Your Digital Privacy Is Important To WVC – Here’s What We’re Doing About It

When the Women’s Visionary Congress was founded 10 years ago things were very different for people who use psychedelics for healing and consciousness exploration. The War on Drugs was in full force, and so relatively few people felt comfortable speaking publicly about their use of psychedelic substances designated Schedule I by the U.S. Government. As a result, WVC’s first website, which many of you will remember, was remarkably secure. It was a static HTML website hosted on a private server that could only be updated by a select few people. While this did make it a little more difficult to share information about our organization and events online, this was a small price to pay for the extremely high level of privacy that it afforded our visitors. No information about visitors was ever tracked or stored, so it would have been impossible for any person or organization to gather a list of individuals who had visited our website. We started out with this level of website security in order to protect the women in our community. WVC has always recognized that women are more vulnerable to legal action when they speak publicly about psychedelics because they usually have less money to defend themselves than men and because they could be pressured by authorities who threaten to take their children.

As public knowledge about the safety and efficacy of psychedelic medicines has grown, people have become comfortable speaking publicly about their psychedelic explorations, WVC staff and board members included. The board of WVC felt that it was time to expand their online outreach, and so, in 2013 we began actively spreading the word about our work through a popular and (apparently) free mail service called MailChimp and through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Reddit) in an effort to reach a broader audience. In late 2014 we launched a new website on WordPress, an open source content management system (CMS) which allowed us to become much more flexible and open with our digital communications, providing rapid updates about events, speakers, and projects to a rapidly growing network of psychonauts around the world.

However, a WVC member named John Gilmore, who is a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had concerns about the privacy of our website. He pointed out to us that our ‘Forever Free Pricing’ plan with Mailchimp, which promised us free email blasts to up to 2000 subscribers, actually came with a cost. Each free e-mail we sent out of Mailchimp included a 1×1 tracking pixel, which tracked information about the e-mail addresses and IP addresses (a number assigned to every device that connects to the internet) of people who opened and clicked on links in our emails. For the average internet user an IP address will provide information about the location of the device used.

And we discovered that Mailchimp wasn’t the only provider offering ‘free’ services with a hidden tracking cost. We learned that Paypal includes 1×1 tracking pixels in their payment buttons.

Paypal Donate Button

See this button on a website? You’re being tracked!

Common social sharing buttons such as Facebook ‘Like’ buttons, also track information about which websites their users visit.

Social sharing

See something like this? Includes tracking, even if you never click!

Many websites track users through Google’s ‘Free’ Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and even Google Fonts! In other words, when you visit any website with that little Facebook ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ button displayed, Facebook immediately receives information that you have visited the site, even if you never click ‘Like’. Similarly, when you visit any website with a Paypal button on it, Paypal knows that you’ve visited it – regardless of whether you click the button. Don’t see either of those things? If the site is using any of the thousands of ‘Free’ Google Fonts, Google has a record of your visit.

You can get a sense of whether you are being tracked online by viewing the page source of any website – in most browsers you can do this by right clicking or control clicking and selecting ‘View Page Source.’ Then click Command-F or Control-F to search for the word ‘Pixel‘. If you see a .gif file with a Width and Height of 1, you’re being tracked! Here’s an example of what this looks like in a Paypal button:

tracking pixel code
When you see one of these pixels you can feel confident that your browsing history and IP address are being tracked.

Curious to see how this works during an online browsing session? Those of us with the Firefox browser can get a good idea of who is tracking us online and what this looks like using Firefox’s Lightbeam app, which displays a handy graph of websites you’ve visited and third party sites that receive data about you. At this time, my Lightbeam shows me that though I’ve only visited 75 websites between May 24th and May 27th, 2016, my information has been shared with 259 third party websites – meaning that 259 entities may now be storing data about my location, search history, and web browsing activity.

What benefit could be so large that companies would offer us services for free, anyways? Google, Facebook, Mailchimp, etc. primarily use the data they gather to tailor ads to you – which is why you’ll probably notice ads for outdoor gear arriving on your Facebook feed immediately after you purchase that pair of trekking poles online. While many find this invasive and creepy, many others wonder why they should care at all.

Even if you’re not creeped out by personalized ads, keep in mind that information about your browsing history is stored indefinitely by the companies in question – so all of the information that Facebook gathers about your personal browsing history is stored by Facebook, and they have no legal responsibility to protect or erase it. As multiple high profile cases have shown us, the US Government is not shy about strong arming tech companies into giving up their data – often without a warrant.

