As part of psychedelic.training’s harm reduction focus, we acknowledge the necessity of identifying and reducing abusive practices within the psychedelic community. This page focuses on abusive behaviors that sometimes emerge in psychedelic therapy or retreat settings, as practiced or condoned by practitioners or facilitators.
Psychedelics facilitate increased intimacy
Hallucinogens possess a notable ability to facilitate intimate bonding. When these feelings may be present, psychedelic session facilitators should ensure the participants feel physically and psychologically secure. Participants may experience effects that may rapidly escalate intimacy, co-dependence, and the impairment of informed consent, including:
- deep feeling of connection to others
- increased suggestibility and empathy with ideas similar to one’s own
- dissociative symptoms and ego loss
- religious or metaphysical experiences, which invoke magical thinking and a sense of personal significance
- re-exposure to potentially traumatic memories or imagery
- invoking emotional re-association and object transference, including trust and sexual interest that may not otherwise be present
- manifesting a sense of paranoia or suspicion, sometimes as a result of being involved in illicit or risky activities
- intensified symptoms of mental illness in vulnerable users, increasing reliance on social and economic support
Recognizing problematic practices
Indicators of potentially problematic therapy practices include:
- Lack of internal accountability and external authority. Facilitators of psychedelic session are not held accountable by any observing medical or therapy organization, or they have not been formally trained and certified.
- Use of high-risk, addictive, or under-researched drugs. Facilitators openly advertise non-hallucinogenic drugs, which may destabilize their users’ psychology or negatively impact well-being.
- Violate personal boundaries. These may be physical, emotional, chemical, social, or sexual boundaries. Participants should not be attacked, disparaged, drugged without their consent, harassed, provoked, or molested in any way.
- Sexual activity with participants who are under the influence. Group or facilitators condones sex while on mind-altering drugs, or employs drugs as “tools of seduction.” Women and other vulnerable populations are at higher risk of being targeted. Anyone who is under the influence of psychedelic should not be considered able to give informed consent, due to their ability to facilitate increased feelings of intimacy.
Psychedelics can destabilize and rearrange one’s sense of self, increasing susceptibility to the influence of others. Users who are mentally liable or require a secure set and setting should ensure they feel in control of their drug use. Personal autonomy is critical for psychedelic experiences that are safe and serve personal growth.
In addition to the above, psychedelic therapy setting should not leave participants exposed to the abuse or harassment of others undergoing the experience. These participants may not intend to do harm, and often come seeking help themselves. Upon recognizing various opportunities they have with vulnerable participants, and possibly in combination with destabilizing effects of psychedelic use, bad actors may begin to demonstrate selfish or problematic behavior. Competent facilitators should notice and moderate this behavior.
The following guidelines inform resisting of abusive practices:
- Find a reputable setting in which to participate in psychedelic therapy. Take psychedelics with an experienced clinician or therapist. Find a therapist who comes highly recommended by leaders, researchers, or publications in the psychedelic community. Avoid recreational groups and problematic organizations.
Research psychedelic retreats, therapists, and healers before engaging with them. Search online to investigate the reputation of any center you want to work with. Find former participants you can relate to and ask them about their experiences.
Take psychedelics with friends. Abuse is more common when a user participate in psychedelic activities alone. Bring a trusted companion, so that you never feel completely alone or vulnerable.
Take psychedelics with facilitators who can relate to you. If you are female or marginalized on the basis of identity or ability, ensure there are facilitators with whom you feel safe.
- Avoid organizations that enable drug abuse. Avoid groups that encourage regular use creating adverse effects and physical dependence. Seek out non-recreational groups with members who are actively involved in harm reduction, clinical research, or complementary therapy practices.
- Protect your boundaries Do not feel obliged to engage with physical or verbal contact with guides, facilitators, participants, or anyone else. Therapists and participants are not necessarily bound to any ethical or moral code, and may demonstrate misconduct or indiscretion. Maintain your right to feel comfortable and secure. If anyone offers to take away from the group, feel free to deny or ask a trusted companion to accompany you.
Psychedelic guides do not need to touch your body in ways that you do not consent to. Some physical, somatic, and shamanic therapies may involve planned physical contact for therapeutic or spiritual purposes. If you feel uncomfortable with how you are being touched, it is your right to object and raise the issue with trusted facilitators, organizers, or friends outside the session. These practices should never involve touching intimate areas.
