The day was warm in the way that most days are in San Francisco, when the air hangs patiently without demand and the shadow of a passing hour holds no shiver. One might kneel mid-stroll to examine the labyrinthine cluster of a flower’s stamens and pistils or find striking symbolism in the city’s serpentine hills. Time might be spent contemplating weeds in the crack of a sidewalk as the struggle that lies at the heart of all existence—a truth suddenly as simple as your name. One might be on acid for the first time, like Liara Roux. Her identity as a sex worker and sex worker human rights activist is yet to be decided; that comes a few months later. And her memoir, Whore of New York, which spurred honest conversation around sex work and spoke to the healing power of psychedelics, is yet to be written; that comes years later.
Having grown up in a conservative Christian home, she was told that psychedelics were evil—worse, they could shake someone loose, and as she tells DoubleBlind, there are “a lot of people who have a tenuous grasp on reality in my family.” So, why did she do it? In his stirring poem, ‘Sometimes,’ the poet and philosopher David Whyte asks us to consider the ‘questions that can make or unmake a life; questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.’ Sometimes, the question ‘who am I?’ can only be found on the other side of doing something different than usual; forgoing the safe enclosure of certainty to go beyond the pale and thwack the dense brambles of self-delusion. Sometimes, the only way to answer the incessant question ‘what do I want?’ is to flail madly in the dark until you find the outline of an idea. There exists infinitesimal veins of possibility within the beating heart of ‘why am I here?’ so one is resigned to make something up. Like the weeds, we try because we can. Roux isn’t entirely sure why she took acid in the spring of 2014, but it changed everything. Sometimes, the weather is just right in San Francisco.
Nicolle Hodges: Then what happened?
Liara Roux: I think the choice to no longer be a Christian meant that I was going to explore these alternate lifestyles and medicines. To me, it seemed like an important part of my spirituality. I was engaging with authors like Philip K. Dick and Octavia E. Butler, among other cool sci-fi writers. Growing up in Christianity, there’s this intense black and white thinking; hardcore dualities. Tripping is uniquely effective at dissolving those ways of thinking. Of course, they still linger in my head to some extent, but over time, especially as I’ve tripped more and meditated, I’ve come into myself. It feels like it has less of a toxic hold on me.
NH: Where have you landed today with your belief in God or the concept of?
LR: We’re living in a reality where some things are not quite right. It’s through things like tripping or meditation, and paying attention to what some might call your higher power or true self, that you can see there’s so much goodness in everyone and everything. I’ve tuned into that. It has led to experiencing this realm of existence in a much more beautiful way.
I’ve always been a big believer in love. Actually, I’ve been looking back at Madeleine L’Engle’s books. They were given to me as Christian texts, but I think they’re pretty gnostic. She talks about love and that there is always magic that happens in it.
NH: It seems full-circle to return to these texts. Your perspective has changed so your interpretation is different.
LR: Even with the Christian stuff, I was always drawn to Jesus’s teachings and the Old Testament. Paul’s teachings didn’t sit well with me as a kid. I would always argue against them in church, even when I was little, like, ‘why is this?’ Revisiting Jesus through this gnostic lens of him not being necessarily associated with Yahweh, who is this vengeful, warlike God of the Old Testament, but who is more loving. He tells people to look within themselves, to love and take care of other people, not to kill. I think people are down with it.
NH: I’ve been reexamining Jesus lately too, especially the cycle of crucifixion to resurrection through a lens of mythology and archetype. The origin of the word ‘sin’ actually comes from archery, and meant to miss the mark or to be out of alignment. To ‘sin’ is to be out of alignment. I kept thinking that in terms of Jesus, if he died for our ‘sins,’ then he is the embodiment of the shadow within us that we externalize in order to kill. All we end up doing is prolonging our suffering. When you’re not able to go within and integrate your shadow, you externalize your pain and project onto others. The idea that Jesus ‘died for our sins’ can be seen as a symbolic representation of the importance of confronting and integrating our own dark aspects. I think what he says on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,’ speaks to the importance of compassion in the face of that unconsciousness. It feels like the ultimate act of love, and a commitment to transmute shadow into light, to forgive others, and hold space for mistakes without judgment.
