What do you think about when you hear the word “consent”?
I think about communication, permission, compassion, freedom, agency, respect, awareness, intentionality, boundaries, relationship, shared agreements… I think about love. I think of my own nervousness around asking for what I want, receiving, saying no, hearing no.
The word “consent” also reminds me of the times that I have neglected to ask for other people’s consent, and the trauma I have from situations that might have played out differently if someone had asked for my consent.
We all have our own ideas and feelings about consent. It’s a broad and complex topic, spanning many different interpretations, practices, and value systems. To define it loosely, I would say that consent involves a voluntary agreement, made without coercion, between persons with decision-making capacity, knowledge, understanding, and autonomy.
Whether we like it or not, consent is a part of the fabric of society and consciousness. Recognizing how consent (or lack thereof) plays into social, professional, political, physical, and sexual dynamics is a revolutionary act. Through psychedelic journeying and integration, we can increase awareness of ourselves, and of how the choices we make impact the world around us. We can even work with psychedelics to explore more about our individual relationship to consent.
Just as each person deserves the right to decide if and how they alter their own consciousness, we all have the right to decide what happens to our bodies. When we seek permission before taking action, whether that is to touch another person, take their picture or use something of theirs, we are honoring their agency and autonomy. If psychedelics are about recognizing the ways that we are all one, consent is a way for us to act as such.
This psychedelic renaissance we now find ourselves in has its own particular consent issues, from cases of therapist/guide sexual misconduct, or consent violations in psychedelic spaces, to the decriminalization and commodification of sacred medicines that indigenous peoples have stewarded for millennia. In this article, I will explore the intersections that I see between consent and psychedelics, and ways that we can all embody the values of consent in our psychedelic lives.
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Consent and Psychedelics
Most people agree that each person is, at the very least, entitled to bodily autonomy. The question of who can touch a person or interact with their body in any way is their choice.
Bodily autonomy also pertains to a person’s control over what they put in their body. Practicing consent is a way to respect other peoples’ personal agency, to be transparent about our desires, and to give others the opportunity to decide for themselves what is best for them.
A great acronym to remember for Consent is FRIES: Freely given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, and Specific. Consent is…
This means that there is no pressure, force, deception, manipulation, or intoxication involved in obtaining consent.
Someone cannot consent to sex if they are on a psychedelic. Nonordinary or altered states of consciousness (which may be induced by drugs, medicines, spiritual experiences, erotic states, episodes of psychosis, mediumship, or other types of experiences) change a person’s decision-making capacity. Therefore, their ability to give full consent is compromised. A person should have time to come down from their altered state experience and give sober consideration to a sexual encounter before it takes place.
Giving someone a substance without their knowledge, even if they are your friend or family, is a major violation of bodily autonomy. Law enforcement sometimes uses drugs such as ketamine to sedate people; in the case of Elijah McClain, this action led to his death, which was entirely avoidable.
Consent is ongoing and can be withdrawn or changed at any time. A great question to ask each other before engaging in a sexual encounter is, “do you feel comfortable saying no to me?” Remember, even if it was a “yes” earlier, it may be a “no” now.
I have found it helpful to engage in intentional experiential exercises, such as acting out various vignettes with a trusted friend or partner in which they ask me “Can we do X?” and I practice saying no. Remember, it is never too late for you or your partner to withdraw or renegotiate consent. Here are some phrases to consider as you practice exercising your “no” muscle.
A person is aware of what they are agreeing to, and that the terms won’t be changed afterward without sober renegotiation. Being informed includes having knowledge of certain things about each other before engaging in sexual contact, such as any relationships you each are in, each person’s boundaries, desires, STI testing and status, and the meaning of the encounter.
Informed consent also pertains to what someone allows within their body, including drugs of all types. We all have the right to information about the substance, such as what the ingredients are, if it has been tested for purity, the volume and concentration, and what to expect from ingesting it.
Unfortunately, prohibition has denied people this right. However, we can still practice consent by doing whatever we can to inform ourselves, such as testing and carefully weighing our substances, researching their effects, and communicating transparently about what we find.
If it’s not a “hell yes,” then it’s a no. A great response to hearing a “no” (or a “maybe,” “ask me later,” “next time,” etc.) is “thank you for taking care of yourself.”
Keep in mind, the body does not necessarily communicate to us in words, so it’s useful to get to know the language of your unique system. In my case, embodiment practices and psychedelic journey work helped me to get more in touch with how “yes” and “no” feels for me.
