White Shaman Preserve cave paintings, circa 3-4,000 years ago
Where would the West be if the Eleusinian mysteries continued?
‘The Erogenous Mirror’ study observed that males tend to get more aroused touching and looking at the body of another, while on average females become more aroused having their own body touched and seen (Tsakiris et al, 2018). I think the same goes for the psychedelic experience. Males peak leaving themselves, while females peak coming into themselves. Males come outward, females inward. Let me explain.
The historically male-centric psychedelic interpretation focuses on ego-death as the pinnacle of the psychedelic experience. From Huxley (1963) to Pollan (2018), this is the recurrent highlight in the majority of psychedelic literature. Some men even seek ego-death in a competitive fashion (Nolan, 2018). Like it’s the ultimate height of the psychedelic experience, some kind of achievement to unlock.
But across interpretations of the female psychedelic experience, ego-death doesn’t seem to be the primary focal point. Kim Hewitt, professor and author of Psychedelic Feminism: A Radical Interpretation of Psychedelic Consciousness?, noted patterns of acknowledged agency and subjectivity across her conversations with women in and around ayahuasca ceremonies. “The process of engaging their own agency empowers women to make choices about themselves and re-envision their world and their place in the world” (Hewitt, 2019).
I’ve also spoken with many women in and around ayahuasca ceremonies, and strangers on Reddit in the subgroup ‘PsychedelicWomen,’ and I’m beginning to notice some themed patterns of difference between male and female psychedelic perspectives. Why might this matter? Why might this be worth researching?
Whether rooted in cultural or biological conditioning, or a reciprocal mix, understanding potential sex-related differences in the psychedelic experience and interpretation could tell us a lot about what it means to be (whether male, female, intersex, or trans). It could tell us more about the psychedelic experience itself and how to best determine diverse routes of healing. The more we know about how psychedelics impact different people differently, the better we can design psychedelic trip treatment — set and setting.
Across a variety of substances, in ceremony and alone, the peak of my psychedelic hallucinations replay a recurring theme: sex. Kaleidoscopic pornographic visions of vulvas and a coital woman. She is both me and every woman who has ever been. I don’t know why this always happens when I close my eyes, somewhere near the climax of a trip, but I’m glad it does. It’s bizarre — inexplicably divine. Like looking into a microscope and witnessing a dance celebrating the base of all human life.
I’ve also experienced ego-death a few times — a pause in the default mode network (Carhart-Harris et al, 2012), departing from my thinking self and self at all, forgetting my name, sinking in or ‘surrendering’ to some stream of connected ‘oceanic boundlessness,’ and oftentimes coming back ready to shed all that came before. While those experiences have been extremely beneficial, they do not lie as the most profound of psychedelic encounters or themes. Losing my sense of self was really just the beginning.
The most profound psychedelic experiences involve ego-death along the way, but ultimately the homecoming seems to be the pinnacle. A known connection with everything, yes, but even more so, a comforting feeling recognizing and accepting my subjectivity within it. Some comfort in agency, a self-mothering of the self. The ego may come and go from the experience, but underlying all of it, a womb-like net is woven that creates meaning by shedding and renewing everything within.
Anaïs Nin reflected that on acid she felt a “perfect connection between [her] body and everything that was happening” (Nin, 1974). Is re-establishing a connection to/within the body a critical theme of the female psychedelic experience?
It could be that sexual healing (through sexual visions and embodied epiphanies) was precisely the healing I needed personally, as someone who’s felt disconnected from my body (and my sexuality) after years of cultural conditioning, body dysmorphia, self-harm, and sexual abuse (both through lived experience and intergenerational stories/memories).
But this particular sexual healing has also been shown in Yalila Espinoza’s research looking into Shipibo plant medicine rituals and practices in Peru. She observed core themes of “purification and support for reproductive health, increased sensory awareness, transforming relationship with self, empowered decision-making, enhanced intimacy with others, increased cognitive awareness, connecting with subtle energies, and connecting with God” (Espinoza, 2014).
Maybe ego-loss is less profound to the female experience — its biology, psychology, cultural conditioning, and epigenetic memory. Women have historically spent more time losing themselves into roles/flows of caregiving (this is not to say compassion/caregiving are gendered/sexed traits, anyone can be anything, but this reflects the history of most women’s reproductive lives across cultures). This inherited/inherent shutting off of the ego/internal thinker to act for (or even simply be aware of) an Other is maybe less sublime for us. Acknowledging a connectedness may be more profound to the predominantly published male perspective, but for others, when life becomes an overthinking of the other, or a recovering from another, self-nurturing is profound.
The female body has historically been left out of medical research (largely because of the added vital sign/variable: the menstrual cycle)(Seervai, 2019), and it was assumed until recently that male and female health should be treated the same. But researchers are trying to bridge that gap and address differentiated needs (NIH, 2015). The approach in and around psychedelic medicine and practices should be the same. Just as certain medical advice can’t be generalized across the sexes, neither will certain psychedelic guidance (preparation, posture, guidance, integration).
What can psychedelic outcomes and interpretations (especially peak themes) tell us about our biology? How does sex (across all aspects: biological sex, sexual health/history) impact the psychedelic experience? How could that knowledge be empowering to everybody — whether or not they identify or feel connected to their own?
These insights could not only help the psychedelic community better direct care, but could also fill gaps in modern efforts for gender and sexual equality and safety. And maybe they could help us better understand what it means to be.
Maybe these kinds of insights could inform why violent acts tend to be executed by males, and why females are more often victims of violence, along with transgender and transsexual people. Writer Rebecca Solnit addresses this in her essay, The Longest War. In it she suggests “if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively” (Solnit, 2013).
