Is there any better symbol of what’s gone wrong in mainstream American culture than the success of Donald Trump?
For the most part I’ve chosen to ignore the day-to-day coverage of this election, to spare myself the pain and frustration of rubbernecking our train wreck democracy. When I do tune in however, I’m always disappointed at the level of social commentary on the Donald, the superficial humor about his hair or hand size or mannerisms, with the frequent pieces on him being a lying conman and rampant xenophobe, or even slightly more sophisticated coverage on the dumbing down of the electorate and the media’s complicity in his candidacy.
Psychological perspectives on Trump interest me more – I tend to agree with the psychologists who have written articles claiming Donald Trump exhibits strong signs of sociopathy. I’ve known enough sociopaths to recognize the patterns myself: the ability to repeat lies over and over – and then contradict them shamelessly five minutes later. Constant impulsive statements and actions. The sheer magnetism of personality that seems to blind many around them from seeing their glaring faults. The superficial emotions that seem to switch only between glee (having attained power) and anger (over its loss). The bullying and the endless quest for domination. The complete lack of basic human empathy, of conscience, guilt or remorse.
Trump’s former ghostwriter Tony Schwartz recently came out to state that if he were rewriting The Art of the Deal today he would rename it The Sociopath. An analysis by Dr. Kevin Dutton of Oxford University found that Trump has more sociopathic traits than Hitler.
But even this analysis stops short of the wider sociological question: How is it that we have managed to elevate such a person to a celebrated personality, now one step from the Oval Office? What is it about him that we, as a culture, must like to an extent – even as many mock him?
I think it’s time to take a good look in the mirror: Is there any better symbol of what’s gone wrong in mainstream American culture than a greedy, superficial, sociopathic megalomaniac reality TV star who makes constant displays of fragile and toxic masculinity?
At the end of the day, these are the qualities we, as a culture, too often celebrate and encourage: Money and fame are our core values. Success at any price. Cut throat business practices. Bullshit your way to the top. Be a “real” man. Isn’t that why it doesn’t seem to matter what Trump says or does, or how many lies he’s caught out on? Don’t a lot of us kind of admire the sheer gall he has? Isn’t that why we can’t stop watching him?
From the moment Trump announced his run for presidency, I never took it as a joke. The glove fit too well. I couldn’t think of a better caricature of the lowest common denominator of our mass culture.
Robert Hare, the psychologist who developed the checklist for diagnosing psychopathy (a term used interchangeably with sociopathy, both colloquial terms for “anti-social personality disorder” in the DSM), believes that “our society is moving in the direction of permitting, reinforcing, and in some instances actually valuing some of the traits listed in the Psychopathy Checklist.” Sociopathy rates in the USA are estimated to be between 1-4% (and increasing), compared to just 0.03-0.14% in parts of East Asia, for example. The difference is not genetic – it’s cultural. Rather than focus on the collective, our culture endlessly celebrates the power of the individual above all else. We glorify and encourage the ego and the self rather than the interrelatedness of all living things. Sociopaths and narcissists have always existed – but in our culture they are aspired to.
Trump perfectly embodies the core values of toxic masculinity as well, the socialized male who is meant to be dominant, violent, competitive, unemotional, misogynist and sexually aggressive. These values are in no way inherent to being a man, but they are completely integral to how we raise and socialize our boys. From a young age boys are taught over and over that displays of human emotion are unacceptable, that sex is conquest, power and status, that their value and worthiness as men depends on disproving themselves to be empathetic, “effeminate” or “gay” in any way – through constant exercises of assertiveness, repressed emotion and sheer force.
Finally, in a time when the most (white) Americans are safer than they’ve ever been, we’ve culturally adjusted to a constant climate of fear. Fear of the other: the gays, the blacks, the Muslims, the Mexicans, the Russians, the Chinese, the terrorists, the people coming to take our guns. Our news channels endlessly broadcast the new threats we must live in fear of and our TV programs teach us survival skills for the upcoming apocalypse, putting our collective survival down (once again) to the individual. We make ever greater sacrifices of our principles, liberty and humanity in order to defend ourselves from these supposed threats. We become ever easier prey for those who seek to abuse those fears in their quest for power.
