Daniel Pinchbeck is a prominent American writer and public figure who catapulted to fame and celebrity status in the psychedelic scene for his books Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (2006). Creator of the web magazine Reality Sandwich, co-founder of Evolver.net, executive director of think tank, Center for Planetary Culture, which produced the Regenerative Society Wiki, film producer for PostModernTimes, and featured journalist for widespread publications including The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Dazed and Confused, Daniel has been one of the most influential figures in the contemporary psychedelic and spiritual movement. Yet, in recent years, he has received widespread criticism and attacks from within the psychedelic community for his outspoken admissions of sexually aggressive behavior in the past. His most recent work, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation (2017), as well as being a manifesto for radical societal change in the face of global ecological crisis, was also controversially a confessional work in which Daniel apologized for what he understood, retrospectively, to be sexual misconduct. In a #MeToo post published on his personal Facebook account, he admitted to seeking sex with much younger women, using substances as tools of seduction, and making unwanted advances. In addition to making public apologies for his past behavior, Daniel has made personal amends and engaged in restorative justice practices with those he feels he may have hurt. Yet, many people in the psychedelic community believe that his behavior is unforgiveable and, exercising a “no second chances” approach, have sought to ostracize him from community circles and public events. Following a flood of aggressive criticism on social media, The Third Wave canceled a recent event for which Daniel was set to be the main speaker. Sexual misconduct is a big problem in the psychedelic community, as it is in wider society, that is finally being brought to light. We recently published the Ayahuasca Community Guide for the awareness of sexual abuse, which, in addition to helping to safeguard women in ayahuasca contexts, is aimed at raising awareness and creating much needed dialogue across the psychedelic community around the issue of sexual misconduct. Favoring a compassionate approach to healing sexual and gender-based problems across our community and beyond that includes men as well as women in this conversation and welcomes honesty and openness, I decided to ask Daniel for his perspective and what he is learning from the #MeToo cultural moment. Along with addressing his personal controversy, I interviewed him about sexual misconduct in the psychedelic community more widely, covering root causes, male perspectives, and approaches to healing.
1. What do you see as the underlying causes of sexual misconduct in the psychedelic community?
First of all, I want to say how sorry I am and how much I regret some of my past behavior with women in the psychedelic community. I have taken a lot of time over the last years to reflect on this, feel into it, and learn from it. There were times that I acted in ways that I now, with hindsight and personal transformation, consider selfish and unconscionable. Even though I find it painful and I feel ashamed, I am happy there is a deep process going on, not just personally, but culturally around these issues. I hope that, as a result, men and women will find greater understanding and be able to love each other in the future with more clarity and less strife. I think all of us recognize this is going to be a long and difficult process.
It is a great privilege and responsibility to be a writer, to be someone who gets to share ideas with the broader culture. Not only do I feel terrible that I upset and sometimes hurt women by my past actions, I also feel sad that I let people down who looked to me with respect.
In speaking about this subject, I only want to contribute to the ongoing healing of anyone I have hurt and the healing of the larger community.
As I considered what to say in this interview, I had many conflicting thoughts. I kept feeling the desire to explain myself and intellectually rationalize my actions in various ways. I thought about going through an account of past acts that I now see as wrong, but I don’t see what value that would have. In speaking about this subject, I only want to contribute to the ongoing healing of anyone I have hurt and the healing of the larger community.
What may be of value is what can be learned from my experiences—as someone infected with the virus of “toxic masculinity” who is seeking to heal—to prevent further abuses or harm. This has a few different elements to it. We do have to explore cultural conditioning and upbringing as it shapes the psychology of men and women in our society. While my situation was unique and particular, there are also generalities that apply to many others. We can’t fix the psychological conditioning of current adults, but we can consider ways to create different structures and cultural containers that prevent abuses from happening or stop them from recurring when they do happen.
People in the psychedelic community seek to explore ecstatic, expansive, and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Two of the main avenues for reaching ecstatic states are chemical intoxicants and sex.