WVC values our ability to communicate with a widening audience of psychonauts, and we also value privacy of our community very highly. While this type of tracking technology is currently primarily used for advertising, we recognize that we cannot predict the actions of those who may hold this data in future. And we want to ensure that the data of those people who visit our website does not fall into the hands of the wrong people in the case of a power shift. We recommend reading IBM and the Holocaust if you want to understand more about how this can happen.

So, in December of 2015 we began to take action:

  • Our first step was to turn off Mailchimp tracking so that those people who open emails from us do so without any record kept. To do this, we had to start PAYING Mailchimp a monthly fee – that’s right, to get Mailchimp to stop tracking our users we had to pay them. In other words, that Free account isn’t free – they were getting quantifiable value out of our use of their service.
  • We removed all of the Paypal buttons on our website and replaced them with custom made buttons that link to Paypal – so we can still use our Paypal account to take donations. Click here to easily make your own buttons.
  • Our website was built using Google Fonts, so a volunteer web developer created a plugin which loads the fonts directly from our server, rather than from Google – so they can’t track visitors using our fonts.
  • We removed all social sharing buttons from our website.
  • We have never, and are committed to never using Google Analytics or Webmaster Tools, Bing Webmaster, or similar to gather data about users who visit our website. If we decide that user tracking is important for our organization we will implement a tool like Piwik which gives us 100% ownership over the data gathered.

We take these actions out of a deep respect and love for the courageous members of our community. In addition, we felt it was important to share the surprising information we learned about online privacy through this process. We hope that doing this will provide other organizations with the tools to be aware when they are allowing outside groups to track their site visitor’s information. They should consider only allowing this to happen intentionally, ideally with a clearly worded privacy policy public on the website so that visitors understand the privacies they are giving up on visiting.

Want to enhance your online privacy? Here’s some great information from the Electronic Freedom Foundation to get you started:

Privacy Badger – a browser plugin from the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) that blocks spying ads and invisible trackers

EFF’s 12 Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online

Do Not Depend On Others To Keep You Safe: Knowledge is Power in Visionary Ceremonies

For the past several years, presenters and participants at WVC gatherings have been engaged in a very interesting discussion about the ongoing mass-market commercialization of psychoactive substances and efforts to regulate them. As an increasing number of people travel to Latin America to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies, we have also heard from a growing number of women who have been abused by shamans leading these ceremonies – and other rituals involving non-ordinary states of consciousness. These stories are amplified by those who seek to create regulatory structures for these experiences. I expressed my own thoughts on these issues in my presentation at the November 2014 WVC salon in Vancouver Canada.

As the debate over the proposed regulation of these substances and ceremonies has raged on during the last few months, WVC decided that the most useful contribution our community could offer is to directly assist users of psychoactive materials to become more careful and discerning psychonauts. WVC sustains itself with very little funding and does not have the tens of thousands of dollars raised by groups who claim that they will protect the visionary community. What WVC does have is a wealth of knowledge and experience freely offered by the wise women and men of our community. After consulting with our elders and others with deep knowledge of these matters, WVC has posted a list of thoughtful and practical Safety Tips for those participating in ceremonies that use psychoactive substances.

We firmly believe that the best way to secure your safety when entering non-ordinary states of consciousness is to take steps to educate yourself and develop your own plan to address potentially hazardous situations. You should cultivate your own power and knowledge instead of depending on outside groups or individuals who offer promises of safety. The unseen world is full of potential perils, but you have it within your ability to take proactive measures and effectively address potential threats. If you would like to share your knowledge to expand on our suggestions, please contact us. If you would like to help support our gatherings where this information is shared, donate your funds or your energy.

WVC will continue to discuss these important issues at gatherings throughout the year. Our next conversation will take place February 21st in Santa Cruz, California at a book launch for Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, a collection published by the Oxford University press and edited by WVC community members Bia Labate and Clancy Cavnar. I will be joining Bia and Clancy together with long-time WVC presenter Val Corral, co-founder of The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), the first openly operating cannabis collective in the U.S.  Moderated by Janis Phelps of CIIS, the discussion we will examine the parallels between cannabis, ayahuasca and psychedelic cultures and the current models of commodification and regulation of plant medicines. See you there.

This page contains affiliate links. When you purchase a book through an affiliate link, your costs will be the same, and WVC will receive a small commission. This helps us to cover some of the costs for this site. Thank you so much for your support!

21 Safety Tips for Participating in Ceremonies That Use Psychoactive Substances

WVC acknowledges that a growing number of people throughout the world are participating in ceremonies that use psychoactive substances. We recognize that these rituals can offer participants opportunities for deep healing and self-knowledge. Our community is also troubled by the fact that women who participate in these ceremonies have sometimes been the targets of sexual harassment and assault by shamans and other facilitators. Sadly, the abuse of women by people who present themselves as spiritual leaders is a very old problem that long predates the growing interest in the ceremonial use of these materials. People of all genders have been subjected to these violations.

