When shamanic healer Phillia Kim Downs was training in Peru, she attended an ayahuasca ceremony, where people ingest a psychedelic drink under the guidance of a shaman. After she and her friend had each ingested a huge glass of the drug — they later learned it was around 10 times the amount normally given — the shaman told her, “Go outside and lay under the stars.”
“I was trying to stay open to how the shaman was guiding me, giving him my trust,” she remembers. So, she followed his instructions. Shortly after, he joined her outside and asked, “Do you masturbate?” After she nervously answered “yes,” he put his hand on her stomach, tried to pull down her pants, and got on top of her. She pushed him off and ran back inside to get her friend, who whispered to her, “He tried to do something to me, too.” Once he got back inside, the shaman locked the door and told the two women, “You’re not going anywhere.” They lay there for a while, then on a count of three, they ran for the door, unlocked it, and got out.
Downs says she feels lucky that somehow, her mind remained sharp enough to escape despite the ayahuasca. For others, that’s not the case. “Over the next 50 ceremonies I’ve participated in with a variety of shamans, I have witnessed a couple more using their spiritual powers to be sexually active or highly influential over the women that come to their ceremonies,” she says. “When you’re under the influence of the sacred medicine and your heart is blasted open, you can be much more susceptible to feeling deeper spiritual connections with one another, especially with the shamanic guide that is hosting the experiences.”
The Rising Popularity of Psychedelic Healing Sessions
People are becoming increasingly aware of psychedelics’ therapeutic potential, whether that’s in plant medicine ceremonies with shamans or in sessions with psychotherapists. This growing awareness has allowed people to heal from conditions that traditional therapies have failed to treat. What’s not always talked about, however, are the abuses of power that frequently take place within such settings.
Kat Courtney, founder of AfterLife Coaching, who studied ayahuasca shamanism and leads ceremonies herself, once witnessed a shaman forcibly kissing someone during a ceremony; he later ended up in jail for sexually assaulting someone during another one. “I hear stories almost weekly of people who experience some level of violation in ceremony and have personal experience myself,” she says.
Ibogaine pioneer and psychedelic practitioner Dimitri Mugianis has worked with several survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of shamans. “Whether it’s a western clinician or someone in an indigenous tradition, the pattern is, someone comes for knowledge and for healing and sees that the person who is the teacher, the shaman, the therapist has a skill set — and comes with the idea that that skill set comes with a moral compass, and it doesn’t.” Shamans often gaslight people into thinking their abuse is healing and may even sometimes claim that what they’re doing is part of a tradition, he adds.
This happens not just with traditional plant medicine but also in modern, western psychedelic-assisted therapy sessions. Psychotherapist Richard Yensen was found to have engaged in a sexual relationship with a patient during an MDMA-assisted therapy trial sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Therapists Rick Ingrasci and Francesco DiLeo lost their licenses for initiating sexual contact with patients during MDMA-assisted therapy sessions.
Many people who find themselves in shamanic ceremonies and psychedelic therapy have unresolved trauma, which can impede someone’s ability to have a gut feeling when they’re in an unsafe situation, says sociologist and clinical sexologist Sarah Melancon, PhD. This also means these people are at risk for being re-traumatized in these situations.
Combatting Assault and Inappropriate Behavior
MAPS recently released a statement in response to reports of sexual misconduct during their trials, which details the measures it’s taking to prevent future incidents. These include “having two therapy providers in every therapy visit, video recording of all therapy visits, monitoring of study and therapy activities, and clinical supervision.”
In the shamanic world, since some forms of healing involve touch, it’s important that shamans communicate any plans to touch a participant to that person, says Melancon. This is especially necessary if the touch could be perceived as sexual. “If someone who calls themselves a healer or therapist gets upset at your putting up boundaries, that is a major warning sign,” she adds.
While it’s ultimately the responsibility of the therapist, or shaman, or healer to, you know, not assault anyone, people can protect themselves by doing thorough research on who they’re working with and getting recommendations from others who have worked with the same practitioners. “SHAMans” — those who pose as shamans but lack training or genuine interest in helping people — are common in countries like Peru where psychedelic tourism is popular, as well as the U.S., says Adam Szetela, a visiting fellow in the history department at Harvard University and associate lecturer in the English department at Curry College.
While Mugianis has heard reports of women abusing participants in psychedelic healing sessions, he believes that having a female guide or assistant in the room can help prevent abuse. It’s also important not to idealize shamans or any kind of healer, as this can lead people to accept whatever they do without questioning, he says.
“The best thing we can do is tell people they’re their own healers. There’s no therapist, guru, doctor, or shaman that can do it all for you. The more we encourage people to take agency over their own healing, the better.”