And now? This was the inevitable next stop on that path. This is where these values and this culture have landed us.
The options this November seem understandably bleak to some. What we are missing, as Michael Meade suggests in the Huffington Post, is the third kind of person:
The first kind of person tends to be preoccupied with self-interest as everything refers back to “I, me and mine.” At this basic level the world can be divided into winners and losers as self-assertion rules the day and excesses of aggression and rule-breaking can seem justified.
The second kind of person learns to operate at a higher level of life that includes an increased awareness of both the needs and the value of others, even those who seem quite other than oneself… However, when times get hard and people feel the pressure of enduring threats and persistent hardships, the greater sense of fairness and justice becomes more difficult to sustain. In the face of uncertainty and fear, the second kind of person can lose touch with the core values of humanism…
Many of us fit this description and I agree with Meade when he argues that Clinton is one of them, perhaps with a heart in the right place but ultimately making decisions out of fear and other pressures – decisions that have brought suffering to both our own country and the world at large.
The third kind of person survives some life-changing defeat or loss and suffers a descent in life that makes them aware of the agonies and tragedies experienced by so many throughout the world.
…those who survive loss know who they are at their core; they also know the core values and ideals upon which humanity depends. They cannot be manipulated by fear or greed, cannot be shaken by threats or be pressured to act against either their own integrity or the interests of the greater good…
In this way the third level of awareness produces the truly inspired leaders, the wounded healers, and the wise counselors who know that the ideals of humanity must be upheld precisely when the darkness and confusion around us grows.
I’m blessed to know a great number of such people, those who have been pushed to the margins by society, pushed into the darkness by circumstance – but who have survived to find a deep knowing, a profound integrity and an unshakable set of principles. I look to these people for inspiration at these times, those who follow the ideals of empathy and selflessness and love especially in times of great fear and darkness, especially when it’s most difficult to do.
Come November, we’ll elect either the first kind of person or the second – a depressing thought. Darkness will follow either of these results (if in different magnitudes). There will be yet more suffering.
For those of us not already there, we too may find ourselves collectively entering “the dark night of the soul.” Perhaps the silver lining to this doom and darkness will be the emergence of more wounded healers who reject that first kind of person, reject fear and egotism even in the worst of times.
For if sociopathic, narcissistic and toxic masculine traits were taboo rather than celebrated in America, someone like Trump could never be where he is now. Instead, his candidacy is only the inevitable product of the toxic environment he’s grown up in. Americans who have a problem with Trump actually have a much bigger problem: American culture.
So let’s stop watching the train wreck and start talking about our personal and collective problem. Because if we wish to indict Trump it seems, we also have to indict ourselves.
Sex and psychedelics are two of the most powerful tools available for facilitating healing and spiritual growth.
“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
– William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
I was nineteen years old when I found myself battling deep anxiety and depression, leading to years of cocaine, speed and then ketamine addiction. I was also struggling to find a healthy expression of sexuality in a patriarchal and objectifying world. My response was to find sugar daddies who would at least benefit me materially in exchange, compensating for my own dissociated relationship to sex. I was, seemingly, on a path to self-destruction. But falling headlong into addiction and maneuvering through often fraught casual encounters turned out to be two of the most important things I ever did – because along the way I stumbled upon the hidden healing and spiritual potential of sex and (psychedelic) drugs.
Over the next five years, sex and drugs switched roles in my life: the poisons became medicine.
Sex and drugs are powerfully tied together in the American imagination: through hedonism, scandal, taboo, stigma and crime. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also two of the most powerful, immediate, accessible, and universal ways to experience “altered” states of consciousness. In my experience, it is precisely because they lead to these other states of consciousness, the very states western society often associates with escapism and even madness, that they are such profound tools for healing.
In order to achieve these altered states, the final requirement is surrender: a surrender of the ego, whether through orgasm (la petite mort) or an ego-death experience on psychedelics. “Surrender” is often a dirty word in our control freak and victory-obsessed culture. Perhaps this surrender, this loss of control, is what’s really so subversive about sex and drugs.