I began exploring how yes and no feels in my body by asking simple questions. For example, if I was feeling cold, I would ask my body, “do you want me to go get a blanket?” and I would feel a tingle in my hands and feet, a little squeeze in my belly, and a warmth in my chest. I learned to feel into my “no” by noticing the sensations and emotions that arose when someone asked me to do something I wasn’t comfortable with. I might notice my stomach drop, cold sensations in my limbs, a sharp uptick in my heart rate, flushing in my face, nervousness.
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I began to do the yes and no game every day until I could really understand the patterns and ways that my body told me what it wanted and didn’t want. Then came the hard work of actually listening and honoring my body’s choice!
This means that saying yes to one activity (like making out) does not mean yes to another activity (like having sex). Remember, psychedelics can radically alter verbal communication, even make some people go non-verbal. Couples or established sexual partners who trip together should not assume blanket consent; talk about sexual boundaries before dosing and develop a plan to increase safety and agency for everyone.
Specifically, this also applies to taking other substances. Once a person enters an altered state, they cannot soberly decide about taking more substances, so please hold off on offering other drugs to a person who is already altered, unless you discussed it beforehand and heard a clear “yes” from the person while they were sober.
And please, never dose someone without their consent. It’s rude, unethical, and downright dangerous.
Participants should always be screened before participating in a psychedelic ceremony or therapy session. A good facilitator will fully prepare each person for an experience ahead of the ceremony, giving them time to consider everything that might happen and to decide what is best for them. Members of the community have denounced a number of medicine facilitators, therapists, and unlicensed practitioners for submitting people to various physical, even sexual assaults while the person was under the influence of the medicine and in their care. These people were not informed and did not consent to such treatment ahead of time.
Next, I will explain how power comes into play in the sphere of psychedelics and consent.
Consent and Power Dynamics
What do a medicine man serving ayahuasca, a therapist speaking at a psychedelic conference, a popular electronic music DJ, the leader of a psychedelic organization, an author of a book on psychedelics, and a psychiatrist working on an MDMA-assisted clinical trial all have in common? They all have power.
All of these individuals are regarded by some as having special experience, knowledge, and influence. This reputation confers power to them, especially in relation to newcomers entering the psychedelic scene who want to learn, get involved, perhaps become a psychedelic therapist or researcher one day, or even to heal themselves. In this case, if saying “no” to someone could mean forfeiting a desirable opportunity, there is a certain pressure on that person to say “yes,” which contradicts the tenet that consent should be freely given.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Another truism is that power is everywhere, and yet it can be hard to recognize—especially for the person who holds the power.
Sometimes it is easy to see power at work, for instance, in who gets to make decisions about social, economic, and environmental issues. In psychedelic communities, clinics, retreat centers, activist spaces and conferences/events, those with power are the ones who get listened to, who have a platform, who can make the big decisions, including about who gets to participate and what happens.
Although many of us tout unity and oneness amongst all people, power is not evenly distributed in our psychedelic spaces. In order to embody consent—a voluntary agreement, made without coercion, between persons with decision-making capacity, knowledge, understanding, and autonomy—power dynamics must be recognized.
We live in a society with systemic problems such as white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, and more. Socio-cultural values and norms are often informed by these hierarchies, creating more mechanisms through which power can operate without being recognized.
Regrettably, the psychedelic “movement” is not immune to power imbalances that privilege some identities over others. I see power dynamics at play in a number of situations:
- Financial barriers limit many peoples’ opportunity to access psychedelic therapy.
- Western Medicine does not commonly recognize the larger ecological web of the human body/mind, focusing instead on a reductionist paradigm of health (often tainted by white supremacy). Many settings for legal psychedelic therapy are still incredibly clinical; in some ketamine clinics, patients pay handsome sums to prescribers and yet are given little or no psychological support or preparation for the experience.
- Although many psychedelic organizations tout inclusivity, there are so few conversations about disability and advocacy for accessibility in psychedelic spaces.
- Most media outlets are uninformed or unwilling to reconcile that scientific discoveries in psychedelic research can be portrayed in a way that harms the balance of existing healing modalities and the communities that they come from. The original example of this is R. Gordon Wasson directly violating his agreement with Maria Sabina not to publicize his experience with mushrooms by writing a TIME Magazine article about it. This led to a boom in psychedelic tourism to that region, which had far-reaching consequences (including for Maria Sabina, who died in poverty). Today, unethical and unsustainable harvesting of wild peyote and peyote habitat loss threatens the access that some indigenous peoples in the US have to their medicine. Meanwhile, some cities have decriminalized peyote and used its image in their messaging without consulting the native peoples from whom these traditions arise, or respecting their requests that decision-making regarding Peyote preservation be led by them.
