Content Warning: sexual abuse, psychedelic therapy abuse
A recent controversy over allegations of abuse has roiled the psychedelic therapy community, bringing new attention to an issue that has long hidden in the shadows.
This important discussion leads all of us to ask what we can do to help ensure that psychedelic therapy is safe and ethical and how we should respond when accusations of abuse are brought to light.
In the context of psychedelic therapy, a sexual violation is especially egregious. I cannot imagine the pain and confusion I would feel if I were harmed by the person who was supposed to take care of me and assist me while I went to some of my most vulnerable places.
In the aftermath of abuse, there are questions and considerations for survivors, therapists, community members to take into account; this is not just a problem for people who have been abused to solve. Survivors may fear coming out to others about what happened to them. They may face victim blaming, gaslighting, or denial that the therapists they work with are capable of abuse. Survivors of abuse may even be threatened with legal action for defamation. In addition, those who want to confront their abusers may feel conflicted about having been hurt by a person who they looked up to and placed trust in.
In spite of this, telling one’s story can also be a liberating and empowering action, one that may encourage others to come out and seek support, breaking the silence on psychedelic therapy abuse.
I know that together, we can all stand in solidarity with survivors of harm and abuse, and take a stand against harm and abuse.
Taking a stand against harm and abuse isn’t about finding ways to identify bad actors and punish them; it’s something every member of the community, whatever their position of power or vulnerability, whatever their relationship to psychedelics, can and must navigate in their own way. Practitioners who have harmed clients can seek accountability for their transgressions if they have access to the proper support and take responsibility for their actions. I have seen brave, moving cases of individuals who caused harm owning up to it and making changes in order to repair the harm and come back into alignment with their values.
I believe that most psychedelic therapists and guides want to help their clients, not cause them further trauma. The process of therapy should be centered on the well-being and needs of the client. The pace should be guided by the client’s voice and choice. Therapists who are not getting their needs met in their personal life may seek to get those needs met through their clients. However, therapy is not the place where a practitioner should gain this from their clients; doing so is exploitative, and can quickly develop into abuse.
Processing this experience has been a rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts for me. In the end I sat down and asked myself, how can I tend to the emotion and trauma that this story triggers in my body? Can I hold it with a lot of care and love, and then come back to the table to put my energy toward supporting those who are hurting, offering an invitation for change, and upholding safety and accountability in myself and with those in my community?
I invite you to consider doing some version of that, and I hope that these considerations will stimulate deep reflection for you.
Allies can come together in so many different ways and help in the aftermath of these situations. The work of addressing sexual abuse and harm has fallen on the backs of women and nonbinary individuals, especially black, indigenous and women of color, and disabled folks, for far too long.
Together, we can get organized to better understand, address and ultimately end sexual violence in psychedelic therapy.
How Can I Respond When Sexual Abuse Happens in My Psychedelic Community or an Adjacent Community?
The first stop is to notice what this is bringing up for you. You may be feeling emotions, experiencing physical sensations, and noticing memories from your own life. You may go through a variety of emotions and perspectives about the situation. Whatever you are going through, your feelings are valid and you deserve to process them and receive support. Seek out a container that is supportive of you processing your thoughts and feelings before you go deep into them.
Next, remember that the psychedelic renaissance is embedded in a culture afflicted by patriarchy, rape culture, white supremacy and the carceral state. These systems of oppression likely influence the ways many of us think about the world and our behavior, especially the way we respond to cases of sexual abuse. For example, rape culture influences people to believe that it is up to a vulnerable person to protect themselves from sexual assault, rather than that it is up to each individual not to rape. Patriarchy confers more power to masculine dominated systems, disadvantaging and marginalizing anyone who is not a cisgender man. White supremacy and the carceral state influences us to accept the fact that the country is full of for-profit prisons where black and brown people are locked in cages in overwhelming numbers on drug charges and crimes of poverty. It takes effort and awareness to divest from these systems. We are stronger and more resilient when we undertake this task in community.
Tarana Burke, the originator of #metoo, says that it’s important to start from the premise that a person coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse is probably not lying. She advises that we start from that standpoint and then support investigation.
Psychedelic communities may consider emulating the three-step process Burke proposes: make resources publicly available for survivors of sexual violence and their allies; organize survivor leadership training to teach trainees to start their own survivor-support programs; and proliferate healing circles for community processing of sexual abuse and assault.