In surrendering to the unconscious, or to something greater than our egoic selves, one finds knowledge and ways of knowing that subvert the dominant western paradigm. Psychedelics in high doses have consistently been shown to facilitate peak spiritual or mystical experiences, in studies from the 1960s as well as recent research at Johns Hopkins University. There is a similar potential for peak experiences during sex. It is possible during orgasm to find oneself and one’s lover melding into one being, to experience visions, shapeshifting, a dissolving of the ego or a meeting with “God.” Dr. Jenny Wade’s research on what she terms “transcendent sex” shows that approximately 1 in 8 Americans will experience something like this spontaneously during sex, whether or not they ever share it with their partners.
How Sex and Drugs Help Us Reconnect
The notion of healing with sex and psychedelics shouldn’t really be surprising. Both psychedelic and sexual experience can enhance sensory perception, facilitate reconnection to emotions and memories, reestablish the sense of connection between self and other, and leave deep impressions from states of expanded consciousness. In his book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner describes the “sensory gating channels,” the scientific “doors of perception,” that control how much sensory input reaches awareness. Seratonergic psychedelics, such as DMT (the active ingredient in ayahuasca), psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms), LSD, mescaline, and bufotenin, all reduce gating activity of the thalamus and other gating parts of the brain. Similarly, “frequent sex stimulates the formation of new neurons in neural networks, irrespective of the type or age of the organism. Sensory gating channels open more widely, cognition improves, functionality increases.” Sex and psychedelics both open these sensory gating channels, allowing more information to reach consciousness – in a state commonly referred to as “altered.”
Sex and psychedelics hold strong potential for healing trauma. In The Birth of Pleasure, psychologist Carol Gilligan defines trauma as “the shock to the psyche that leads to disassociation: our ability to separate ourselves from parts of ourselves, to create a split within ourselves so that we can know and also not know what we know, feel and yet not feel our feelings.” Sex and psychedelics have the potential to heal because they can help us to reassociate. It was through sexual and psychedelic ritual that I began to reawaken to a deeper sense of self and a more profound connection to the world around me.
It was my psychedelic explorations that provided crucial insight into my addictive tendencies, allowing me to heal patterns that I now recognize as stemming from deep-seated anxiety and dissociation. Healing my own addiction made me realize just how much is missing from society’s current understanding of addiction as a whole. I believe it is time to redefine addiction, as Bruce K. Alexander does in his book, The Globalization of Addiction: “Addiction is neither a disease nor a moral failure, but a narrowly focused lifestyle that functions as a meager substitute for people who desperately lack psychosocial integration.” This reconceptualization shifts the focus away from the symptoms (particular drugs or habits) to the social dislocation and emotional pain that is at the root of all compulsive and self-destructive behavior.
There are, perhaps, infinite paths to healing and spiritual connection. However, at a time when all life on this planet is threatened by an ecological crisis humankind itself has created, born of compulsive consumption and disconnection from the natural world, time is of the essence. I believe there is a need to consciously catalyze new mindsets and perspectives as quickly as possible – through states that leave one with a profound sense of the interconnectivity of all life, of the illusion of the “I.” Practices like breathwork and meditation can take years to develop before leading to full-blown mystical states. I know from experience what effective and efficient tools sex and psychedelics can be for catalyzing paradigm shifts overnight.
But they are just that: tools. One’s mileage may vary based on intention, mindset, ritual, setting, and how the experience is integrated afterwards. A sexual encounter can be a short-lived and forgettable mutual masturbation session – or an intentional encounter with the divine. An LSD trip can be an excuse to watch Disney movies stoned – or the six hours that forever changed one’s understanding of the nature of the universe. It was a subtle change in my awareness and intention that made the difference between my use of sex and drugs as agents of numbing and escape and agents of change and growth.
Today, partly because of the very illicit nature of sex and drugs in American culture, few are available to teach one how to use these tools. I myself had to stumble my way down this path, lacking role models or any formal guidance. In another culture or time things might have been different. Other societies have established legitimate roles for the ones who would facilitate connection to the collective and divine, using psychedelic plants and sexual experience.
