Psychedelic sex abuse: the problem is not going away
Harm reduction experts say we should expect more cases of abuse and harm to happen, and build in protections against predators, and humans' inherent tendency to mess up
‘My abuser singled me out as special…He offered me a private mushroom journey…’
‘My abuser love-bombed me with attention…and then withdrew his approval as a way of controlling me’
As opening panels of conferences go, few have been more hard-hitting than the one at NEST’s ‘Ethical Journey Through Altered States’, which just took place in Palm Springs. NEST (Network of Emotional Support Teams) works on ethics and harm reduction in psychedelic spaces, but the conference also touched on ethics, consent and harm reduction in other altered states modalities, such as kink, Reiki, and breathwork. It was a rich conference and we’ll use material from it for several newsletters, but for this edition, we want to focus on the issue of sexual abuse by psychedelic therapists, researchers and ‘shamans’.
As we heard at the conference, there have been several high-profile cases of sexual abuse and inappropriate / unethical behaviour by psychedelic healers in the last few years.
The one which got most publicity was an incident in the MAPS trial of MDMA for PTSD. One of the researchers working on the trial, a veteran psychedelic researcher named Richard Yensen, got involved in a sexual relationship with one of the trial participants, a woman called Meaghan Buisson. Footage also emerged from the MDMA trial itself of Yensen and his partner holding Buisson down while she was on MDMA, spooning her and cuddling her, despite this not being assented to by Buisson before the session. This incident was first reported by Olivia Goldhill at Quartz, and then explored at length in the Power Trip podcast, produced by the New York Magazine and Psymposia
Another high-profile scandal involved celebrity psychedelic healers Francoise Bourzat and her partner Aharon Grossbard. They taught in the psychedelic therapist training programme of the California Institute of Integral Studies. A former student of theirs, Will Hall, went public in 2021 with accusations that Grossbard had touched him inappropriately, that he had been groomed by the pair and love-bombed, only to be dropped and ignored when he expressed concern about boundary violations. Other men have since told Inverse magazine that Grossbard touched them sexually while they were on psychedelics, and a former patient took the couple to court in 2000, saying Bourzat had touched him inappropriately:
On at least one occasion, Bourzat told [Smith] that her love would heal him and that he was lucky to have her as his therapist. Bourzat told [Smith] she would never abandon him…”
It also emerged that Bourzat wasn’t actually a licensed therapist – her license from the Hakomi Institute was revoked for unspecified ethical violations. None of this initially seemed to affect her prominence in psychedelic spaces, although her calendar is notably emptier in 2022.
In 2018, the Horizons psychedelic conference in New York removed therapist Neil Goldsmith as its ‘curator and MC’, after several young women came forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour by him.
These are high-profile incidents in the American ‘overground’, and there are countless more incidents in the ‘underground’ of rape by psychedelic healers / shamans, such as this case, reported in the BBC, by a lady who was groomed and abused by a Peruvian shaman:
She says she was treated differently from everyone else. There was a lot of flattery. Then the healer began confiding in her. "He constantly told me that he had a lot of troubles," she says, "and he said he was having problems with his wife, that he wasn't sexually fulfilled, and that I was the one who was able to cure him of that." She was 20 at the time; the healer in his 50s. "He also promised me a lot of spiritual advancement or a lot of spiritual power, if we had a relationship - while his wife was down the road." She says the healer sexually abused her, coercing her into sexual acts. "It's disgusting," she says. "Because he was a shaman, I thought he had moral superiority in a sense and I trusted him."
As Will Hall explores in his essay in Mad in America, unethical behaviour by researchers and healers has long been a part of western psychedelic history, going back to Richard Alpert / Ram Dass being fired from Harvard for giving drugs to students he fancied. Hall notes that psychiatrist Sidney Cohen warned about the risks of abuse in the early 1960s – in fact, Cohen himself had a relationship with one of his patients, US politician Clare Booth Luce, who became devoted to Cohen and declared herself his ‘slave’. See Sylvia Jukes Morris’ biography of Luce, The Price of Fame (2014), p. 518.