People in the psychedelic community seek to explore ecstatic, expansive, and non-ordinary states of consciousness. Two of the main avenues for reaching ecstatic states are chemical intoxicants and sex. It is therefore likely that some people will seek to explore them together. As with other intoxicants, psychedelics can relax boundaries, blurring clarity around consent and leading to circumstances of misconduct or abuse. Unfortunately, we are still at a point where these substances can only be explored illicitly, which creates a further murky ambience.
Reflecting on my mistakes, I now believe people are likely to be happier and experience less regret if they do not initiate their first sexual contact while under the influence of substances. This is complicated because many individuals, women as well as men, prefer to relax their boundaries—through alcohol or marijuana for instance—before they engage in sexual contact, particularly with a new partner. One idea might be that people define their boundaries verbally before they take substances together, especially if they do not know each other well. I also think the model of not just consent, but “enthusiastic consent,” is a good step.
Psychedelic explorers are experimenters by nature. They tend to explore edges in many different areas of their lives. This can lead to unclear or confused situations. The use of substances as tools of seduction is quite common in the psychedelic and festival community. If a woman stands alone at a warehouse party or a DJ set at a festival, men will often offer her substances seeking to spark a connection. By becoming conscious of such contexts and such patterns, men and women can seek to break them.
2. Why did you feel the need to speak out about your previous transgressions?
I feel genuine remorse and want to ask forgiveness of women who I have hurt. I want to make amends. I also believe that the best thing I can do is to tell my own story; partly because, by doing so, it might help other people, particularly men, to reckon with their history, with things they had done and mistakes they had made.
I realize that, for some people, nothing I can ever do or say will be enough. They will use my past errors as a reason to dismiss me both personally and as a writer. There is little I can do about that, except continue to work on myself and be open to feedback and dialogue.
While women are speaking out, men remain very reluctant to discuss their experiences, as well as how their attitudes and behavior patterns have been shaped by their own social conditioning.
While women are speaking out, men remain very reluctant to discuss their experiences, as well as how their attitudes and behavior patterns have been shaped by their own social conditioning. The reason for this is that men, at this juncture, have a lot to lose and nothing to gain from speaking publicly. If a person is tarred with the #MeToo brush, they can lose their livelihood, the capacity to support themselves and their family, access to their children, and so on, with no recourse.
I don’t see how we can change the situation unless we become conscious of our shadow material. When we become conscious of the repressed and distorted parts of ourselves, we can integrate our shadow. A great deal of my personal shadow material was trapped in my wounds around sexuality, due to my personal history, and this is true for many people. By expressing it publicly, I also held myself to account and forced myself to undergo a deeper level of self-scrutiny and personal change.
3. What types of social conditioning do you think contribute to sexual misbehavior, in your case and, more broadly, for men in our society?
Right now, we are going through processes as a society where many people are renegotiating what they want in the area of love and sexuality, with women leading this process by saying what they will no longer tolerate. The possibility of open relationships, polyamory or kink was not even discussed when I was young. The options were limited to monogamy, being single, or being monogamous and cheating. Many men I knew when I was younger chose the third option.
Many of us who grew up in an earlier period were conditioned poorly around love and sexuality. For instance, when I was in high school in NYC in the 1980s, John Hughes films, like The Breakfast Club, were extremely popular. These films, like much of our culture, put forth degrading stereotypes around sexual roles, where the boys who succeeded in “getting the girl” were the “bad boys” who acted transgressively. Molly Ringwald recently wrote an essay for The New Yorker on how these films, in which she starred, negatively shaped her own preference for abusive men, as well as the larger culture. High schools force us to memorize historical dates and learn calculus, but do very little to teach relating skills, which are far more important.
As an adolescent and young man, I was more of an awkward and sensitive, intellectual type. I was raised in a single-parent home by my mother, who was depressed, and who framed her depression around the idea that she didn’t have a partner. I felt guilty, ashamed of male sexuality. I had an infection in my spine when I was twelve and spent eight months in the hospital, then developed scoliosis, which further contributed to a negative self-image. I also experienced some trauma in early childhood; my grandmother and great aunts used to give me forced enemas against my will. This was a moral and physical violation of trust that also impacted my character.
I felt I had to develop a false persona, a kind of mask, to connect with women. I think this is a common mistake among men.