The View from the Ancients
When one takes a longer view back through human history, modern western society appears to be the aberration. Practically every other culture has had carefully prescribed ways of altering consciousness, often through the use of psychoactive plants or sexual ritual. Those involving plant medicines or sexuality were often the most sacred rites, used to heal and connect to the divine. This is true even in ancient Greece, cradle of western civilization. Participants in the mysteries of Eleusis, the most important of all Greek religious cults, included Aristotle and Plato. The greater of these mysteries involved drinking the kykeon, a psychoactive brew most likely made from ergot, from which LSD is derived. Indigenous cultures around the world use psychoactive plant sacraments, from psilocybin mushrooms to iboga, ayahuasca to peyote. The Tantric tradition holds sexual intercourse as a sacred rite, called maithuna. Early Taoist sects performed sexual intercourse as spiritual practice, called HeQi (“joining energy”).
Today, living post-sexual revolution and in an era of increasing acceptance of some forms of drug-taking, American culture is rife with sex and drug references. Sex and drugs are “fun.” But sacred sexuality scholar Georg Feuerstein argues in Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions that today’s “obsession with fun betrays an absence of pleasure or happiness” and that “beneath our hunt for fun or fleeting pleasure there lies buried a deep desire to realize our ecstatic potential.” Like Feuerstein, I believe that “sacred sex, which is the experience of ecstasy, is the real sexual revolution.”
A revolution in American drug use would be welcome as well, responding to the deep desire for rites of initiation and transcendence that underlies the urge for fun and escape. From ancient times, socially sanctioned and supervised use of what is today called a “drug,” but which was then considered a “sacrament,” would often be introduced in the transition from childhood to adulthood. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that in a culture that is missing these rites of initiation, the teenage instinct to just “get fucked up” (or alter one’s consciousness) prevails. But without any instruction, guidance or context, one is left shooting (up) in the dark.
Sacred is not a word often associated with sex or drugs in American culture today, but perhaps that’s exactly the problem. As sex and drugs are brought out from the shadowy underbelly of American society and into conscious awareness, as their stigma is removed, maybe the puritanical and repressive roots of this country will finally be overthrown – allowing once more for ways of knowing and understanding that were nearly exterminated along with the indigenous peoples who once populated this land.
Spiritual Tourism is Not the Answer
Sex and drug education, teaching harm reduction, is just the tip of the iceberg. New studies on the importance of intimate touch as well as the healing possible using psychedelic medicine seem to be emerging weekly. Why not think consciously about roles for teachers and guides to facilitate these explorations?
The potential for sex workers to function as healers is vast and not unprecedented historically, possibly dating back to temple prostitution in ancient times. Even today, sex surrogates, “neo-tantrikas” and other sex workers are actively doing this work. It was my own sexual journey that led me to research older forms of sacred sex and temple prostitution as well as to investigate the incredibly human (but often untold) stories of client-provider relations in the sex industry today. My own experiences have confirmed that there is always potential for healing when two people get truly naked with each other. This healing can take place in any intimate context – but sexual teachers, healers and facilitators are needed to facilitate a societal shift away from superficial and disconnected pornographic representations and back to something more genuine, embodied and profound.
Psychedelic facilitators have existed throughout time as well, from indigenous healers and spirit workers to underground psychedelic therapists and medical professionals continuing this ancient work. As psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin continue to gain acceptance within modern medicine as powerful and effective treatments for everything from anxiety and OCD to PTSD and depression, there will be a need to further develop and expand this role.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel in the attempt to build these new western traditions. There is much to learn from other cultures and times, ancient techniques for going into transcendent states, psychedelic states, states of erotic trance. But even this re-learning process is fraught as the western appropriation of “shamanistic” and other traditions such as ayahuasca and tantra – seemingly with the best of intentions – risks perpetuating old colonial patterns of “borrowing” knowledge and resources from indigenous and other peoples, while giving back little in return. Decolonizing our spiritual practices is surely as important as (and perhaps fundamental to) decolonizing our bodies and the earth. Respectful cultural exchanges with other traditions can provide inspiration for new ways of doing things – but it will take slow, organic work from within existing western paradigms to grow the traditions that will make lasting social change.
