Ayahuasca Ceremonies and Sexual Abuse

A Truffle Report Commentary on the Globalization of Ayahuasca: Economy, Ethics and Politics Panel from ICPR 2020

As the number of religious groups with legally recognized psychedelic practices continues to expand in Canada, intrigued participants from all walks of life are coming forward seeking spiritual healing. Rapid globalization is uprooting ayahuasca ceremonies from South America, and spreading them around the globe. Canada is no exception. This growth has alarmed anthropologists, among others, and raised concerns about the blurring lines between the acceptable and unacceptable practices of ayahuasca ceremonies. Some have led to instances of sexual assault.

Dr. Daniela Peluso is a socio-cultural anthropologist, and lecturer at the University of Kent who takes the view that “Globalization is only just a recipe for things going well or very poorly” in terms of the ayahuasca experience. 

Peluso was addressing the panel on the Globalization of Ayahuasca during the four-day-long Interdisciplinary Conference On Psychedelic Research, or ICPR 2020, held online in the last week of September.

Chacruna and the Globalization of Ayahuasca

The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines is a research institution that facilitates research on plant medicine and psychedelics. The organization also helps to bridge the gap between traditional ceremonial use and clinical/therapeutic settings by promoting cultural and political conversations surrounding the field of psychedelics.

While sharing the ICPR podium with two other speakers, Peluso talked about Chacruna’s efforts in creating awareness of sexual abuse as the trends of eco-tourism continue to globalize in ayahuasca practices. Emphasizing that abuse is not just one-directional, she said, “There are times when the two people (practitioner and healer) have not met before but their expectations have… which leads them to have very loaded encounters.”

Although the globalization of psychedelic religious sacraments fascinates many, the risks of this interest cannot be overlooked, bringing us to the safety of Canadian participants. 

Health Canada on Exemptions and Chacruna Guidelines

Legal exemptions for the religious use of ayahuasca have previously been granted to Canadian churches in Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario.

Maryse Durette, senior media relations advisor of Health Canada told Truffle Report, “It is important to note that the use of ayahuasca is not without risks, and the [legal] exemption does not constitute an opinion from Health Canada regarding the safety of consuming ayahuasca. The exemption is also given with the understanding that the members of the institutions voluntarily assume the risks associated with the use of ayahuasca.”

Chacruna has worked with researchers to create guidelines: Reflections on crafting an ayahuasca community guide for the awareness of sexual abuse, for safe healing that may be helpful in bridging the gap between traditional practitioners and tourists. This resource could prove important to Canadian users seeking out exempt churches in Canada, or engaging in psychedelic tourism abroad.

How do you Know Things Aren’t Right During the Ceremony?

Sexual intimacy between the healer and participant, during or shortly after the ceremony, is considered sacrilegious in all ayahuasca traditions. This is exactly like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship. Unlike the medical profession, there are no written guidelines or code of ethics for ayahuasca practitioners.

There are few things one should always keep in mind: shamans or practitioners are not ‘Gods’ as mentioned in the guidelines. Nudity is not a part of the healing process and there is no such thing as a ‘special’ healing experience. Shamans, at any point during the ceremony, cannot ask an individual to remove his or her clothing. 

If a practitioner makes sexual advances of any kind, it should be considered a point of alarm for the patient.

Unlike many tourists approaching shamans, indigenous peoples of the Amazon treat practitioners as common men who have the skills to practice healing. Tourists might easily be manipulated by the authority and trust they place in their shamans.

In some cases, practitioners have made inappropriate advances by suggesting that an extramarital sexual relationship with them is a form of healing, according to the case study in Chacruna guidelines.

An individual is not considered capable of giving consent unless he or she is able to hold mutually intelligible conversations. This means that both the participant and healer should be able to share their intentions, “with an understanding that consent always occurs within a specific socio-cultural-political context,” Peluso writes in the guidelines. Healers frequently take advantage of this position of power and may end up indulging in a manipulative imbalance, leading to sexual abuse.

In such healing processes, the grounds for mutual consent often remain shaky because the participants ‘are often unaware that they are being manipulated or influenced by the power dynamics of the context in which they are situated.’

Ayahuasca Community Safety Guidelines

  • It is advisable to consume ayahuasca with friends, experienced women or couples.
  • The participant should check the location and reputation of the center and the healer or practitioner. 
  • The healer is not supposed to touch any part of your body that you do not consent to.
  • Ayahuasca traditions do not encourage intimate relations between the healers and participants.
  • Shamans do not possess godly powers. They are humans like you.
  • Beware of what might appear as consensual intimate relationships.
  • If in trouble, report the incident.

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