- What Could a Conscious, Psychedelic #MeToo Look Like? - March 29, 2019
Increasing awareness of sexual abuse and exploitation by ayahuasqueros and other healers has been disconcerting for the psychedelic community, where “shamans” are often idealized and romanticized. But sexual harm by healers and others in positions of power is ubiquitous in patriarchal cultures around the globe. What the rising awareness of sexual abuse in the ayahuasca community really illuminates is that those different cultural spaces and healers are no safer than those of Western contexts, where 7-12% of mental health professionals self-report boundary violations of erotic contact with clients — a number it is safe to assume is much higher in reality.
The medicalization of psychedelics will no doubt mean we soon find our legitimized Western psychedelic gatekeepers just as imperfect as their indigenous and underground counterparts. Indeed, instances of abuses of power have already come to light among public figures and established leaders in the psychedelic movement.
In step with the rest of the world, the psychedelic community is having its #MeToo moment. While #MeToo has done wonders by amplifying the voices of some victims, calling for accountability for those in positions of power, and bringing the issues of sexual harassment and assault into everyday discourse, it has also been severely limited in its ability to transform deeply embedded dynamics in our cultural operating system.
Within a subculture that centers on the use of the world’s most powerful psychoactive plants and substances and posits their potential to effect powerful social change, I can’t help but wonder if we could find a way to do our #MeToo differently.
Within a subculture that centers on the use of the world’s most powerful psychoactive plants and substances and posits their potential to effect powerful social change, I can’t help but wonder if we could find a way to do our #MeToo differently. What could a conscious, psychedelic #MeToo look like?
A traditional nganga pressures a young initiate to sleep with him. “The medicine showed me we’re meant to be together.” A community leader leverages his status, coming on to young volunteers at his organization. A Western healer says the next step in his client’s healing is a sex magic ritual for overcoming sexual shame — to be performed together. Regardless of tradition, community, ethnicity or gender, the universal factor here is power. And where does the power lie under a near-global system of patriarchy? Disproportionately with cis-gendered men. We see endless examples of men in power — CEOs, directors, bosses, healers, psychologists — abusing power, pursuing sexual conquest and satisfaction with those they have power over; relationships that can, therefore, rarely involve true consent.
Yet, as Jennifer Patterson notes in her anthology, Queering Sexual Violence, in everyday life we are so often both victims of and perpetrators of harm — harm that is perpetrated by women and gender non-conforming folks, as well as men, against all genders. The answer used to seem so simple: put more women in power and this would not happen. So long as these power structures exist, we do need more women (and gender non-conforming folks) in power. But I am no longer convinced that institutionalizing women in power is sufficient to avoid exploitation and abuse. The problem has never been the penis. It’s the power.
Limitations of #MeToo
While many “perpetrators” have been identified in the media, little time has been devoted to identifying how and where this behavior is being taught, why it is so common, and how we shift such ingrained social patterns.
While many “perpetrators” have been identified in the media, little time has been devoted to identifying how and where this behavior is being taught, why it is so common, and how we shift such ingrained social patterns. Collapsing the victim/perpetrator dichotomy points to the futility of trying to exorcise a list of “bad actors” when the root causes of sexual repression, gender oppression, and sexual violence are woven into the very fabric of our social norms and culture.
Opportunities for education and healing are lost in the rush to separate the guilty from the innocent and then determine appropriate punishment.
Indeed, despite the best of intentions, #MeToo has also perpetuated some of the more dysfunctional aspects of the culture it critiques. “Bad actors” are blacklisted, immediately disposable. Opportunities for education and healing are lost in the rush to separate the guilty from the innocent and then determine appropriate punishment. Yet, as we learned from Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We cannot heal from the sexual violence endemic to patriarchy by using the violent patriarchal responses of control and punishment.
Focusing on the supposed guilt or innocence of those who have transgressed often leads to a lack of support for those who experienced harm. Community support in believing and supporting survivors, the creation of survivor-centered psychedelic healing circles and trauma-informed psychedelic integration support, and learning from other peers and survivors like psychologist Dee Dee Goldpaugh (who wrote this powerful piece about healing trauma with psychedelics), will be fundamental to our community healing process. In fact, all of us have work to do in this #MeToo healing moment, as we look beyond the idea of certain people being simply bad and see each and every one of us participating in the wider broken and bad systems instead.
How can we use the transparency and conversation generated by #MeToo as an invitation to call ourselves into a process of deep self-examination and education? How can we find the parts within each of us that somewhere harbor the harasser, the abuser, and even the rapist? Touching on the constructs of toxic masculinity and gender, systemic inequalities of power, and our social unease around sex, it would seem this #MeToo moment is an opportunity for all of us to find ways to unlearn the oppressor(s) within.
These transformative conversations can only take place in a social environment where it’s OK to be vulnerable about our mistakes, to reveal our messiness — the opposite environment to the one being inculcated by the current punitive model, which instills fear of being immediately labeled “bad.” Where are the community spaces for each of us to investigate our sexual histories? To unpack and question and unlearn behaviors? Perhaps we could intentionally ask psychedelic medicines to assist us in these endeavors, given their capacity to encourage self-reflection, bring self-awareness to unconscious beliefs and patterns, increase neural plasticity (easing changes in long-standing habits), and aid in the process of forgiveness of both self and other. What would a psychedelic container for this kind of work look like? (We must not make the mistake of assuming medicine will automatically help unless we consciously create set and setting for it.)