In the 1980s, Rick Ingrasci was a prominent promotor of MDMA therapy. Will Hall writes:
Ingrasci published research studies, gave psychedelics to his patients, and advocated for psychedelics prominently in mainstream media appearances, including on the CBS Evening News and Phil Donahue Show. Ingrasci worked alongside top psychedelic therapists and researchers as close colleagues, and in 1985 he even testified to the US congress that MDMA had a “low potential for abuse” and should remain legal. Four years after his congressional testimony that MDMA was safe, Ingrasci’s photo was on the cover of the Boston Globe newspaper with the headline “Therapist Accused of Sex Abuse of Clients.” He faced allegations he raped at least three clients after giving them MDMA and other psychedelics. A series of Globe reports recounted the violence he was accused of doing to multiple women: He told one he could heal her cancer and that their sexual relationship was curative; one patient attempted suicide. Ingrasci lost his license, reached a settlement with former clients, and left the area...
Therapist / patient and psychiatrist / patient relationships have the potential for abuse built in to them, because of the power difference and the fact vulnerable people are disclosing secrets and trusting a person for healing. Sidney Cohen suggested psychedelic therapy attracts an unusual number of psychopaths, and certainly psychiatry offers many opportunities for those who crave power over others. So do religion and spirituality. Already, 7-12% of therapists admit to having a sexual relationship with a client. Throw mind-altering drugs into the mix, which dissolve boundaries, suspend critical judgement and make others see you as a supernatural saviour, and you have a situation ripe for abuse and harm.
No one has admitted harm, error or wrong-doing
Given those risks and that history, you would think that the nascent psychedelic industry would be falling over itself to listen to victims of abuse, harm or unethical behaviour, and to act rapidly to try and protect people from harm in the future. But apparently that is not the case.
Katherine MacLean was a researcher in Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Lab, who set up Psychedelic Survivors together with Leia Friedwoman in October 2021. Katherine says:
Almost every single perpetrator who has been confronted publicly has insisted that they were doing the right thing, that the sex was healing. That is specific to psychedelics, and maybe also to spiritual lineages. You have the spiritual power dynamic – sex with me will give you enlightenment, sex with me will heal your trauma. Also, because psychedelics distort reality, it makes it easier for victims to question themselves. And if they come forward, who are they going to tell, the police? ‘Hey I was using illegal drugs!’
I have not met a single perpetrator who is like ‘wow I really fucked up and I’m sorry’. Richard Yensen said the woman ‘manipulated’ him into a sexual relationship and it was consensual. Sex between a therapist and client, or teacher and student, is never consensual. It’s always non-appropriate.
David Nickles, who co-produced the Power Trip podcast on abuse in psychedelic therapy with Lily Kay Ross, said at the conference:
You can’t have a restorative justice programme if the people aren’t prepared to acknowledge harm. And unless we can talk about harm without harmful intention, nothing will change. Until institutions put individuals first rather than agendas or ideologies, we’ll see these patterns of harm reproduced.
Indeed, individuals and publications that have come forward with stories of abuse and unethical behaviour by those in power have sometimes been criticized for damaging the brand of psychedelics, just as they’re about to be legalized. ‘We’re so close, we’ll deal with these problems after psychedelic therapy has been legalized’. Psymposia authors found themselves banned at the recent Wonderland conference.
The young women who I’ve seen speak out have been universally exiled. People say ‘we shouldn’t punish the perpetrators’ – but what about the victims? I’ve been shocked how the major organisations like MAPS have reacted. It feels like they want to write it off as ‘oh we’re just in the growing phase of this, once we’re up and running it will stop’. I don’t think it will. If it’s happening 10% of the time now, it will happen 10% of the time when there are hundreds of clinics.
What can be done about the problem? Participants at the NEST conference admitted they are still searching for solutions and trying out different measures. Sandra Dreisbach is an ethicist and founder of EPIC (Ethical Psychedelic International Community). She said:
We don’t have the answer, we don’t have a solution yet. We’re going to be trying things and we’re going to fail. Cancel culture is a desperate measure, even whistleblowing. If that’s the only measure we have, that’s on us. We need to come up with alternatives, and it will take time. There will be abuses and harm in the meantime.