If there was a sexual abuse case in your community, consider holding a community circle to process it collectively. Just as you might integrate a psychedelic experience by looking at what happened and seeing how this might inform your life and decisions going forward. A community circle offers the chance for people to share what they need and what they can offer in the way of help, action and change. If you don’t know how to hold a circle, seek out a professional or follow these guidelines.
Accountability is like a muscle. It takes time to practice it and build strength. Make a commitment to building the resiliency of your personal relationship to conflict and difficult feedback. Examine the ways that your own behavior isn’t in line with your values. When we practice accountability in our personal lives with people who we trust, we can hone our ability to be accountable in larger spheres, such as at work and in the greater community. Working on your own accountability muscle will allow you to better support others in their accountability, too. Check out the Creative Interventions Toolkit for helpful resources.
Speak up. If you suspect a practitioner of engaging or being complicit in abuse or exploitation, express your concerns to them and/or their supervisor. Do not be a bystander. You may want to seek support for yourself, and communicate with others to form a plan for addressing this person and the unhealthy or abusive dynamics that you see. You may want to read the section in the Creative Interventions Toolkit about safety planning
Hold your leaders to a high standard. Psychedelic organizations, clinics and individual therapists hold varying degrees of power and status in the community; you should expect them to uphold safety, equity and human dignity.
If you are a psychedelic therapist or the leader of a psychedelic organization, strive for maximum transparency. Get well-versed in your own shadow. Set yourself up with support such as peer and professional supervision so that you can stay in integrity. Recognize the power that you have, identify the possible fail points in your organization/practice, and make the changes. Consider putting information on your public website that explains exactly how you receive and handle grievances. Present to the public that you want to be given feedback, you have mechanisms to receive that feedback, and you will take it seriously.
If someone approaches you claiming that they have been harmed, resist your own urge to try to play out a microcosm of the criminal justice system by immediately launching an investigation, holding a trial or assigning punishment to the person who allegedly caused harm. Recognize those urges as ways that the state trains us to be agents of hegemonic violence. Start by asking the harmed party what support they need, then figure out what community resources are available to help them.
Learn about Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice. Restorative justice focuses on community held, non-punitive responses to harm. Often this looks like seeking to repair the harm caused and reducing future harm. People who caused harm are supported to take responsibility for their actions and repair/redress for the victims/survivors.
Restorative Justice processes require resources and a lot of work. Do not attempt a Restorative Justice process without a trained and experienced facilitator. If you’d like to learn more about the practice, I recommend the Ahimsa Collective on the west coast and the Restorative Center on the east coast.
The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective describes Transformative Justice as the opportunity to “address the context in which harms occurred and, through a community-centered approach, catalyze long-term shifts in the very fabric of society.”
This article lays out a clear roadmap to accountability and transformative justice in psychedelic communities.
Although there are people out there with clinically significant traits of narcissism and psychopathology who cannot recognize the harm in their actions, I believe that therapists who abuse their clients may have lost sight of their values and ethics along the way.
Can we hold the belief and the confidence that with the right motivation and support, a person can look honestly at themselves and make the necessary repairs and changes? For people who don’t come around to being accountable in this lifetime, can we develop ways to sanction and interrupt their ability to do more harm without throwing them away?
One thing I have learned from psychedelics is that I can’t really change unless I slow down and take a good hard look at myself. I hope that these questions and suggestions offer you the opportunity to pause and consider how you might add your energy, knowledge and will to the equation. In solidarity, we can confront, address and end sexual abuse in psychedelic spaces. It may not happen overnight, or in our lifetime even, but it is possible, and worthwhile, to pursue.
If You Were Harmed in the Context of Psychedelic Therapy
If you have experienced sexual assault or abuse in a psychedelic therapy/ceremony context, or you feel uncomfortable or unsure about something that happened in therapy/ceremony and you want to talk with someone about it, know that you are not alone. Get support for yourself first and foremost. Check out these resources: metoomvmt.org, www.therapyabuse.org, psychedelic-survivors.com, or find a rape crisis center.
Here you can find peer-led circles for supporting survivors of psychedelic therapy abuse.
Many thanks to Andy Izenson, Esq. for their contributions to this article.
Image: Nicki Adams