As I write these words, women in Mexico are protesting in the streets against rising rates of male-on-female violence (femicide), in a country where it’s estimated that ten women are murdered a day (Sheridan, 2020). Could psychedelics be a tool to face and better address these dark realities?
Psychedelics have recently been shown to decrease the likelihood of intimate partner violence (Thiessen et al, 2018). But how? And what does that mean for people less prone to violent behavior in the first place? In Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna proposes that psychedelics act as “feminizing agents” (1992). In other words, they allow people to be more conscious of connectedness and therefore live in greater harmony.
Kathleen Harrison, ethnobotanist, artist, and bookshop owner said to a crowd at CIIS in San Francisco for the 2018 Women and Psychedelics forum that everyone has both masculine and feminine traits within them. And although I agree with this notion, I still believe exploring sex-based predispositions and outcomes of the psychedelic experience could provide a way to address current sex-based realities and violence.
The main issue I noted reading Kim Hewitt’s paper Psychedelic Feminism (2019), is that she connects third-wave feminism, including its rejection of physiological relevance, with an embodied and somatic healing practice stimulated by a biochemical reaction. For a modern ‘psychedelic feminism’ (a term coined by artist and activist Zoe Helene) to be possible, it must encompass a deeper understanding of the corporeal, the body as it relates to inner and outer influences, past and present. And perceptions of leaving it.
Hewitt emphasizes moving beyond “consciousness bounded by the physical body” (2019). And while the body is not the only reason we experience things one way or another, it is the reason we can perceive, breathe, or experience anything. It may not create the entire view, but is it not the seat? The idea that we can achieve complete freedom/detachment from the body is an illusion. Objectifying against ‘biological determinism’ is too itself, biologically dependent. Even if we haven’t quite wrapped our heads around the connections between consciousness and physicality.
Efforts for equal treatment — and equal access to psychedelic expression — need not urge sameness. Elizabeth Grosz posited in Time Travels (2005) that modern strives against sex and gender-based discrimination/injustice/violence should recognize, rather than disregard, biological roots. Interweaving an evolutionary curiosity with new methods of psychedelic-informed sex(/ual) research might create fertile ground for societal progress — allowing more people to delve into ethereal musings.
Reacknowledging embeddedness not only in the cultural, but also in the physical — and the limits of studying one without the other — by seeking to understand more about the convergence of sex and psychedelics, could stimulate deeper understanding of what it means to be: how we perceive, how we act, how to address diverse needs, and how to better live together. ✿
Espinoza, Y. (2014). ‘Sexual healing with Amazonian plant teachers: a heuristic inquiry of women’s spiritual–erotic awakenings.’ Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Vol. 29, №1, pp. 109–120. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2013.861060
Carhart-Harris R.L., Erritzoe D., Williams T., Stone J.M., Reed L.J., Colasanti A., Tyacke R.J., Leech R., Malizia A.L., Murphy K., Hobden P., Evans J., Feilding A., Wise R.G., Nutt D.J. (2012). ‘Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 109, №6, pp. 2138–43. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1119598109
Grosz, E. (2005). ‘Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power.’ Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies. Duke University Press. Durham and London.
Hewitt, K. (2019). ‘Psychedelic Feminism: A Radical Interpretation of Psychedelic Consciousness?’ Journal for the Study of Radicalism. Vol. 13, №1, pp. 75–120. Michigan State University Press. https://doi.org/10.14321/jstudradi.13.1.0075
Huxley, A. (1963). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Harper & Row. New York.
McKenna, T. (1992). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution. Bantam Books. New York.
National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2015). ‘Consideration of Sex as a Biological Variable in NIH-funded Research.’ https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not-od-15-102.html
Nin, A. (1974). The Diary of Anaïs Nin. Edited by Gunther Stuhlmann. Volume 5: 1947–1955,. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Nolan, J. (2018). ‘Competitive Psychedelic Users Are Chasing ‘Ego Death’ and Losing Their Sense of Self.’ VICE. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5zqwp/competitive-psychedelic-users-are-chasing-ego-death-and-losing-their-sense-of-self
Pollan, M. (2018). How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence. Penguin Press. New York.
Seervai, S. (2019). ‘Closing the Medical Research Gap: Why It’s Important to Study How Disease Impacts Men and Women Differently.’ Commonwealth Fund. https://doi.org/10.26099/61m9-k921
Sheridan, M.B. (2020). ‘Tens of thousands of Mexican women protest ‘femicide,’ gender-based violence.’ The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/mexico-international-womens-day-march-femicide-strike/2020/03/08/1ca6167c-6153-11ea-8a8e-5c5336b32760_story.html
Solnit, R. (2014). ‘The Longest War.’ Men Explain Things To Me. Haymarket Books.
Thiessen M.S., Walsh Z., Bird B.M., Lafrance A. (2018). ‘Psychedelic use and intimate partner violence: The role of emotion regulation.’ Journal of Psychopharmacology. Vol 32, Issue 7, pp. 749–755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881118771782
Tsakiris, M., Maister, L., Fotopoulou, A., & Turnbull, O. (2018). ‘The erogenous mirror: Intersubjective and multisensory maps of sexual arousal.’ PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/zreku
If psychedelics can help terminally ill people accept/face death, rather than deny/resist against it, then can’t they also help humanity accept extinction, rather than deny/persist against it—without it being seen as pessimistic? Could psychedelic states show people that there is something bigger than them, and that fighting solely for the continuation of the human race——rather than giving in to the planet’s needs and other species’ best interests——is anthropocentric/misguided? Could they inform us of the best way to preserve what’s left of our planet rather than altering it continuously for our own preservation?
What would psychedelic-assisted climate action actually look like and could psychedelics shift eco-consciousness as quickly as we need it, at this point of crisis/disaster?