Individual and Collective Healing
There are vast new worlds to explore as the West re-approaches psychedelic plants and the healing potential of sexuality and intimate touch. “Altered” states can lead one into rich and fruitful dark places, if one is willing to go: ploughing the unconscious and bringing repressed emotions, memories and knowings into the light of the conscious mind. It is in the darkest psychedelic trips that I gained the most insight; it is the places that were most uncomfortable, the places I most wished to avoid, that had the most to offer. It was only possible to heal, however, because I was in safe and intentional spaces. The difference between a potentially scarring trip and a deeply nourishing one can be simply a matter of where, how and with whom it takes place.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at twenty years old and it was the conscious use of sex and drugs – not my doctor’s prescription – that helped move me through it. My journey from addiction and disembodiment to healing and reconnection taught me the importance of removing the taboos around sex and psychedelics and restoring them to their rightful place as healing and sacred.
Now it feels as if my own story is just a microcosm of the greater story of western civilization today. An estimated 23.1 million Americans need treatment for a problem related to illegal drugs and alcohol, and 18.2 million Americans are diagnosed with a form of mental illness every year. I would argue far more than that are suffering from other compulsions and ailments as a result of mass disconnection and social dislocation.
Indeed, all life on this planet is threatened by western culture’s dissociation, disembodiment and addiction to consuming – which has now brought us to a mass extinction event, an ecological mega-crisis. As the inventor of LSD Albert Hoffman writes in LSD, My Problem Child, “A concept of reality that separates self and the world has decisively determined the evolutionary course of European intellectual history.” It will take the rapid opening of humanity’s collective sensory gating channels, the correction of this fundamentally flawed paradigm, to change this course. Through the process of embracing the shadow, of re-associating and reconnecting, of finding healing and spiritual awareness, we can collectively shift away from the destructive path we are on. It is time to re-sacralize nature and the cosmos, to find our way back to reconnection and reintegration, to an understanding of the interconnectivity and intelligence of all life, before it’s too late. I believe the careful and intentional use of sex and psychedelics is our best hope for quickly catalyzing that change.
We have the right tools – if only we can learn to use them in time.
Bonobos are our peace-loving cousins, a little known species of monkey that was only discovered in 1928. Previously thought to just be “small chimps”, they’re actually an entirely different species. Bonobos have the same percentage of DNA (98.5%) in common with us as chimpanzees do, meaning that chimpanzees and bonobos now share the distinction of being our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. But as opposed to chimpanzee society, which is a “dominator” culture, bonobo cultures demonstrate a “partnership” society, with remarkable cooperation and peacemaking capacity. It’s fascinating to think that we hold the genetic potential to go in either direction.
The bonobo monkey is an omnivorous frugivore. The majority of its diet is fruit, but it supplements its diet with leaves, meat from small vertebrates such as flying squirrels, and invertebrates. It nests high up in the trees of their jungle, which is swamp jungle (there’s half a mile of swamp inland from the river before you reach solid ground, a pretty tough terrain.)
In over twenty years of research, there has yet to be one instance of intergroup killing by bonobos – completely the opposite of chimpanzees. In fact, when two different groups of bonobos come across each other, the males do all stand and posture at each other, waving sticks and baring their teeth. But the females from both groups immediately gather together and start sharing food or grooming each other. Now bonded, the males can do nothing but acquiesce to the new peace. It seems to me that this is a perfect demonstration of how bonded females can hold the power in our society.
There is also no infanticide in bonobo groups. This is because there is no way of discerning paternity – due to bonobos’ nonstop sexual exploits! For a male bonobo, killing a baby could be killing his own baby – he would never know. In fact, male bonobos are known to babysit and interact with little ones even though they don’t know if it is “theirs”. Overall, bonobos are more sensitive and emotionally aware than chimpanzees. Bonobos are known to show empathy and help other species too. Young bonobos stay with their mothers for five years in a prolonged childhood – in fact, sons basically never leave their mothers, staying always by her side. This differs from chimpanzees who leave their mothers to bond with other males.
Bonobos live in a kind of “matriarchal” society. The females get first access to food and resources and then decide who gets what. Females form strong bonds by sharing food and through sexual activity like tribadism (rubbing genitals with or on each other for a period of 10-20 seconds, which females do every two hours on average!) While the males are physically stronger, they lack the bonded group that females form, and therefore their occasional attempts to dominate fall flat on their face. From the PBS Nova documentary “The Last Great Ape”: “Males want to muscle in but if females stand united the males remain under their collective thumb.” The sons of powerful females in the group have higher social status – but once their powerful momma passes away, they immediately lose their status.