As I grew up, I seemed to find that males who were not somewhat forceful in their pursuit of sex did not succeed, as in the John Hughes films. I felt I had to develop a false persona, a kind of mask, to connect with women. I think this is a common mistake among men. It has only been in recent years that I have been working to tear that mask off entirely.
When I was in my twenties, I was part of a creative community in New York where heavy drinking and substances like cocaine and heroin were normal. The band Nirvana provided our soundtrack. Often, men and women would get drunk or high together as a prelude to sexual contact. I now find this unacceptable and unfortunate, but it was the norm at the time.
I carried these behavior patterns with me into the psychedelic culture, as part of my socialization. I was also a follower of the romantic and bohemian ideals of writers like William Blake, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” I believed in that idea and I wanted to test that hypothesis. This led to some situations I now fully regret.
I published my first book in my mid-thirties and my second when I was forty. As I became a kind of celebrity in the psychedelic community and festival circuit, I suddenly had exponentially more sexual possibilities than a few years previously, when I was an unknown writer—even though I was exactly the same person as before. At first, this was as thrilling as it was puzzling. I discovered how much erotic curiosity I had repressed; I felt almost like I had been starving without realizing it. I suspect that many individuals share these suppressed desires.
When people have more access to diverse sexual experiences, however, it can lead to more compulsive patterns of behavior. This is what happened to me to some extent. As an example of what I did wrong: Sometimes women who knew my work would approach me wanting guidance or mentorship, while I would seek a sexual outcome. This would make them feel uncomfortable and less valued for themselves. One terrible mistake I made was when I met a woman acquaintance late at night at a party when we were both very drunk. We proceeded to go to my house, take a psychedelic together, and have sex. Later she felt she had been too intoxicated to consent. Many years after the incident, we met with a mediator. I asked for her forgiveness, which she gave me at that time.
If I am honest, I still believe in a deeper level of sexual liberation, if it is combined with greater wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness.
In general, I justified my behavior because I was acting the way that I did openly and was not hiding anything. In my books and talks, I was an outspoken believer in sexual freedom and a public supporter of the ideas of people like the poet Allen Ginsberg, who I knew when I was young. A gay man, Allen thought it was natural for teachers or mentors and students to have sexual relationships. He believed in erotic freedom and the pursuit of ecstasy as part of our birthright. If I am honest, I still believe in a deeper level of sexual liberation, if it is combined with greater wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness.
4. Looking back on what you’ve learned and what you’re working on, what advice would you give your younger self concerning sexual misconduct in psychedelic spaces?
“Psychedelic spaces” is an umbrella term with different areas or categories. One serious issue is abusive behavior by male ayahuasca shamans during or after ceremonies. As Jeremy Narby notes, Amazonian shamans do not see themselves as saints, doctors, or gurus, but as warriors, identifying with predators like anacondas and jaguars. They believe their role is to enchant their clients to bring about their healing or transformation. Once they have enchanted a foreign female client, they may see no moral issue around sexualizing the relationship, whereas we find it to be an outrageous violation. Obviously, we need rules as a community to outlaw sexual advances or even ambiguous physical contact during or just after ceremonies, and we must take action to safeguard female participants. These guidelines should be circulated through the global ayahuasca community.
With festivals, parties, and other community gatherings, it is harder to propose strict rules. However, I now believe that men and women are most likely to avoid later regrets if they have their initial sexual contact without substances and with enthusiastic consent, as a principle. When people take psychedelics at social events like festivals, they may seek hedonistic pleasure, psychological insight, and mystical experience, all jumbled together. This is exciting but may create confusion and chaos. Generally, people should bring more awareness and purpose into their journeys, and define desired outcomes ahead of time and not rush into them. Also, if men and women are journeying together, they can state their physical boundaries beforehand.
One issue to address is that psychedelic use—whether one journey or through long-term use—can have a negative impact on some people’s personalities and character. The psychedelic movement is focused on promoting the benefits of these compounds and, in fact, the evidence being amassed from scientific research is largely positive. Yet, we must remember that psychedelics can also cause or intensify psychological problems.
Something we lack in our mass society are community gatherings; small-scale circles and meetings where friends and peers hold each other accountable and challenge each other to grow and change.
