, an abuse of power. It is a gross perversion of the healer-participant dynamic, in which the healer or facilitator uses their position of power and responsibility for personal gratification and gain. This is especially harmful and shocking considering many women who drink ayahuasca are seeking healing for sexual traumas they have suffered in the past. 

Sexual relations between healer and patient or religious leader and follower are an obvious violation of healer-patient and religious codes of conduct. However, the globalization of ayahuasca presents complex cross-cultural interactions where local and global moral codes and gender relational norms often come into contact and conflict. Many Western people now partake of ayahuasca ceremonies in South American contexts where mutual misconceptions of the “other” also contribute to the problem. “Shamans” are highly romanticized in the Western imagination. Some South American, and indeed Western men, have learned to take advantage of these naïve characterizations of the healer. Furthermore, Western women are often viewed as exotic and sexually promiscuous by native men. 

Economic inequalities and incentives further complicate these cross-cultural healer-patient interactions, whereby native healers may attempt to improve their financial prospects and social standing through entering into relations with Western women. This is especially prevalent in the current context of the commercialization of ayahuasca. Yet, these cross-cultural considerations cannot fully explain sexual abuse in ayahuasca contexts, since South American women are also sexually abused by South American healers, and Western women by Western healers.

Sexual abuse between healer and patient is evident in spiritual and healing communities across cultures and throughout time. As in these wider contexts, many shamans or religious leaders claim that “tantric” exercises and sexual contact can heal someone from past traumatic experiences. They may argue that this will be a way to “regain the sacred energy of sex,” and that “society is moralistic and does not understand the freedom of sex,” etc. in order to gain sexual favors. Instances of so-called “consensual” sex between healer and patient often involve great power imbalances and intentional deception and manipulation on the part of the healer. The establishment of allegedly “consensual” relationships also poses several challenges.

There are many healers, religious leaders, and facilitators working with ayahuasca with great integrity. Becoming informed and taking certain precautions will help you to avoid potentially dangerous situations. Here we offer some guidelines to help you to protect yourself and prevent sexual harassment in ayahuasca ceremonial contexts. 

These guidelines were created through collaboration with women and men in the ayahuasca community across different cultural contexts, including indigenous and Western victims of abuse, and ayahuasca healers and ceremonial facilitators. Please note that this guide is trying to cover indigenous, mestizo, religious, therapeutic, and New Age circles, so not all items are applicable to all contexts. Please use your best judgement.