There is no firm data about the frequency of this misuse of power and many victims are reluctant to publicly discuss their experiences. WVC is also keenly aware that stories about these types of violations are sometimes sensationalized by the media and those who seek to profit from these accounts. We make a firm distinction between the regulation of psychoactive substances and practices that could support the safety of those participating in these ceremonies. Some psychoactive substances are legal in certain countries and considered an expression of indigenous medicinal knowledge and religious freedom. Court rulings in the United States and elsewhere acknowledge that the use of these substances is protected from prosecution on religious grounds.

Traditional means of regulation for the ceremonial use of some substances have been in place for many years. Since existing laws against sexual assault are already present in countries where these ceremonies take place, we do not endorse additional government regulations, standards, or controls imposed by perhaps well-meaning groups. History has shown that these measures are often turned against users and producers of such materials and often do not reflect the values of indigenous cultures which have a deep understanding of these substances.

While we do not support additional regulatory frameworks, sexual assault is a crime regardless of the context. Everyone has a right to be treated with respect while participating in spiritual ceremonies. We support accountability for those who lead these ceremonies and measures taken by participants to proactively help secure their own safety. While many shamans and other healers act with great integrity, there are steps you can take to help protect yourself from those that do not.

Below is a list of recommendations that may help you effectively prepare for these experiences and reduce the potential for unsafe encounters.

1. Work with Women – Consider working in all female groups and or/ with a female facilitator, or at least facilitators who work in male/female pairs.

2. Conduct Due Diligence – Check out the reputation of the shaman or healer you are considering being in ceremony with. If possible, talk to people who have worked with this person and their assistants. Search online for reviews by past participants. Inquire about the facilitator, healer or shaman’s background and who they are apprenticing with. Determining their lineage and if they apprentice with those who are known to violate women provides insight into their integrity. Consider that those who work with known abusers are culpable and seek others to work with. If you cannot confirm the background of your intended healer, wait for another opportunity to be in ceremony with facilitators whose ethics you can verify.

3. Consider The Substance – Carefully consider the quality of the substance that the healer is dispensing during the ceremony. Talk to others who have ingested preparations made by the same person or group. Try to determine which substance(s) will be used and at what dosage. If you have never ingested this material, research its effects, possible benefits and drawbacks. If you are new to the material, consider ingesting at the lowest dosage offered. Erowid is a great resource for learning about psychoactive medicines.

4. Check Out Ceremonial Site – Determine where the ceremony will be held and if the location was considered safe and comfortable by past participants. Contact others who have attended ceremonies in that location. Request a description of the space and how it will be used.

5. Secure Safe Lodging – If you are traveling to participate in the ceremony, investigate the safety of your lodgings. This is especially important if you plan to attend a ceremony in a country other than your own. Determine if others feel safe there. Read online reviews of your intended accommodations. Ask for an escort if you feel unsafe en route to your lodging.

6. Find Local Ceremonies – Consider taking part in ceremonies in your own community or a nearby location. A growing number of shamans travel to locations in the U.S., Canada and Europe. These practitioners can be held accountable under laws within these jurisdictions. Determine if there is a local ceremonial healer you are comfortable working with.

7. Journey With Friends – Go to the ceremony with a trusted friend or group of people you know. While they themselves may not be able to watch over you while participating in the ceremony, having friends with you before, during and after the ritual can provide support and a familiar frame of reference.

8. Create A Plan – Develop a safety plan with friends who are both participating in the ceremony and with some who are not participating. Plan check ins with these people before and after the event. Consider asking a non-participant for a ride home after the ritual. If you are traveling for the ceremony, determine what types of supportive services exist in that location.

9. Identify Accountability Mechanisms – Determine what form of accountability exists for the shaman or healer you intend to work with. If that person disrespects or harms you in some way, what mechanisms exist to help ensure they are held accountable? Is that person part of a larger community, who can hold them to a standard of care?

10. Ask For Help – Cultivate a spiritual practice that gives you access to spirit allies or guardians. Practice asking these beings for assistance. Contact them during the ceremony and maintain an open channel with your protectors.

11. Cultivate Boundaries – Make a habit of setting good physical and psychic boundaries. Focus on this skill in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. Learn how to set a protective energetic shield around yourself and do so before the event. Understand that such measures can be modulated to permit exposure to beneficial energies.

12. Set Intentions – Come to the ceremony with a clear intention. Decide what you want out of the experience. Take stock of your present strengths and weaknesses. Prepare a question or queries that the experience may help you answer.