LR: It’s so hard, but so important. Maybe there are people out there who have mastered it, but certainly not me.
NH: I am trying my best.
LR: It’s hard in this world. It’s hard.
NH: What we’re talking about here is trauma, which opens us up to the mainstreaming of psychedelics. Do you think everyone should have access?
LR: I don’t think everyone is necessarily ready for psychedelics. Your set and setting are really, super important. Whenever I’ve offered psychedelics to people, and they say, ‘No, it terrifies me,’ I’m like, ‘OK, good for you. It’s just not for you right now.’ If you go in and you’re terrified of it, you might have a good time, but you might really not. You might carry that feeling in. It’s better to be in a place where you feel comfortable and safe about doing it rather than forcing yourself to do something that’s just not good for you right now.
I worked with this amazing therapist while I was in San Francisco. One of the things that she would say about any kind of healing practice is that whatever your response is in the moment is the right one. You ultimately know what is best for yourself. When you start trusting yourself and letting yourself do what it is that you need to do, you’re going to know how to heal yourself. It’s by resisting that you often end up hurting yourself more. To me, hearing that was scary and terrifying because I had this crazy Christian upbringing where I was like, ‘Well, what if what I want to do is hurt someone; isn’t that bad?’
And she’s like, ‘But do you really want to hurt someone? Why do you have this idea that you’re this bad person that wants to hurt people? You just want to feel better. Setting boundaries for yourself is not evil or bad. You’re not trying to hurt people by doing that.’
I did this therapy session long after I’d done a bunch of psychedelics. Internalizing that helped me understand how I think people should approach psychedelics, which is to incorporate them if it feels like it’s right. If doing it in your living room with a loved one feels right, do that. If going to a fancy retreat where doctors will take care of you feels best, do that. There are obviously ethical concerns around exploitation, especially Indigenous people who are not being paid properly or harm caused to rainforests where ceremonies are taking place. I think that needs to be addressed. But, it’s expensive, time-consuming work, and while we’re under capitalism, people charging money for their expertise is not inherently evil.
NH: I recently wrote a piece for DoubleBlind that looked into retreats, clinics, and underground offerings. One of the messages that kept coming up was that no one should be doing psychedelics without a professional. The “governing body language.”
LR: Of course. It’s how people are going to make money from psychedelics. If they say you can’t access this, if they’re gatekeeping and they’re saying you have to pay me to have this experience, they are obviously going to be able to profit. It’s why doctors, well, not all doctors, but doctors, in general, have pushed people to need a prescription to use certain medications in America that are offered over the counter in other countries. Unfortunately, it’s extremely common. I think professionals have a lot to offer, especially for people who are in delicate states and want someone who is experienced to guide them.
A lot of these [plant medicines] are available for free like in the wild. People have accidentally been tripping for centuries. How did we first learn how to do this? There are certain [psychedelics] where medical tests should be done before taking them because they can affect your heart, but for something like mushrooms, as long as you know what medications you’re taking to make sure you’re not going to have any negative interactions, it’s relatively safe if done at a reasonable dose. I think it’s greedy of people to say otherwise. A lot of the people who would benefit the most from these medicines are people who are really going through it, and they’re often just not going to have the cash.
NH: I think about that a lot too. Hopefully, with leniency comes widespread access for those who want and need it. The more options, the better. And the more education around those options, the better.
LR: Exactly. We watched this with weed. First, it was super gatekeepy. You had to get a prescription and have cancer or something. Then doctors popped up everywhere, and they’re like, ‘Just tell me you have headaches; say you’ve got something.’ Eventually, ‘If you’re over a certain age, we trust you to be able to handle this.’ Now weed is a soccer-mom favorite.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing ends up happening with psychedelics. Obviously, they’re very different. I think mushrooms and LSD are much more intense. People should approach them with respect and caution. But at the end of the day, it’s so much safer than alcohol. I think we’ll be fine if people are able to take psychedelics by themselves.
