Annie Oak is the founder of the Women’s Visionary Congress. She gave this talk at the Shaman Women, Plant Medicine and Psychedelics Salon hosted by WVC in Vancouver, Canada in November 2014. This presentation addresses the growing number of women who have described being sexually abuses by shamans and others who lead ceremonies where psychoactive substances are used.
I am grateful to be here today and would like to thank Eleanora Molnar, the director of WVC Canada, for organizing this weekend of events. We had a very interesting community discussion last night about different ways that power can be misused in ceremonies and steps that participants can take to protect themselves. In my talk today I would like to consider what we as a community have been hearing about these abuses and how we might work together to help ensure that women and men are treated with dignity while exploring the potential healing benefits of ayahuasca and other psychedelic materials used in ritual settings.
As I said last night during my remarks, our community has been discussing this topic among ourselves and at our gatherings for several years. We are a group of women who are generally well-informed about the benefits of these substances and believe that these materials and ceremonies that use them can offer positive opportunities for healing and growth. As many of us have been using ayahuasca and other psychoactive substances for years, we do not have the zeal of new practitioners who tend to take an uncritical view of these experiences. We have been meeting together since 2007 and we are observing a growing number of women who are coming forward to describe sexual advances by male shamans, particularly, but not limited to, ayahuasca ceremonies. We also hear from those who describe being energetically violated in different ways. As the number of people from around the world traveling to Peru, Ecuador and other parts of Latin American to drink ayahuasca has increased, so have reports of abuses by people leading these ceremonies.
WVC hosts discussions throughout the U.S. and in Canada where researchers, healers, activists and artists present their investigations into non-ordinary states of consciousness. We have had a number of presentations by researchers about the abuse of power in these ceremonies and some of these presenters have published research which examines these concerns. As a community, we strive to be measured and careful in our investigations. We like to cite documented research and we recognize that scientific investigation and lived experience should both be honored as ways of knowing and given respectful consideration. When women at our events come forward to tell troubling stories of being assaulted by shamans during ceremonies and after ceremonies, we recognize that this takes great courage and can sometimes re-trigger trauma that these women experience.
Elders in our community have noted that these accounts echo what took place during the 1960s and 1970s when some practitioners of eastern spiritual traditions abused women from western cultures who sought to understand and participate in these teachings. It’s the old, “I am your guru, let me transfer my great wisdom by having sex with you” routine. This is an old story. But as we heard earlier from Connie Carter in her presentation, it has also been used by those supporting drug prohibition. The earliest laws passed in the U.S banning the use of substances were laws against the use of opium. The argument for these laws was that white women were being seduced by Chinese men who used opium to disable them and therefore opium should be made illegal. This was the basis for the cascade of drug laws that followed which has led to mass incarceration of drug users in the U.S., primarily people of color.
So the question remains, how do we create a system of accountability for those who misuse their power as healers and abuse women seeking personal healing or transformation with ayahuasca and other psychedelic substances? And how do we do this without supporting prohibitionists who might try to use these concerns to call for outlawing substances such as ayahuasca – arguments that may be inflamed by media accounts that suggest this powerful medicine is being used as some sort of Amazonian date rape drug.
First, we would like to caution those who find ayahuasca and other substances useful to be careful not to become enchanted or fall under their spell in a way that discourages critical thinking. We also see that ayahuasca ceremonies are becoming a big business and many shamans, ceremonial leaders, tour operators, owners of lodges and other parts of this industry have a vested interest in not discussing this topic, silencing those who have been violated, or somehow denigrating this discussion. I want to say here that WVC has no financial interest in this industry. We are a nonprofit and members of the board are not shamans or therapists. Our concerns are with the health and safety of our constituency, visionary women and people of all genders who are interested in non-ordinary states of consciousness.
I believe that the opportunity to work with non-ordinary states in an environment that supports the health and safety of participants is fundamentally a human rights issue. Women and men have a right to change their consciousness and work with spiritual teachers without being assaulted or abused. It does not matter what culture or country they are in. There are criminal laws in Ecuador and Peru against sexual assault. Sexual abuse is considered a violation under international human rights accords and is investigated by truth and reconciliation commissions and international criminal courts. It doesn’t matter if these assaults take place while using an illegal or quasi-legal substance. This is a criminal act. Those who call themselves healers have an ethical duty to refrain from sexual acts with people under their care no matter if they are western doctors or therapists or traditional shamans. Failure to do so is an abuse of power.