- Some psychedelic research studies reinforce a cis- and heteronormative gender binary by continuing to employ a model of male-female co-therapist teams.
- Psychedelics are increasingly being commodified and corporatized, with venture capitalists tied to extractive industries attempting to assert ownership and take control of the market.
- Some leaders insulate themselves with loyal followers and then, after engaging unethically, make themselves immune to call-outs by spreading misinformation and using silencing tactics. Power becomes even more challenging to confront when a leader is unwilling to look at their power, but continues to exercise their control over others.
- Most organizations employ hierarchical structures.
- Plenty of psychedelic conferences are still dominated by white men.
Someone who is known as an influential figure in the psychedelic movement has power because of their fame, their connections, the access that this might mean for a person looking to get more involved. It may be disadvantageous to refuse this person’s advances, contradict or stand up to them, or call them into accountability. When well-known psychedelic people fail to recognize that their fame is a dynamic in the relationship, the potential for abuse and harm is increased.
“Charismatic leaders are frequently a tenant of cults and cultic thinking,” says Shay Curran, community organizer and queer performance artist. “Substances and modalities (ie: breathwork, ecstatic dancing) are used by cults to create an altered state that may feel like healing, but also may have the effect of persuading others toward a particular worldview/ideology. Organizations where psychedelics are the main event are not immune to these sinister abuses of power.”
Niki Sylva, writing on the collective wisdom of an integration community in Northern California, offers important points about power dynamics in a group setting in this Guide for Community-Led Peer Integration: “It is important to understand that people seeking [integration services] may be vulnerable. They may feel disconnected from themselves and from their communities. We must note that some people have preyed upon these vulnerabilities in a variety of circumstances, including in psychedelic contexts, even when substances are not being used.” Those who take advantage of vulnerable or less powerful people may be consciously or unconsciously doing so in order to further assert their own power and/or serve their own agenda.
When people have come forward about abuse they experienced, the people who caused harm have sometimes been sheltered and defended, for reasons such as that “they do great things for the movement,” or even that this abuse going public would “look bad” for psychedelics. This is another display of power, and the tendency for existing power structures and hierarchies to be upheld, often to the detriment and further traumatization of harmed parties.
Substances and modalities (ie: breathwork, ecstatic dancing) are used by cults to create an altered state that may feel like healing, but also may have the effect of persuading others toward a particular worldview/ideology. Organizations where psychedelics are the main event are not immune to these sinister abuses of power.
Dr. Alicia Danforth, licensed clinical psychologist and researcher, shares some important ethical considerations within psychedelic medicine in an ICPR interview: “..there are certain personality types that are drawn to situations in which they’re in close proximity to people who are vulnerable and open. They seek to manipulate, and have a very unhealthy relationship with power…we don’t have a good system for winnowing out individuals who seek to do this work who have clinically significant narcissistic traits or psychopathy.”
While we await such a system, this guide includes a system of colored flags to indicate healthy and unhealthy power dynamics within workshops and teaching spaces. Although it is catered to sex-education/kink spaces, it can easily be adapted to psychedelic communities. Use it to assess whether a dynamic in a psychedelic space could lead to harm and/or abuse.
Recognizing power dynamics in psychedelic spaces is fundamental and critical, especially for those of us who have been fortunate enough to feel the interconnection of all beings. With this knowledge and embodied experience, how do we move forward?
My journey with psychedelics has been an upward spiral of surprises, struggle, healing, and change. Part of my transformation involved claiming agency over my body and self. I did this by learning about boundaries and consent, and finding the courage to practice them. My hope is that this article inspires you to consider how consent shows up in your life.
Consent is all about practice. Dr. Betty Martin, formerly a chiropractor whose work led her to become a somatic sex educator, developed a model for consent that she fleshes out in her book, The Art of Giving and Receiving.
The framework, known as the Wheel of Consent, defines four expressions of touch/consent, based on who is touching who, and who it is for.
Through this model, we can practice and better understand our relationships to each of the four quadrants (serve, accept, take, and allow) so that we have more fluency in real-life interactions. The book offers practices to help us recover the ability to notice what we want and set clear boundaries.
Psychedelics and consent are both a journey about freedom and agency. Both tend to be done in community in some way shape or form. Both involve intentionality and awareness. And, we get better at both with practice!
If psychedelics have taught me anything, it’s that we ARE all one, and it takes self-awareness and practice to walk in integrity with that truth every day. Honoring the sovereignty we each have over our own bodies is one of many steps on the path to collective healing and liberation.