NH: When you bring up alcohol, what we’re really talking about is a cultural shift. Alcohol is supported by our cultural infrastructure around what it means to unwind, celebrate, mourn. Humans will always seek state-shifts. Alcohol is a state-shift that is no longer serving, but if you think about culture as a slow-moving barge, there are undercurrents of change happening to steer it in a new direction. That takes time.
LR: Personally, I don’t think alcohol is necessarily as evil as a lot of people make it out to be. It’s addictive and it’s a serious health issue if you overindulge, but I also think it’s not necessarily the worst thing either. If a mom wants to have her glass of red wine to unwind at the end of the day, I’m all for it. If that makes her life more beautiful and fulfilling, then it’s fine. I think what’s interesting is exploring how alcohol has taken hold of nightlife. I think her name is Michelle Lhooq, she’s doing these mushroom parties where instead of serving alcohol, they give people mushroom gummies. That’s fascinating because having thrown parties, it’s crazy how much of it is funded by alcohol sales. It becomes really hard to throw these community events for people in these beautiful spaces without alcohol funding it. Thinking about how these things might look different if we’re using different substances, how people might treat each other differently, and how ticketing might be done differently, is all super interesting to me.
NH: Which ties into how consent can exist in these spaces too. When you take consent by definition, one cannot give it if under the influence. How do we create a framework for consent that isn’t at odds with the reality of the spaces we occupy?
LR: There are gray areas of consent. It’s something that sex workers have been shouting about for years. There’s this idea of enthusiastic consent which, again, is very black and white thinking. It’s damaging. People may say yes for all kinds of reasons that aren’t enthusiastic. As a sex worker, I’m not enthusiastically saying yes to every single one of my clients. It’s just not realistic, you know? But it still doesn’t mean that I’m not consenting. I think it’s really easy to default to this way of thinking because you can say, ‘If you check off this box, then what you’ve done is fine.’
But people can coerce someone into giving false enthusiastic consent or maybe someone is consenting for other reasons and they fake enthusiasm. If a boss is hitting on someone and she acts super excited about it because she’s terrified, I think power dynamics are so, so, so complicated, especially with capitalism intertwined. Often in a ceremonial space, there are different power dynamics. If it’s someone’s first time tripping versus the other person having tripped a million times before, it’s a power dynamic. I think we just need to get better at talking about these things.
I read a Mary Gaitskill essay recently where she writes about this experience that was terrifying for her. She was doing acid, which was common for her at the time, and she was with this guy who she had no idea who she was. I think this was in the 80s or 90s. He really wanted to have sex and she didn’t want to, but she didn’t know how to say no because she was tripping. She went along with it. She writes that for years, she had basically described herself as being raped in that moment. Then she went back and decided that the guy hadn’t raped her because she had said yes. Maybe she hadn’t said it enthusiastically, but she had consented. It was still a violation and a traumatic experience for her.
Obviously, the guy should have done better and should have made sure that she was enthusiastic about it, but it’s hard to know. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. I think we need to make space for people to be traumatized without the other person having done something that we think of as sinful or evil or horrible and that they must be expelled from the community.
A lot of people need to talk about how a lot of their sexual experiences, even if they consented to it, even enthusiastically initially, are just not great. They can be traumatizing and terrible, but aren’t necessarily a hundred percent the fault of the person that they were having sex with. It’s obviously so, so, so complicated. Given society and capitalism and patriarchy and power, it’s nearly impossible to entangle. Add substances into it and it becomes even harder. I don’t know.
NH: We’re in such a weird time because in so many ways we’re trying to dissolve the binary or black-and-white thinking, as you’ve called it, but when it comes to consent, we’re reinforcing it by falling into simplistic notions of good or bad. This approach fails to hold the complexities of human interaction and overlooks the nuance necessary for reparation that moves beyond punitive justice. The growing use of psychedelics in intimate spaces necessitates a new model for consent that moves beyond the limitations of the current, sober-only paradigm. Insisting on enthusiastic and ongoing consent, without recognizing the possibility for other truths and experiences to simultaneously exist, restricts constructive discourse and impedes our ability to learn and grow.