The Use of Disabling Substances
Some criminals use psychoactive substances to disable their victims and some unscrupulous shamans have also used these methods to assault women. There are very well-documented cases of travelers in Latin American, especially in Colombia, who are poisoned with the drug scopolamine, for example. Scopolamine is a tropane alkaloid, also known as burundanga, which is derived from plants in the solanacea or nightshade family such as the borrachero tree or datura which is found throughout Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and other parts of the world.
Scopolamine is used to treat motion sickness, but it is also used by criminals to rob and assault people because it renders victims incapable of exercising free will. It’s odorless and tasteless and victims are given this material in food or drink, or blown into their face as powder, or dissolved in alcohol and rubbed in the skin – and then, robbed, raped or taken to ATMs where they withdraw funds and hand them over to their assailants. Scopolamine erases the memory and victims often find themselves coming back into awareness many miles away not being able to identify their attackers. The U.S. State Department has cited thousands of cases of scopolamine poisoning in Colombia each year.
This substance has also traditionally been used in small quantities as an admixture in ayahausa brews and some people who call themselves shamans have used higher quantities of this material, also known as toé, to poison and abuse participants during and after ayahuasca ceremonies. We have heard of several cases of women who have experienced this kind of violation and been assaulted over a sustained period of time. This does not necessarily mean that they have been poisoned with ayahuasca, which is a point that may well be lost in the media coverage of this phenomenon. But rather people presenting themselves as shamans have used this well-established substance to sexually assault participants in ayahuasca ceremonies and afterwards, especially the foreigners who are flooding into Iquitos and other centers of ayahuasca ceremonies. At higher dosages toé can be fatal and indeed there have been accounts of poisonings in which those targeted have died. When I visited Colombia a few years back, I was cautioned never to leave my food or drink unattended and to think twice about accepting consumables from strangers outside of a bar and restaurant setting. This was good advice, I followed it, and I’m glad I did. The most important step to defending oneself against the use of scopolamine for the purpose of sexual assault is to be aware of its power.
Examining Sexual Abuses in Different Cultural Settings
As the role of scopolamine poisoning is well-documented as a tool in sexual violations, social science researchers have also recorded incidents of sexual abuse by those who lead ceremonies – and the response of the communities that they are part of. This research makes clear that sexual violations are also condemned by users of psychoactive materials in traditional and indigenous cultures. The psychologist Clancy Cavnar gave an interesting presentation at the World Ayahuasca Conference this year entitled, “Reflections on Spirituality, Gender and Power in my Experience with Santo Daime.” Cavnar wrote a doctoral dissertation on the experience of gay people who used ayahuasca promoted by her largely positive experience in the Santo Daime church. She notes that the religious use of ayahuasca by the Santo Daime, as practiced in Mapia, Brazil, the place where she participated in the ceremonies, is sexually very conservative and places strong emphasis on the segregation of the sexes and virginity.
Cavnar notes in her talk that in 2008, the U.S. Santo Daime church was thrown into turmoil involving a prominent Padrinho, or Santo Daime ceremonial leader, from Rio de Janeiro who was revealed to have had a history of sexual impropriety with female Daimistas both in Brazil and North America. The Brazilian Santo Daime church refused to sanction this Padrinho for an unwelcome sexual encounter with a Canadian woman which led to his being banned by the U.S. Santo Daime churches from leading ceremonies in the U.S. for two years. Cavnar notes that this Padrinho never acknowledged his actions and even claimed that invisible forces were trying to destabilize the Santo Daime. This came after a period when this man appeared poised to become the Brazilian leader of the North American Santo Daime communities. At an annual meeting of the Santo Daime in the U.S., this man’s wife, one of the daughters of a founder of the church, accused those who did not support his leadership of being possessed by devils.
The ban against this Padrinho did not last long and his prominence faded in the U.S. But these incidents did open up a dialogue about cultural differences of Brazilians versus North Americans and the treatment of women. After this Daime leader was exposed, Cavnar notes that a wealthy female benefactor and pillar of the church in California left the Santo Daime in disgust when she learned that this Padrinho had previously accosted a woman at a ceremony she held in her own home where she had hosted him as her guest. This left the California church in disarray and the community was forced to regroup. During this time, Cavnar noted that some Daimistas in North America began to question their allegiance to Padrinho Alfredo who is the current leader of the Santo Daime.
