Alexander Dawson, Ph.D.

Alexander Dawson, Ph.D., teaches history at the University at Albany (SUNY). He is the author of four books and numerous articles. His most recent book,The Peyote Effect: From the Inquisition to the War on Drugs, was published by the University of California Press in 2018.
Alexander Dawson, Ph.D.

When I started university 34 years ago, I encountered numerous male professors whose personal histories included a former wife (who had typed their dissertation and first book, and was raising their children), and a current wife, who at one point had been a student of that professor. I was in graduate school before I ever heard someone suggest that there was something troubling about this arrangement. As a member of the faculty, I have seen similar examples at numerous universities. Though most of us now call this an abuse of authority, only in the very recent past have I seen any faculty members sanctioned for it.

The abuse, as we understand it, is rooted in the belief (a belief I share) that the power dynamics of teacher-student relationships obviate the possibility that the less powerful party can freely consent to a sexual relationship.  Though we still have some outliers, romantics (or predators, depending who you ask) who insist that love is love, and that we should not attempt to prohibit it, it has now become normative to think that these types of relationships should not be permitted on college campuses.

It is this prohibition that I thought of when I read some of the earlier postings in this series, which take on a long history in which erstwhile shamans have abused their power to coerce women into sexual relationships. From the outside, the abuse here seems clear cut, inasmuch as the power of the shaman is also clear-cut. And if the shaman sought to use some psychedelic to facilitate his abuse (a “tool of seduction,” if you will), then the story is all the more horrifying. These moments evoke two distinct kinds of abuse: the abuse of authority (in ways similar to abusive teacher-student relationships), and sexual abuse aided by an intoxicant.

when any party administers some type of intoxicant to another with the intention of compelling the other party do something they would not otherwise do (and here, we speak both to drugs that incapacitate and drugs that simply intoxicate), that is a sexual assault.

It is the latter I want to discuss here. And so, let me start with a few simple observations. First, when any party administers some type of intoxicant to another with the intention of compelling the other party do something they would not otherwise do (and here, we speak both to drugs that incapacitate and drugs that simply intoxicate), that is a sexual assault. The most clear-cut example of this kind of predatory behavior is linked to Rohypnol, though in recent years, with the surge in binge drinking on college campuses, it has become difficult to distinguish where a good time ends and an assault begins. As a result, some campus activists have come to argue that a person experiencing any degree of intoxication cannot consent to sex.

We are talking here about something different than the abuse of shamanic or other forms of authority. We are instead talking about the substance itself, whether the presence of the substance in any amount obviates consent. And here we also open the door to asking about the larger history of sex, consent, and drugs. Of course, different drugs act in different ways, and since the conversation here is about psychedelics, this shall be my concern. Is there such a thing as consent during psychedelic intoxication?

This question has a history. Religious and other authorities have long objected to the circulation of psychedelics on the grounds that they pervert the sexual mores of their users. In early efforts to outlaw North American peyote religions, as well as struggles among the Navajos during the 1930s, critics of peyote rehearsed a series of myths: that peyote ceremonies were really just cover for orgies; that young, male peyotists lured innocent young women into peyote cults so as to incapacitate them and deflower them; that peyote turned upstanding citizens into sexual deviants. Peyote’s defenders long denied these charges, claiming that peyote was not, in fact, an aphrodisiac. Their words were largely ignored by those who sought peyote bans.

Their claim (which lacked any actual evidence) rested on the assumption that young women were intoxicated by peyote, and lost their moral compasses (their capacity to resist). They were thus incapacitated and, in the modern sense, unable to consent.

It is possible to view these moments through the lens of consent. While missionaries, teachers, and government officials, and even anti-peyotists on the reservations associated the supposed wanton sexuality of the peyotists with depredation, central to their outrage was a sense that young men—predators—were using peyote to lure young women into sexually compromising situations. Their claim (which lacked any actual evidence) rested on the assumption that young women were intoxicated by peyote, and lost their moral compasses (their capacity to resist). They were thus incapacitated and, in the modern sense, unable to consent.

That we know these claims were untrue allows us to look back on those moments and ponder the role that Victorian attitudes towards sexuality had in condemnations of peyotism. The mere claim that peyote was causing young women to lose their sexual morals was horrifying enough to justify a ban (as the Navajo Tribal council did in 1940).  Similarly, the panic over peyote was informed by the assumption that these young men, who ordinarily might be under control because of social mores, would lose control of their sexuality and become predators under its influence. Cast in racial terms, it is a reminder that these critics saw Indians as barely (if at all) civilized, and feared that peyote would unleash the atavistic tendencies that the missionaries were desperate to contain. If there is any lesson in this, it is a reminder that sex is never just sex; that it is bound up in a host of beliefs and assumptions that tell us a great deal about specific moments and places.


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In these debates, credentialed men and women spent an absurd amount of time arguing over whether or not peyote was an aphrodisiac. In this day and age, the term does not really have the meaning it once did. It was not, for instance, a claim that women were being incapacitated and were therefore being assaulted that marked these debates. It was a claim that women, like men, were being turned into uncontrollable sex fiends by the drug.

it was not so much that psychedelics got them in the mood, as it was that they experienced an especially exalted state if they and their partner consumed psychedelics before having sex.