LR: It creates this sort of legally-binding document somehow. Like, as long as you conform to X, Y, and Z, it’s all good. Are we really like that? We’re way too complicated to be held to something like that.
NH: How do we begin navigating this?
LR: I think we start by looking at these negative experiences as traumatic and something that deserves a lot of care. If you have one of these experiences with a partner, being able to process it without necessarily labeling it in a certain way. Just to say, ‘that experience really hurt me,’ and then the person being able to hold space for you. That’s often what can prevent the experience from being even more traumatizing. If they are like, ‘I had no idea you felt that way, we’ll never do that again’ or ‘we’ll talk about it before we do it again’ or ‘what do you need right now to feel better?’ It’s these reframes where it’s less about arguing about who is right or who is good or who messed up, and turns it into, ‘you’re hurting and in pain, what can we do to make you feel better right now?’
This is ultimately so much better for the person who has been hurt. I’ve had experiences in my intimate partnerships where maybe I consented but then something didn’t feel good or there was this miscommunication. I was dating this guy who would get super horny in his sleep. He would start trying to have sex but he wouldn’t be conscious and I wouldn’t be into it. What do you do with something like that where I now feel traumatized? Calling him a rapist in that instance wouldn’t feel right either because he wasn’t conscious while he was doing it. For me, what was important was that it didn’t happen again. We figured out why it was happening so he could stop the behavior and make sure that I felt safe, good, and reassured. It was a revelatory experience for me to feel held and cared for through that. I could have easily had a negative reaction and been upset or blamed myself, or he could have said that it didn’t happen. But we figured it out. He changed his bedtime routine so that he was actually getting proper deep sleep. It could have been really stressful or relationship-ending if either of us had handled it differently.
NH: The pain and discomfort of the situation created an opportunity for the healing of the situation itself.
LR: Yeah. This shitty thing happened and we fixed it together as a team. If it had been a more explicit violation it would have been harder to navigate because there’s a certain level of trust that’s broken. When I had a partner who did actually rape me in a way, where I had clearly said that I wasn’t interested and they continued to do it, that becomes so much harder to deal with. That is where it becomes exploitative and abusive. That’s something that needs to be addressed with firm, active boundary-setting that is more aggressive, especially if they are trying to place blame or control the situation or allow themselves to continue doing whatever behavior was hurtful.
Also, tolerating it. Choosing to stay in the relationship and choosing to continuously have my consent violated felt so much more violating, whereas the other situation [with the sleep sex] where my consent was technically being violated, the person addressed it and the situation was handled.
NH: Which is such an interesting facet of the conversation around the aftermath of a consent violation being more of an ongoing process than a fixed rule. This is a much larger conversation. I want to talk about how psychedelics can help people feel more embodied, specifically in a sensual or sexual sense, which is going to mean something different to each person reading this.
LR: I think psychedelics revert the brain to a child or dream-like state, so they allow for new ways of thinking about everything. For a lot of people, their body has become something that they inhabit without much thought. People think of their body as a meat sack or they lose bodily awareness. This one person I was dating was always hangry. I would tell them that they needed to eat, and they’d be like, ‘I’m not hungry.’ But when they ate, they felt better. I didn’t understand how they were so hungry but so unaware of it. They were like, ‘Oh, I guess that sensation is hunger.’ They were so disconnected from their body that they were unable to realize that they were experiencing hunger or pain. It was extreme dissociation and a coping mechanism for things that they had experienced. I feel for them. Being on MDMA, specifically, seemed to help with being able to be in their body without the sense of fear that they usually had, which was, I think, totally life-changing.
For so many people, sex can be something that has so much loaded onto it. Past experiences, positive or negative, add up and shape how we feel about sex. When we do psychedelics, it is mind-opening. Having sex while under the influence of something like mushrooms or acid can really allow us to connect with our sexuality in a whole new way. These drugs often have an element of the sacred to them, especially if you’re doing a higher dose. It really changes your relationship with your pleasure. You realize how elevated it can be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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