Cavnar and anthropologist Beatriz Labate have also approach this topic in an excellent book they edited together called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond which is part of the Oxford Ritual Series published by Oxford University Press. There is an excellent chapter in this book entitled, “Ayahuasca’s Attractions and Distractions: Examining Sexual Seduction in Shaman-Participant Interactions” written by anthropologist Daniela Peluso. The central locus of Peluso’s research is Puerto Maldonado, Peru where she has conducted fieldwork for the last 20 years. Peluso notes in her essay that sexual abstinence is often part of the overall dieta that indigenous and mestizo ayahuasca shamans undergo restricting certain foods and sex and which is expected of shamans in training. She documents how some participants have been sexually assaulted while they are experiencing visions -such as one shaman who placed his hands on a female participant’s belly to help with nausea and then put their his down her pants and tried to lie next to her. Peluso notes that this woman felt abandoned by her shaman who was meant to guide her experience and she spent their sessions trying to resist her visions. While some so-called healers who engage in these abuses are clearly fraudulent shamans, Peluso writes that the shaman in this case was well-known and respected. The woman he assaulted kept thinking about what she might have done to make him think that his act was acceptable – the classic case of a victim blaming herself. She never drank ayahuasca again.
Peluso notes that some who heard about this incident brushed it off saying, “This is how men are here; you just need to tell them that you are not interested. It’s not a big deal.” I agree with Peluso’s view that this response completely sidesteps the question of ethics because it absolves the perpetrator and places the burden on the victim to repel these advances based on their character and understanding of local culture and gender relations. Peluso also notes that some women have reported “falling in love” with shamans and expressed that sex was a potentially fulfilling aspect of the ayahuasca experience. Ultimately, Peluso believes, and I agree with her, that accountability lies with the shaman who is responsible for resisting their own possible arousal and not attempting to seduce women who participate in their ceremonies.
Peluso also notes that some women interested in spiritual haling are sometimes themselves victims of sexual abuse and thus find the sexual advances of shamans especially emotionally damaging and exploitative. Peluso notes that this problem is compounded by a tendency to idealize shamans and overlook the fact that shamans are humans who have flaws. She points out that indigenous women are also sometimes harassed within the context of traditional ayahusasca shamanism. Non-indigenous shamans, who are aware of the allure and mystique surrounding people’s ideas about shamans, must also, of course, be held to the same standards. In her study, Peluso finds that people generally respond negatively to a shaman’s inappropriate sexual advances and female participants feel vulnerable, ashamed, exploited and betrayed. Male onlookers are disturbed and confused. Both assume that the shaman and his assistants are taking advantage of their power and status and participants become unsure of roles, methods, and boundaries. In these cases, people feel that the shamans have undermined their trust they have given them as guide, caretaker and healer. Many feel that their experience of ayahusaca and their outlook toward it has been tainted.
Some who weigh in on this topic argue that people from the U.S., Canada and Europe are imposing our own values on sexual behavior on shamans who are acting appropriately within their own culture. But Peluso notes that examination of local and indigenous social norms reveal that such behavior is also frowned upon by people from those cultures. She notes that in Puerto Maldanado where she does her research, the indigenous and non-indigenous people do not feel that sexual relations of any degree are acceptable between shamans and participants in their ceremonies unless there are preexisting and legitimate relationships that occur outside of the ayahuasca experience and ceremonial context. Peluso notes that there is significant social criticism when these norms are violated. The women she has interviewed who have experienced these actions attribute them to abuse of power both in terms of gender and community norms. When shamans use their power to intimidate or try to seduce female participants, they see it as a way to impose physical and political dominance over women. Peluso notes that many women in Latin American cultures are reluctant to drink ayahuasca with an unknown shaman unless accompanied by family, friends, or their children, and even then sexual harassment may still occur. Some tourist websites for ayahuasca package tours are addressing this concern by working exclusively with female shamans. In her essay, Peluso quotes the website of one such operation in Peru which describes their service like this:
“Ayahuasca facilitation in Peru has typically been a male dominated world. It is not uncommon for male shamans in Peru to misuse their leadership role to seduce unsuspecting foreign women that come to them for shamanic healing. The fact that we almost exclusively work with elder, female Shipibo ayahuasca shamans provides a safe environment for women coming to the Amazon for ayahuasca experiences…These Shipibo shamans represent the highest level of integrity that you can find anywhere in the Amazon region.”
Proactive Responses To Abuse in Ceremonies
Our community of visionary women has seen other examples of those who seek to proactively addressing concerns about sexual violation in ceremonies. Some have come forward to condemn the abuse of power by specific shamans. Here in Vancouver, a letter was circulated concerning the actions of a prominent Peruvian shaman Guillermo Arevalo, who has a strong following in the U.S. and Canada. The letter stated that Arevalo had engaged in unwanted sexual encounters with women under the influence of ayahuasca. The letter criticized Arevalo for sexual abuse of participants in his ceremonies. We would like Arevalo to have an opportunity to respond to these allegations if he wishes to, but we are grateful for the frankness of this document.
