What Is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a drink made from the hallucinogenic plant Banisteriopsis caapi. This plant is grown in the Amazon and the drug N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) can be found in the roots, stem, and leaves. Ayahuasca, also called yage, caapi, yajé, ayaguasca, or aioasca, is made by soaking or boiling the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi with the leaves of other plants including the chacruna plant. The chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis) also contains DMT. This mixture is made into a brown drink that people consume for its hallucinogenic effects. Drinkers may experience vertigo, anxiety, sweating, impaired color vision, and visual hallucinations. Ayahuasca is often consumed in a ceremony setting, where a shaman, or “healer,” walks participants through their psychedelic trip that is said to help with depression, addiction, and trauma. Recently, it has come to light that these ceremonies are creating more trauma for some, with reports of sexual assault at ayahuasca retreats.
In the past, one would have to travel to South America to attend an ayahuasca retreat, as DMT is a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States, meaning it has no medical use and a high potential for abuse. However, as consuming ayahuasca has become more mainstream, ayahuasca retreats have begun appearing in cities like San Francisco and Manhattan. A healer typically comes from Peru who descends from generations of other shamans. The ceremonies can last for days, with several ayahuasca sessions. Participants gather in a circle at a retreat and drink the psychoactive brew which usually takes effect in 20 to 60 minutes, and the trip lasts about 2 to 6 hours, depending on the dose consumed. Negative side effects, like vomiting and diarrhea, are considered a normal part of the process and some describe it as a “purge” where participants are letting go of something sinister.
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The Ayahuasca Belief System
The trip from ayahuasca has been said to activate repressed memories, helping users understand their past and work through traumatic memories. Others use the drug to gain a deeper understanding of themselves. Healers chant and sing through the ceremonies, with users crying, screaming, and moaning. People who believe in ayahuasca’s results see this as a religious experience, with special power. In one former shamans blog, the Journey Through Awakening Blog, the writer describes the power of ayahuasca as, “I watched people with cancer heal themselves. Diabetes. Depression. Lyme disease. Kidney failure. Heart congestion. PTSD. Intense emotional traumas. You name it, I’ve seen it transformed in this process.”
Clinical studies are still being conducted to determine the real effects of drinking ayahuasca, but it certainly has helped some people change their outlook on life. For others, sexual assault at ayahuasca retreats has damaged their trust in healers and exposed the corruption and manipulation that unfortunately runs throughout some retreats.
Sexual Assault at Ayahuasca Retreats
Psychology and Anthropology major Rebekah Senanayake released an article titled “Great Shamanic Deception: Using Ayahuasca as a Conduit for Sexual Fulfilment” on the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines’ website in April 2019. Senanayake traveled to Peru after finding an ayahuasca retreat center that received good reviews on Aya Advisor and Trip Advisor. This retreat lasted for 10 days and the shaman gave Senanayake special attention, extending compliments on her “visions” and “power.” He described himself as a portal to a “higher, more satisfactory way of being” that she would be able to experience as well. Besides the special attention, nothing out of the ordinary seemed to happen.
The following year, 20-year-old Senanayake returned to the same retreat and received the same special treatment from the healer. He began appearing over her in her visions, in a position of dominance and convincing her he had a need for her special gifts. In the ayahuasca community, healers are often seen as figure of authority who should never be questioned. Senanayake described it as: “The “healer” is portrayed in a light of all-encompassing power and supremacy. The “healers” are able to use this to their benefit, preying on the insecurities and wounds that brought participants and patients to the healing space to further their own agenda.”
Once the 50-year-old shaman established the power dynamic with Senanayake, he began bringing sexuality into their ceremonies. He stated that it was her responsibility to cure him of his sexual malfunctions. The shaman was married but said his wife could not do what Senanayake could. Senanayake was coerced into sexual acts and did not realize the violation until years later. Her story is not very different than hundreds of other women’s stories.
Manipulation by Healers
In a January 2020 story published by BBC News, another woman named Anna reported that she was at a popular ayahuasca retreat and was laying in the dark while under the influence of the drug. Her shaman approached her and laid his hands on her stomach and at first, she believed he was there to help guide her through her trip. However, he slid his hands down her pants and then under her shirt, feeling around her breasts. Drugged and frightened, Anna froze, unsure of what to think or do. She felt fear of speaking up because she thought she may be ostracized from the ayahuasca community for doing so.
In Senanayake’s article, she mentioned a blog where over 300 responses were left by women who had felt violated at an ayahuasca retreat. She shared, “Many stories shared on the blog revealed that many women had tried to come forward and report retreat centers to popular booking websites and were turned away.” The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines published guidelines in 2018 titled the Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse that provides warnings and guidelines detailing sexual assault at ayahuasca retreats.
The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines states that sexual abuse and misconduct towards female participants is prevalent. They state that even consensual sex between a healer and participant is an abuse of power. They warn that some shamans claim to have special powers that can heal others if they engage in sexual acts with them, but sexual intercourse never gives anyone special power or energy and this is simply a tactic used by men who want to have sex with their ceremonial participants. They state that it is not necessary for healers to touch participants in any intimate parts of the body, or any area that you do not consent to. It is never necessary to remove all clothing. While some participants will take off their shirts, a bra or camisole should still be worn.
Sex between a healer and participant during or after a ceremony is considered inappropriate and spiritually dangerous and is not accepted in ayahuasca traditions. The guidelines remind readers that a shaman is still just a human and does not necessarily live according to the moral standards of a spiritual leader. Putting blind faith in a healer is a dangerous misconception. The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines urges anyone who has suffered from sexual assault at ayahuasca retreats to report the incident and consult the Legal Resources Companion to the Guidelines for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse on their website. If you have witnessed sexual misconduct, do not remain silent. Rebekah Senanayake says that bringing awareness to the dark aspect of the community is the only way to create a safe space and focus on healing.