13. Strengthen Yourself – Cultivate your overall health and well being before the ceremony. Arrive at the gathering rested and fully present. Develop a personal ritual to ground yourself physically and mentally. If circumstances in your life have placed you in a particularly uncomfortable state of mind, address these issues prior to the gathering.

14. Focus Inward – During the ceremony, be wary of physical contact with other participants. Do not attempt to intervene or assist others taking part. Allow the leaders of the ceremony to take this role. If other participants are impacting your experience, alert the facilitators.

15. Evaluate Touch – If a shaman, healer, facilitator or apprentice touches you during the ceremony, be aware of where they are placing their hands and if the encounter feels sexual. If you are uncomfortable with this touch, express your displeasure clearly and if possible, move away. Ask for assistance from others leading the ceremony. Refuse to be victimized.

16. Take Time To Integrate – After the ceremony, take special care of your physical and mental state. Rest, hydrate, and eat nourishing food. Be aware that the process of integrating the experience can take time. Be patient with yourself and if possible, avoid especially challenging encounters in the days following the event.

17. Check In After Ceremony – Check in with the healer, their assistants and/or the facilitators at the conclusion of the ceremony. Express your impressions of the experience. If you have misgivings that you wish to address privately, wait until after the period of group sharing has concluded before raising concerns. Considering having a neutral observer present during this conversation.

18. Protect Yourself – Remain protective of your personal space after the ceremony when you may be in a vulnerable state. Those who truly care for your well-being will respect your right to nurture yourself in this way. Be alert for sexual or romantic overtures from the shamans, healers, apprentices, or facilitators after the ceremony. Firmly turn away such advances and keep your eyes open for such situations involving fellow participants. Wait a minimum of three days to a week before engaging in sexual encounters with anyone you are not already involved with before the ceremony. Allow time for integration and for the effects of the ceremonial substance to wear off so that you can apply your best judgment.

19. Examine Consensual Sex – Consensual sexual encounters between ceremonial leaders and participants do occur. These experiences may make the women involved feel special, but such relationships imply an imbalance of power that has the potential to be coercive and potentially abusive. Consider that the professional ethical standard for therapists in the U.S. is a complete ban on intimate relationships with former clients for two years after the conclusion of their therapeutic work together. Reflect deeply on the wisdom of this standard if you or your healer are considering sexual intimacy after a ceremony.

20. Honor Gradual Emotions – Determine how you can contact the healer or facilitators of the ceremony in the days, and weeks after the ceremony. If you feel that you have concerns or questions after the passage of time, follow up and express yourself. Take steps not to let feelings encountered during or after the ceremony get bottled up or unaddressed. If necessary, seek assistance from outside therapists or counselors.

21. Offer A Review – Consider writing a review of your experience or making your thoughts known to others in an appropriate venue that can benefit future participants. Both positive and negative critiques of the experience may be helpful to others. Acknowledge and give thanks to shamans and ceremonial facilitators whose actions reflect the highest degree of integrity and ethics.

The Shaman Woman, Plant Medicine and Psychedelics Salon

I have just returned from Canada where I attended WVC’s third annual Shaman Woman, Plant Medicine and Psychedelics Salon at Simon Fraser University in downtown Vancouver. Organized by Eleonora Molnar, the Director of WVC Canada, the event included a series of thoughtful conversations about the use and misuse of power in ceremonies that include psychoactive materials. The gathering also featured presentations by speakers who looked at the history of these substances and ways in which they shape culture, politics and our own personal search for self-knowledge. It was great fun to reconnect with a community of people in Vancouver who care deeply about these topics and have a well of insights to offer.

The salon began November 14th with a roundtable discussion. Everyone present was invited to take three minutes to introduce themselves and share their thoughts on strategies for maximizing the benefits of these ceremonies – and practical steps that participants could take to protect ourselves from potential harms and abuse of power. A number of participants recalled having beneficial experiences that supported lasting positive change in their lives. Others expressed grief and anger while reflecting on circumstances where they had been abused by shamans and others they had turned to for healing. Concrete suggestions were offered to hold such people accountable, conduct due diligence on prospective practitioners, and structure ceremonies in ways that could reduce the potential for abuse. We have posted a list of these recommendations on the WVC website which summarize many of the points made during this conversation.

The round robin format gave those in attendance several opportunities to speak. WVC events are open to people of all genders and one of the men present offered his three minute allotment for a group meditation to practice creating a circle of energetic protection around ourselves – a skill that is useful in many day-to-day situations as well as during ceremonies. I called on my own departed family members to be my guardians during this meditation and reflected that there are few spiritual traditions that do not honor ancestors in some way. This is an example of how the spirit world remains a part of our lives and can be called on when we use tools such as meditation or plant medicines to help heal and strengthen ourselves.