Nonetheless, some encouraging initiatives have been launched. Katherine MacLean and Leia Friedwoman launched the Psychedelic Survivors group with three objectives:
1) Create publicly available resources for survivors of sexual violence and their allies
2) Organize survivor leadership-training programs to teach trainees to start their own survivor-support programs
3) Proliferate healing circles for community processing of sexual abuse and assault
Their online peer support group has provided support to 15 or so survivors, with 10 more helped outside of the group, and MacLean says they get contacted weekly by people looking for resources and help. At the conference, Leia Friedwoman also launched a document that a team has been working on to try and educate people about ‘red, orange, yellow and green flags’ to look for when choosing a psychedelic therapist or healer.
The Psychedelic Safety Flags, which is inspired by the Art of Consent UK’s guide, includes red flags like:
- Rejects consent and boundaries as irrelevant, counterproductive or distracting
- Implies that they know what the participant needs…saying things like ‘I know exactly what you need, better than you do yourself!’
- Offers substance or booster doses once the ceremony has already started, without prior conversation.
- Does not go over the use of touch in the session beforehand, while the client is sober…They touch the participant during the session without asking permission.
- Invites, initiates or attempts to engage in sexual intimacy (verbally or through physical action)
- Doesn’t conduct a medical screening or intake
- Claims that sexual activity with the facilitator will give a direct connection to God / spirit, bring healing or ‘raise your frequency’
- Has refused to address call ins/ outs about their behaviour
- Is charming one minute / wrathful the next…
- Claims to be ‘enlightened’ or ‘operating at another dimension’
Green flags are, for example, when a facilitator:
- Discusses boundaries and consent with participants before anything else and consistently maintains the agreements
- Describes that consent can only be given before medicine has been consumed.
- Owns up when they get something wrong and tries to address it
There are many more examples of red, orange, yellow and green flags given - the document will be available soon on the Psychedelic Survivors website and we’ll link to it on www.challengingpsychedelicexperiences.com
All psychedelic therapist training programmes should also include a session on ethics, consent and harm reduction. But ethics programmes alone aren’t enough. MacLean says:
I don’t think it works to train individuals to be better people. You can teach ethics, and the conscientious, who will never hurt anyone anyway, will become more conscientious.
But she suggests the space will still attract Machiavellian individuals who look for vulnerable abuse-victims to exploit, or just fallible human beings who mess up. The field needs checks and protections against the human tendency to mess up:
Don’t rely on humans making the right choice. Humans are not designed to make the right choices around sex. Instead, build protections. For example, let people bring a trusted person into the room for psychedelic sessions. Or have a community model, where people sit for therapeutic sessions one day, and then act as observers the next. The informed consent for every single company and clinic should be ‘sexual abuse has happened in psychedelic therapy. We can’t promise it won’t happen, but if it does this is how we’ll handle it’. Every single company in the space needs to have an independent arm that addresses harm, and a fund for when victims come forward.
Of course, it helps if only licensed providers can offer psychedelic therapy, as licenses can be revoked, but the license system does not prevent abuse by therapists and psychiatrists, nor does it prevent psychedelic healers from continuing to work in the underground, or overground - Neil Goldsmith is still working as a therapist. MacLean says: ‘Exile is a powerful punishment. Could the community say ‘you will be exiled from all forms of psychedelic therapy practice until you admit harm and try to amend’?’
Unfortunately, abuse, bad behaviour and harm is something we should expect in psychedelic circles, rather than seeing as a temporary aberration. Reports of harm should not be seen as unwelcome disruptions of the psychedelic utopia, but rather as gifts to our self-knowledge and our field’s capacity to provide care and healing, rather than causing more harm.
Further resources (please contact if you would like to add an initiative)
Psychedelicethics.net – Towards a Membership Ethics Oversight Board
https://www.psychedelic-survivors.com/- peer support and education for survivors of psychedelic abuse
Good article by Katherine MacLean and Leia Friedwoman in DoubleBlind.
TELL, the Therapist Exploitation Link Line, a leading resource set up by a woman who was abused by Richard Ingrasci
EPIC Psychedelic – an organization promoting better ethics in psychedelic culture:
NEST harm reduction services – provides harm reduction services for festivals and events
Pilecki et al (2021). ‘Ethical and legal issues in psychedelic harm reduction and integration’.
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