This letter has been controversial, but I think that we have a right and responsibility to be informed and not trapped by our own idealizations and romanticizations of shaman worlds and practices in Peru, Ecuador and elsewhere. Peluso notes that many of the documented abusive sexual encounters take place in areas where there is a notion that in most circumstances, women will surrender to male sexual advances if they find themselves in a vulnerable position – or merely alone with a man as such behavior is aligned with gender expectations. She notes that to circumvent vulnerability, indigenous women sometimes avoid smiling directly at men, laughing with them, paying too much attention to them, being in their presence without close kin nearby and traveling alone. These behaviors, of course, describe actions that many women from our own cultures would participate in without a second thought, particularly if they travel alone, esteem the shaman, and converse and laugh freely unhindered by local customs.
I believe that the problem of sexual assault during ceremonies is exacerbated by the meeting together of people from different cultures. But researchers such as Peloso have shown that in cultural traditions from which many shamans practice, sexual acts with participants in ceremonies is not condoned and sexuality itself is often viewed in a conservative light. I would like to see more discussion about this topic from other perspectives. The organizers of WVC want to create more opportunities for women to speak out if they feel they have been violated during ceremonies or know of these violations. We understand that this can be a scary and potentially dangerous process for victims. I also want to see forms of due process that can provide the alleged perpetrators and their followers an ability to answer charges of abuse.
I would like to close with some suggestions that I made during the discussions last night for how participants in ceremonies using psychoactive materials can take steps to help keep themselves safe. The first is to come to these ceremonies with a clear intention. Know what you want out of this experience and take stock of your own strengths and weaknesses. Take steps to strengthen and ground yourself and cultivate a spiritual practice that gives you access to spirit allies or other guardians. I also suggest that you conduct some some due diligence and check out the reputation of the healer that you are working with. Determine what other people have said about their experience with them, get references, both online and ideally in person from people who have worked with them. Third, check out the safety of the venue where the ceremony will be held or if you are traveling to another country, the place where you will be staying. Do people feel safe in these places, are there reports of women being abused while doing ceremony there or staying there? Since there are now ayahuasca and other ceremonies using psychoactive materials taking place in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, consider taking part in these rituals closer to home where you have a support network and can spend the critical integration phrase in a place where you have access to trusted counselors or other resources.
Also, strongly consider going to the ceremony with a trusted friend or group of people who can help watch over you while you are in an altered state and possibly step in if it appears that someone intends to abuse you. If you are in another country, develop a safety plan to check in regularly with friends and a create a strategy for seeking help if you get into trouble. Practice setting good boundaries both spiritual and physical. I have never been violated sexually during a ceremony, but I have been violated energetically. I practice a form of visualization that sets an energetic perimeter around myself. One of the participants in our discussion last night requested that we all do this together, which we did. Also practice your own form of a grounding ritual, consider a physical practice such as yoga that keeps you tethered to your body. Be wary of physical contact with other people in ceremonies and find a way to release the energy of others you may have collected along the way. I like the old ritual of pouring cold water over my hands after a work. Finally, consider what forms of accountability the shaman you are working with answers to. Do they have a community who reviews their practices? Is there a criminal judicial system or human rights mechanism in the country where the ceremony that takes place where you can make a complaint? Drug prohibition in many countries makes it more challenging to bring complaints, but assault is assault, regardless of the context.
WVC has posted 20 Safety Tips for participating in ceremonies with psychoactive substances on our website. If you have experiences that you would like to share, positive or negative recommendations for a particular shaman, or suggestions for safety, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If accusations are made against particular people and the accuser wishes that alleged perpetrator’s name be made public, we will attempt to contact the accused and give them an opportunity for rebuttal. I would also like to offer support for the growing number of female shamans and ceremonies that feature both a male and female ceremonial leader. This trend will potentially help encourage safer environments for female psychonauts, provide balance, and encourage more female shamans to step forward do good work. I want to close by acknowledging the wise and ethical shamans of both genders who provide compassionate healing for those who seek these experiences. We recognized that spiritual teachers who work with psychoactive materials can assist us with our spiritual development, emotional healing and personal self-awareness. We recognized that not all shamans are scoundrels. We have a responsibility as a community to acknowledge wise teachers and question those whose practices violate not only our community standards but also the ethics of their own communities and international standards of human rights.