Something we lack in our mass society are community gatherings; small-scale circles and meetings where friends and peers hold each other accountable and challenge each other to grow and change. It might be valuable to institute such circles as a daily practice at festivals, and even within local or urban communities. In many indigenous societies, the constant watchfulness of the collective keeps people’s egos in check. We have nothing like that; only the depersonalized “kangaroo court” of social media.
5. A male friend of mine observed, “if a woman sleeps with a man because she wants something out of it or she manipulates him for her personal gratification, we wouldn’t usually call that abuse.” What is the difference?
There is a historical reality of structural gender inequality that complicates this statement. While women can be manipulators in this game, we do know that women have, historically, overwhelmingly borne the brunt of abuse, rape, and domestic violence. At the same time, we should acknowledge larger patterns of complicity between genders. Warren Farrell’s book, The Myth of Male Power, overturns many assumptions we hold about male and female dynamics. Cassie Jaye, director of The Red Pill, also brings awareness into areas that are difficult to discuss at this time.
We seek moral absolutes—good and evil, right and wrong—but many things exist in a grey area of moral ambiguity. Perhaps one of the more difficult things in life is accepting that. In response to #MeToo, a group of prominent French women, led by Catherine Deneuve, posted an Op-Ed where they defended the “freedom to bother” as part of a liberated and open society. I think this might be worth considering as healthier, on balance, than some of the more radical approaches we are seeing now.
While I did commit many wrongs, I have also been accused of horrible things that I did not do as a vengeance tactic by a former partner.
Levels of complexity are not being addressed because we are in the process of rightfully hearing from those who have been abused, and not as focused on moving forward until such views are fully heard. Many men now fear that a sexual relationship that was, as far as they understood at the time, consensual might be reevaluated at a later date, even many years later, by their former partner, and perceived differently. A popular feminist viewpoint now states that one should believe the victim of sexual abuse or misconduct (the implication is, “always believe”). But, as individuals discuss privately, there are situations where women as well as men will go after former partners for revenge or attention or seek to frame former partners for things they did not do. I know this because this has happened to me. While I did commit many wrongs, I have also been accused of horrible things that I did not do as a vengeance tactic by a former partner. Other men I know have had similar circumstances.
I am concerned that the #MeToo movement, unless it finds a more nuanced way to address past transgressions, will push many powerful, creative men toward the Right which increasingly rejects all forms of political correctness, where they will find a receptive audience that will not permanently ostracize them. In the US, we historically suffer from strains of hysteria that date back to our Puritan past. The US is a melting pot; many people have little sense of community, affinity, or deep historical connection to the people around them. This makes it easy to demonize or deny the humanity of a group or adversary perceived as “other.”
I hope that the next evolutionary step in our collective consciousness around gender relations and relationships goes beyond vilifying and blaming to developing mechanisms and societal processes that allow for rehabilitation and reconciliation.
I believe that the root of “toxic masculinity” is not that men are inherently bad, but that we have remained indoctrinated into a patriarchal social system that dehumanizes both men and women in different ways. It would be great if we could develop community processes to reckon with the wounds of the past and get beyond them. Some have suggested this might resemble, in some ways, the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa after Apartheid. Whatever it looks like, I hope that the next evolutionary step in our collective consciousness around gender relations and relationships goes beyond vilifying and blaming to developing mechanisms and societal processes that allow for rehabilitation and reconciliation.
Art by Karina Alvarez.
This article is part of Chacruna’s Sex, Power and Psychedelics Series and should be read in conjunction with the other pieces of this series. We welcome contributions that address these complex issues, see our call for abstracts here. We especially welcome contributions that challenge this piece and help advance these delicate conversations.
Editorial post-script, May 6th, 2019:
The Chacruna teams shares that Daniel Pinchbeck stated that he has contacted women who he felt he had acted poorly with and met with several of them, in one case with a mediator. However, he is still interested in participating in deeper processes of “restorative justice,” as he ideally should. He has announced that he is willing to do that both in private and in public and has asked people interested in participating to reach out to him: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Did you enjoy reading this article?
Please support Chacruna's work by donating to us. We are an independent organization and we offer free education and advocacy for psychedelic plant medicines. We are a team of dedicated volunteers!
Can you help Chacruna advance cultural understanding around these substances?