When we remove people from positions of power without simultaneously offering them a chance for transformation, we simply pass the problem on to downstream communities
The question of what to do when community members do transgress remains an important one, however. When we remove people from positions of power without simultaneously offering them a chance for transformation, we simply pass the problem on to downstream communities — a lesson in disposability learned from the other master at play here, capitalism.
Embodied and Transformative Justice
How can we keep a commitment to centering survivors’ safety and needs, while also growing possibilities for repairing harm and transforming the behavior of individuals and entire communities? The transformative justice model offers the possibility of addressing harm by relying on community members instead of the state or strictly punitive measures, holding people in their humanity even when they’ve committed acts of violence. When it works, the process prioritizes the needs of survivors and holds individual actors accountable while offering the whole community an opportunity to heal, as it learns about the systemic oppression that fostered the violence to begin with. If the person who committed harm fully participates in the learning and completes an accountability process to the community’s satisfaction, they can eventually be reintegrated.
One reason it seems particularly hard to begin and sustain processes of transformative justice is the lack of strong pre-existing communities with enough shared history and trust to carry the heavy weight of this process, which can take a great deal of time and energy over years. The short documentary Hollow Water demonstrates just how effective these kinds of circles can be for healing an epidemic of sexual abuse when there is already a strong community structure at play, as well as a shared trust in and commitment to the process by all factions of the community.
Staying present to the grave injustices around us while remaining patient enough to truly heal those patterns within ourselves and our communities can feel like a slow and painful process
This process can seem too slow and painful for some. And yet, as Tada Hozumi writes, the revolution will be titrated. In chemistry, titration is a process of slowly integrating chemicals drop by drop — allowing for a small fizz each time — to prevent the explosive reaction that would occur if they were mixed together all at once. In trauma-based somatics, we talk about working through trauma in small pieces at a time, titrating within the capacity of our nervous systems. As a somatic healer, I know that pushing too far into traumatic territory can backfire, causing an intense and retraumatizing response that undermines the healing process. Hozumi argues that our collective culture has a body and nervous system as well and thus: “Justice without titration leads to cultural re-traumatization. On a grand scale, this looks like a succession pattern of fear-based dictatorial governance. On a smaller scale, within social change communities, this looks like call-out culture.” Staying present to the grave injustices around us while remaining patient enough to truly heal those patterns within ourselves and our communities can feel like a slow and painful process — but it is, I believe, the task at hand.
Envisioning Non-Hierarchical Healing
By attributing the power of “healer” only to certain people, we disempower participants in their own healing process, and too often attract those who want to wield and abuse power to the healing professions. As both indigenous and Western psychedelic practices move further into the Western mainstream and away from traditional contexts, an opportunity for us to reframe models of healer-participant arises. Non-hierarchical healing models distribute power more equally among peers and acknowledge that each and every one of us carries the potential to be a healer.
Being a healer isn’t rocket science. It takes an open heart, deep listening, trust that the person in front of you is actually their own best expert, and then meeting that person with full acceptance and presence, while trying to keep one’s own ego out of the picture. The best healers know they are only there to facilitate participants discovering their own inner knowing and connection to source.
What if we formed groups or used our existing communities to experiment with new non-hierarchical spaces and became each other’s healers? Perhaps every month a different person in the group could take turns holding space. What if we learned from each other until we were all healers? What if eventually the word “healer” became redundant? What if we knew that the deepest healing came from our relationships to the medicines and to our communities?
At the same time, it can still be helpful to store trust in, and project our own power onto, an external “other.” In surrendering to someone else’s facilitation, we almost trick ourselves into accessing our own power, suspending disbelief in our own power by projecting it onto and believing in another’s. This model works as long as both parties know the power ultimately lies within the participant. In this way, taking turns at playing “healer,” community models of healing can thrive.
#MeToo has brought a lot of personal and collective trauma to the surface, creating ever new divisions within communities over perpetrators’ “guilt” or “innocence,” and the appropriate punishment. And yet, as those traumas splinter us into smaller and smaller groups, it seems inevitable we will find those same dysfunctions, patterns, and oppressions replicated in those places too. The trauma lives in the cultural body and, therefore, within each and every one of us.
Psychedelics and the natural world have much to teach us about the non-hierarchical models of power sharing necessary to truly reconfigure a system endemic with abuse. They also have a lot to show us about the wise use of power, power held responsibly and with integrity. And of course, they can help us look within to find, speak to, and heal the abuser in all of us. To me these teachings seem key to the next phase of this #MeToo healing process.
As we set our intentions to create containers that will facilitate it, we can listen to the plants (and chemicals) for answers. We can sit with our grief and hold space for the trauma. We can question our gender identities and socialization. We can develop a deeper sense of our own embodied “yes,” “no,” and “maybe,” and learn to better honor both our own and others’ embodied consent. We can build communities strong enough to hold regular talking circles (even in times without active crisis), and sustain long-term transformative justice processes. We can stay tuned into the othered ways of knowing we learn from altered states. Our medicine communities are blessed with access to these other forms of intelligence to help us face the hard work that #MeToo calls us to do. If not us, then who?
Art by Karina Alvarez.