Safety Guidelines 

  1. Drink with Friends. Do not partake of ayahuasca in ceremonies or any healing practice alone with the healer. Make sure you are accompanied by trusted companions.
  2. Drink with Experienced Women or Couples. As an extra precaution, one may wish to ensure there are female healers or facilitators working in their chosen ceremonial setting. Many reputable places now ensure that experienced women are present to assist and safeguard female participants. 
  3. Check Out the Location and Healer. Check the reputation of any center, shaman or religious leader you plan to participate in a ceremony with through review sites, past participants, and other experienced people in the area. It is highly advised to consult women.
  4. It is Not Necessary for Healers to Touch Intimate Parts of Your Body or Any Area to Which You Do Not Consent. Healings are known as sopladas and limpiezas. If a shaman, religious leader or facilitator does touch you inappropriately during a “healing,” be assertive and clear that you are not comfortable with this. Raise the issue with trusted facilitators, organizers of the ceremony, or others outside the ceremonial setting if you are not listened to within it. 
  5. Sopladas and Limpiezas Do Not Require You to Remove Your Clothes. It is certainly not necessary for you to be naked. It’s true that in certain Colombian yage traditions, you might be required to take your shirt off for a soplada, but your bra can be kept on. This is also true for plant baths, for which you can wear swimwear or underwear, or do with a female healer or facilitator, or alone. A healer may offer to do a “special” or individual healing outside of ceremony. This may be with good intention and beneficial to you, especially during a plant diet, but be cautious. If you do agree to be given an individual healing, it is best to be accompanied by a trusted companion. Be assertive about your personal needs to feel comfortable, regardless of any resistance from the healer.
  6. Look out for Warning Signs That a Healer’s Intentions with You Might Be Sexual. For example: he is complimentary of your looks; he is overly ‘”touchy” with you; he tells you his wife doesn’t mind him having sex with other women; he encourages pacts of silence and secrecy between you; he says he wants to teach you love magic; he states that ayahuasca can enhance sexual activity; he declares that you are special and chosen and offers you ceremonial and religious status. Beware that he is probably just trying to get you into bed!
  7. Sexual Intercourse During Ceremonies is Vetoed in Nearly All Ayahuasca Traditions. If a ceremonial leader wants to have sex with you during or following ceremony, he is committing a transgression. This is considered inappropriate and spiritually dangerous in nearly all traditions.
  8. Sexual Intercourse with a Healer Does Not Give You Special Power and Energy. This is a relatively common argument made by men who want to have sex with their ceremonial participants; it is also a major reason why women often flirt, reciprocate flirtations or willingly engage in sexual relations with healers. Do not deceive yourself about such matters. Sleeping with a shaman will not make you a shaman, neither will it heal you from your past sexual trauma.
  9. Consider Cultural Differences and Local Behavioral Norms When Interacting with Native Healers. This is not a question of “right” or “wrong” behavior, but rather we suggest that individuals be aware that some interactions can potentially be culturally inappropriate and misunderstood. According to gender norms in South American cultures, women often take submissive roles,  which is why local women take precautions to avoid being alone with men when partaking of ayahuasca in ceremonies or engaging in other social contact. For instance, they may overtly avoid eye contact, or avoid smiling directly at the healer, in order to avoid interpretations of sexual invitation. Be careful not to be overly friendly or complimentary of native healers. Don’t say things like “you have pretty eyes,” and avoid long hugs and warm touching, which can be misinterpreted. We are not stating that this misinterpretation is justified, only that individuals can benefit from being aware of this. 
  10. Consider Cultural Differences and Local Clothing Customs When Deciding What to Wear. “Exotic” women are often viewed as being desirable and sexually promiscuous across cultures. Wearing revealing clothing can exacerbate these misconceptions. Without condoning these misconceptions or taking away any of the responsibility for their own behavior from men, it is advisable for your own protection to consider how your clothing choices might be perceived, especially when attending ceremonies in foreign countries. Indeed, the request to not wear revealing clothing is common for many spiritual, meditation, and other healing retreats.
  11. Protect Your Personal Space. Physically and spiritually – before, during, and after ceremony. Healers with integrity will respect your right to do this. Ayahuasca ceremonies are usually very personal experiences. You should not feel obliged to engage in verbal or physical communication with healers, facilitators or anyone else during or following ceremony. 
  12. Be Wary if the Healer Offers Other Types of Drugs and Psychoactive Substances Other Than Those Used During Ceremonies. Be suspicious of the use or supply of these substances outside of ceremonies, even if they are associated with therapeutic treatments, healing of energy imbalances, and especially if he uses language such as “sexual chakra release” and kindred expressions. 
  13. He’s a Shaman, Not a Saint! Remember, shaman and other ceremonial or religious leaders are men (and women) with human flaws and sexual urges. They do not necessarily live according to the high moral standards one might expect of a spiritual leader. This is a dangerous misconception.
  14. If a Violation Occurs, Get Support. Don’t suffer in silence. It’s not your fault if you experience abuse. Ideally, let someone in a leadership position know within the ceremony circle itself. If you can report the abuse immediately, it can send a strong message that this will not be tolerated, and potentially protect other women from harm. However, you may not feel safe to do this or, you may not fully realize abuse has occurred until after the fact. It is very common for women who have been previously traumatized to experience a “freeze” response during a violation or uncomfortable situation. You still have the right to report this abuse afterward even if you were unable to address it at the time. Seek outside support and, if necessary, legal advice. Different countries have different legislations; try to get informed about your rights and places you can report the incident. 
  15. Beware of Consensual Sex. If you are considering having a sexual encounter with a shaman or facilitator, wait to get to know them better over time. Consensual sex may still involve an imbalance and abuse of power. It is also possible, according to shamanic practice, for ceremonial leaders to influence participants intentionally into feeling attraction towards them, through love magic and other techniques. Allow time for integration and for the effects of the medicine and its ensuing sense of empowerment to wear off so that you can apply good judgement regarding where you wish to place your newly found insights and efforts. 
  16. Beware of Getting Romantically Involved. Feeling attraction to the ayahuasquero or a fellow participant can happen. As part of their ceremonial experience some women have dreams and visions about the shaman or other fellow participants, and can get sexually aroused before, during, and after ceremonies. That is normal and you should not be ashamed of that. However, pursuing these feelings in concrete terms might generate several problems for you and, furthermore, his wife, family and community. Focus instead on yourself and your own work.

Resources

Fernandez, A. C. (2018). Sexual abuse in the contexts of ritual use of ayahuasca. Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines. Retrieved from Sexual abuse in the contexts of ritual use of ayahuasca. This text is an adaptation of the original: Fedrnandez, A. C. (2018). Power and legitimacy in the reconfiguration of the yagecero field in Colombia. In B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), The expanding world ayahuasca diaspora: Appropriation, integration and legislation (pp. 199–216). New York City, NY: Routledge. You can download he article here.

Peluso, D. (2018, October 5). Ayahuasca’s attractions and distractions: Examining sexual seduction in shaman-participant interactions. This text is an adaptation of the original, Ayahuasca’s attractions and distractions: Examining sexual seduction in shaman-participant interactions, in B. C. Labate & C. Cavnar (Eds.), Ayahuasca shamanism in the amazon and beyond. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press. You can download the article here.

Chacruna’s Women and Psychedelics Forum, November 19, 2018, CIIS, California.

Guillermo Arevalo Sexual Abuse Open Letter: Baris Betsa, Anaconda Cosmica, La Nueva Luz Cosmica Ayahuasca Centers (2013). Ayahuasca Forum. Reddit.com. Retrieved from here

Women’s Visionary Council (2014).  21 Safety Tips for Participating in Ceremonies That Use Psychoactive Substances. Retrieved from here.


Note

This document is an initiative of the Ayahuasca Community Committee, a space dedicated to raising awareness about key issues within the ayahuasca community and promoting positive action. A first version of these guidelines have been published on 19 November, 2018, and might be updated subsequently. Please reach out if you have suggestions to Emily Sinclair at emily.chacruna@gmail.com, as this is a collaborative project. These guidelines  were published 4 years after the WVC’s inaugural Safety Tips for Ceremonies, and we hope that further initiatives continue to advance this effort globally.