- Look out for warning signs that your guide has sexual intentions. If a guide comments on your looks, is overly “touchy”, talks about romantic affairs, encourages pacts of silence or secrecy, discusses “love magic”, emphasizes sex-enhancing effects of psychedelics, grooms you as special or chosen, or unexpectedly offers you some spiritual or social status, beware alarmed that the guide may be trying to seduce you. The privacy and security of participants should be respected at all times.
Sexual intercourse between the guide and therapy participant is never appropriate in traditional or clinical settings. Guides and shamans are in a position of power over participants, who cannot give meaningful consent while under the influence of drugs. Abusive guides may try to coerce participants into thinking that sex may offer psychological or spiritual benefits. These offers should be considered during a period of sobriety, if at all. Feelings of attraction towards a psychedelic guide before, during, or after a session are not unusual. These feelings may be temporary or associated with the healing context, and the participant is advised to use discretion when pursuing them.
Guides should not required participants to completely undress. Some traditional rituals involve herbal baths or other activities necessitating undressing; participants should prepare by bringing swimwear or other appropriate attire.
- Consider cultural differences when interacting with native healers or practitioners foreign to you. Overt or internalized misogyny is a widespread problem in South American and elsewhere. Women should consider cultural differences or accidental sexual signaling in activities such as being alone with men, being complimentary, prolonged eye contact, and free spirited expression. Although misinterpretation is never justification for abuse, self-awareness can help prevent potential misinterpretation.
Consider local clothing customs. Psychedelic subcultures often emphasize freedom of expression; conversely, some traditional customs (in various regions where retreats are located) may view non-local women as desirable, exotic, or sexually promiscuous. For these reason: spiritual, meditation, or healing retreats may request that revealing clothing not be worn.
- Talk to someone. Whether on the spot or at a later time when you feel comfortable, find someone to talk about what happened. Reach out to family, trusted friends, or long-established community leaders. Confide in people who show compassion and have your best interest in mind.
Recovering from psychological effects of abuse
Undergoing an abusive experience during a psychedelic session can result in significant distress or trauma. Victims of abuse may not find a venue to have their voices heard or resolved. Psychedelic abuse is never the fault of the victim, and often occurs due to irresponsible behavior by facilitators.
If you have been abused, harassed, or manipulated in psychedelic contexts, you may be experiencing regular instability, dissociation, or feelings of uncertainty. It may be beneficial to seek out a professional psychedelic integration therapist to help emotionally contextualize these memories. Victims may also benefit from traumacentric therapies practices such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Radically-Open DBT, somatic bodywork and movement therapies, therapeutic massage, and other complementary therapy practices.
- Carhart-Harris, R. L., Erritzoe, D., Haijen, E., Kaelen, M., & Watts, R. (2018). Psychedelics and connectedness. Psychopharmacology, 235(2), 547-550.
- Carhart-Harris, R. L., Kaelen, M., Whalley, M. G., Bolstridge, M., Feilding, A., & Nutt, D. J. (2015). LSD enhances suggestibility in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology, 232(4), 785-794.
- Preller, K.H., Schilback, L., Durler, P., Pokorny, T., Vollenweider, F.X. (2019, Jan 29). LSD Increases Social Adaptation to Opinions Similar to One’s Own. European Neuropsychopharmacology. S226-S227 [#P.257]. Retrieved from https://bibliography.maps.org/bibliography/default/resource/15878.
- Nour, M. M., Evans, L., Nutt, D., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2016). Ego-dissolution and psychedelics: Validation of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory (EDI). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, Article ID 269.
- Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283.
- Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2011). Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects. Psychopharmacology, 218(4), 649-665.
- Phelps, Janis. (2017). Developing Guidelines and Competencies for the Training of Psychedelic Therapists. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57(5), 450-487.
- Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse. (2018, November 19). Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines. Retrieved from https://chacruna.net/community/ayahuasca-community-guide-for-the-awareness-of-sexual-abuse/.
- Sinclair, E. (2019, April 24). Confronting Sexual Misconduct in the Psychedelic Community: An Interview with Daniel Pinchbeck. Chacruna. Retrieved from https://chacruna.net/confronting-sexual-misconduct-in-the-psychedelic-community-an-interview-with-daniel-pinchbeck/.
- Fernandez, A. C. (2018). Sexual abuse in the contexts of ritual use of ayahuasca. This text is an adaptation of the original: Fernandez, 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). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326876956_Power_and_legitimacy_in_the_reconfiguration_of_the_yagecero_field_in_Colombia.
- Peluso, D. (2018, October 5). Ayahuasca’s attractions and distractions: Examining sexual seduction in shaman-participant interactions. Retrieved from https://chacruna.net/sexual-abuse-contexts-ritual-use-ayahuasca/.