On November 15th, we gathered again at the university for an afternoon of presentations starting with an excellent talk entitled “Gender, Drugs and History: A Lesson in Power and Voice” by Connie Carter PhD, a senior policy analyst at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. Carter reminded us how narratives about women corrupted by mind altering substances have been used for many years as the pretext for the prohibition of these materials – and how these arguments have been deployed to flame racist fears of white women being seduced by men of color. This presentation was followed by a lively talk by WVC’s emeritus advisor Carolyn Garcia which she titled, “What happened in the 1960’s? The story of how LSD became part of American culture.” Garcia, who was present at the Acid Tests and a member of the Merry Pranksters, recounted how she became one of the first people in North America to ingest Ibogaine which she accomplished by consuming a research sample at Stanford University where she worked as a laboratory assistant in the early 1960’s. The experience showed Garcia that after descending into a deep state of altered consciousness, she could cultivate the inner strength to manage the psychological impact and retain valuable information.

The third talk during the Saturday event was presented by Donna Dryer MD and Richard Yensen PhD who spoke about a research project in Vancouver that is studying the efficacy of MDMA assisted therapy for those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Dryer and Yensen are serving as investigators in this important study that was initiated by psychiatrist Ingrid Pacey, MD and psychologist Andrew Feldmár. Dr. Pacey still remains the principal investigator. This research is supported by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), whose members participated in the Salon. We look forward to the findings of this important study which has the potential to develop powerful new therapies for people who have experienced trauma and have not been treated effectively with existing therapeutic tools.

The importance of addressing sexual trauma was emphasized by the next speaker, Lily K. Ross, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, who recounted her experience with a prominent ayahuasca shaman in Ecuador who she said drugged her with multiple transdermal and oral doses of scopolamine and sexually assaulted her for several weeks. The use of scopolamine in the commission of crimes is well-documented and by no means limited to those associated with ayahuasca. But this was certainly a cautionary story about the abuse of power. Ross views her ordeal as a perilous rite of passage and reflected on what she says has been the inclination of those who hear her story to either blame her or resist exploring the ethical dimensions. During the Salon, event organizer Eleonora Molnar made insightful observations that considered the potential for materials like ayahuasca to enchant those who use them in ritual contexts – especially people who are new to plant medicines and those who facilitate these experiences. She observed that it is important to honor the healing potential of these journeys and also to think critically about shamanic and neo-shamanic practitioners and others who present themselves as “healers” in this context.

The talk I presented at the salon looked at existing social science research into sexual misconduct by shamans and the conversations about this topic during past WVC events. I noted the rapid growth of the ayahuasca tourism industry and suggested that some of the resistance to discussing these challenging issues may be due in part to financial self-interest among the growing numbers of shamans, lodge owners and tour operators. I acknowledged that many shamans use this powerful medicine with integrity and noted the growing number of female shamans, neoshamans and ceremonies that address the need for safety during these rituals. Click here to read a transcript of this presentation.

After considering these very serious subjects, Michael Horowitz stepped up to offer a talk entitled “Antidotes to Everything” that made us laugh and remember the ego-puncturing irreverence than can accompany psychedelic experiences. The editor of books by Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, he told a very entertaining story about visiting Leary in prison while under the influence of LSD. Horowitz co-founded the world’s first psychoactive drug library, operates Flashback Books, and produced with his wife Cynthia Palmer two groundbreaking anthologies of women’s drug experiences, Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady and Sisters of the Extreme.

The WVC Salon ended with a beautifully crafted talk by scholar Elena Andrade entitled,”The Poetics of Ayahuasca: Lessons Learned from César Calvo.” Andrade discussed how drugs can be a technology of control. She sparked an intriguing conversation about how the widespread use of anti-depressants, marketed heavily by pharmaceutical companies, may suppress our sense of outrage necessary for meaningful political reform. Andrade presented the idea that despair prompted by our present economic system increases dependence on these substances which in turn make citizens more docile and easily manipulated.

While we considered this observation, Eleonora Molnar skillfully brought the Salon to a close leaving us with an exquisite short film by Vancouver-based filmmaker Simon Haiduk. This piece of visionary art, entitled “Calling the Others,” reminded us how psychedelic experiences can renew our sense of wonder and our connection to each other and all life around us.

This page contains affiliate links. When you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your costs will be the same, and WVC will receive a small commission. This helps us to cover some of the costs for this site. Thank you so much for your support!