If this was not weird enough, things got even weirder with the beatniks and hippies. Like earlier generations, they debated whether or not peyote (and now other psychedelics) were aphrodisiacs, and mostly concluded that they were not. On the other hand, at the height of the counterculture, a certain number of aficionados came to believe that it was not so much that psychedelics got them in the mood, as it was that they experienced an especially exalted state if they and their partner consumed psychedelics before having sex.

psychonauts were not sloppy, inebriated, or clumsy in the way of the drunken body. They were in an ecstatic state, a mystical state. They believed that their senses had been heightened by the drug, and they considered sex under those conditions to be tantamount to paradise.

This was not the drunkenness that impeded the sexual performance of the Dead Kennedys, or the suppression of sexual desire caused by heroin. To the contrary, the psychonauts were not sloppy, inebriated, or clumsy in the way of the drunken body. They were in an ecstatic state, a mystical state. They believed that their senses had been heightened by the drug, and they considered sex under those conditions to be tantamount to paradise.

Psychedelics were said to create both a numbing of and a perception of engorgement of the genitalia, which did not serve an aphrodisiacal function so much as it allowed those interested in sex to prolong and intensify their experience. Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1965, Arnold Ludwig1 noted

Although it takes longer to reach climax, the orgasm is greatly prolonged and heightened. Some patients claim that “there is nothing like sex” under the effect of these drugs; “It’s just wild.” For example, “If you fondle a woman’s breast, she becomes the whole breast,” and when orgasm is finally achieved, “it feels as though it’s spilling right out of you.” (Ludwig, 1965)

Writing in Playboy two years later, R.E.L. Masters2 zeroed in on a particular genre of sexual experience when extolling the virtues of psychedelics. His research found that psychedelics did not enhance casual sex, nor did they tend to enhance sex between men (though he did report it enhanced sex between women). He argued that they had the greatest positive effect for people in long-term, heterosexual relationships. They served to spark a return to the first flush of love, causing partners to see one another as possessed of “extraordinary radiance and beauty.” Their effect was also to produce a sense of timelessness in the sexual encounter, in part due to the anesthetic effect of the drug on the genitalia, and in part due to the time-bending quality of the drug experience.

As to the claim that these drugs were aphrodisiacs, Masters wrote

To determine whether psychedelics drugs are, indeed, aphrodisiacs, we must first determine what we mean by an aphrodisiac.  If we mean that the drugs specifically excite the sexual organs, then psychedelics are not aphrodisiacs…If we mean that they produce or encourage sexual desire, again they are not aphrodisiacs.  But if we mean that the drugs can profoundly enhance the quality of sexual acts that occur between people who would, in any case, have had intercourse, then the drugs are aphrodisiacs…

The sexual union gathers ever more meaning and beauty as it progresses. It may even take on symbolic and archetypal overtones.  The couple may feel that they are mythic, legendary, or more-than-human figures as they act out in a timeless and beneficent space of eternally recurring drama of love and creation.  The feeling of being more than human does not indicate grandiosity but, rather, that one has transcended the ordinary boundaries of self, the limits of time and space, so that something more, some infusion of the divine or supernatural, must have occurred.  This awareness is accompanied by profound feelings of security, tenderness, humility and gratitude.  Sometimes only one partner will enjoy this transcendental experience, but with surprising frequency the feelings are shared.” (Masters, 1967)

Let us be clear. Masters was not talking about people who were incapacitated (falling down, slurring their words, losing consciousness) by the drug effect. He was also describing something very different from a conscious effort by one party to incapacitate another. Still, this is also where the tangle of the present day begins to catch up to us. In our current moment, consent must be enthusiastic and ongoing, and it cannot be ongoing if the consenting party is unable to give consent because of intoxication.

When you ask the individuals who participated in those experiments with psychedelics in the 1960s, both men and women, they often tell you that the sexual liberation they experienced in those moments was life affirming, transcendent, and transformative.

Obviously, psychedelics are not the same as alcohol, though there can be no question that these substances cause shifts in perception that could be classified as forms of impairment. Nonetheless, we are confronted with a serious question when we ask whether or not someone under the influence of psychedelics can consent. When you ask the individuals who participated in those experiments with psychedelics in the 1960s, both men and women, they often tell you that the sexual liberation they experienced in those moments was life affirming, transcendent, and transformative.

I have never asked anyone who lived through that era about consent, but I suspect that they would find the question a little strange. People who grew up in different places and eras often find the current way we talk about consent in North America to be a little strange, not so much because they treat sexual assault casually, but because they assume that a great deal of the sex that takes place on the planet involves some degree of intoxication (here, we are not talking about blackouts or binge drinking), and they don’t tend to associate a certain amount of drunkenness with the absence of consent. In vino veritas, they say. Weirdly, this sentiment lines up closely with the core assumptions in Masters’ Playboy article. The assumption he makes is that the people he spoke to in his research wanted to have sex.

Can two people (or more, I suppose), choose to consume a psychedelic in anticipation of a sexual encounter, and maintain enthusiastic consent? Masters would not even think to ask the question, and in some sense, that suggests that we have come a long way since then. But that path is also filled with pitfalls, as we struggle to figure out just what consent is in the twenty-first century. I think that there are probably lessons to be learned both from the panic of the early twentieth century missionaries and the libertine sensibilities of Playboy in the 1960s. Honestly though, I am not sure I know what those lessons are.

References

  1. Ludwig, A. M., & Levine, J. (1965). Patterns of hallucinogenic drug abuse. Journal of the American Medical Association, 191(2) 92–96. doi:10.1001/jama.1965.03080020020006
  2. Masters, R. E. L. (1967, November). Sex, ecstasy and the psychedelic drugs. Playboy.

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