When there is tension, sex is used to diffuse the situation. There is amazing footage in “The Last Great Ape”, where a male bonobo is running, clearly aggressively, with a large stick in hand. Mid-run he realizes he’s approaching a female bonobo who is bent over on all fours – so he drops his stick for a quick shag. Anger forgotten as they make love and not war!
In fact, sex has all number of social functions for bonobos. It’s like a handshake or greeting: it’s used to bond/create intimacy, to resolve issues and for reconciliation. They have all kinds of sex as well: gay, straight, masturbation, tongue kissing, and oral sex. Bonobos have sex face to face which is rare in the animal kingdom, and they have much gentler sex compared to chimps. In a group, a female will have had sex with all the males. This constant sexual interaction creates calm in bonobo life. Intimacy makes it hard to stay angry.
Bonobos give us insight into our lineage of cooperation and partnership societies, that likely existed farther back in hunter-gatherer (pre-agricultural) times. They share the DNA we have that is correlated to affiliation and bonding, which chimpanzees lack. It is interesting to realize that a lot of what we think is “natural” about ourselves comes from our knowledge of chimpanzee culture – when actually we are at least equally related to bonobos. We resemble them more physically as well (more distinct faces, longer legs, pronounced breasts, larger penises). And a fun note from Wikipedia: a female bonobo weighing perhaps half that of a human teenager, “has a clitoris that is three times bigger than the human equivalent – and visible enough to waggle unmistakably as she walks.”
Unfortunately bonobos are very difficult to study. They are an endangered species, there are only about 30,000 of them left, all in the jungles of the Congo – where they are hunted for bush meat as well as the pet trade. Researchers have barely had a chance to study them in recent years because of warfare and uncertainty in the region. But there seems to be so much hope in this cute cousin of ours. Interestingly, the translation of “bonobo” in the extinct Bantu language is said to be “ancestor”.
Riane Eisler theorizes that there are two strands of our evolution: “dominator” culture based on fear and pain and “partnership” culture based on pleasure. I must note that I often find Eisler’s work problematic, particularly in regards to her opinions on sex work, pornography, BDSM and kink. However, in her book “Sacred Pleasure”, she stresses that “bonobos demonstrate an evolutionary movement toward sex as a means of reinforcing social relations based on the give and take of shared sensual pleasure rather than on coercion and fear.” Bonobos are masters of using sex as peacemaking ritual. It’s important to note that bonobos aren’t inherently peaceful, or there would be no need to make peace! They just know how to use female bonding and all kinds of sex to make peace and prevent violence.
Learning all this about bonobos is potentially very empowering for humans, especially since we are often told that the worst of human nature can be explained away through genetics confirmed by watching how chimpanzee society operates. The more I read about bonobos the more I see the importance of their discovery for our evolutionary understanding. Imagine if we all became masters of using sex as peacemaking, healing and spiritual ritual.
It’s a shame that in our society, it would be a bit dangerous to go down on all fours with your skirt raised in between two blokes about to have a fight – but what a potent image of female sexual power!
For more on bonobos, I highly recommend watching “The Last Great Ape”:
The glans, which is at the end of the penis, [is] covered with a very thin membrane, by reason of which it is of a most exquisite feeling. It is covered with a preputium or foreskin, which in some covers the top of the yard [slang for penis] quite close, in others not so, and by its moving up and down in the act of copulation brings pleasure to both the man and woman. 1 – Aristotle
A remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed without administering anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutory effect upon the mind, especially, if it is connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases.2 – Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, creator of the Corn Flake
I suggest that all male children should be circumcised. This is ‘against nature’, but that is exactly the reason why it should be done. Nature intends that the adolescent male shall copulate as often and as promiscuously as possible, and to that end covers the sensitive glans so that it shall be ever ready to receive stimuli. Civilization, on the contrary, requires chastity, and the glans of the circumcised rapidly assumes a leathery texture less sensitive than skin. 3 – R.W. Cockshut
While the history of circumcision goes back to ancient Egypt and is found in the religious texts of Judaism and Islam, the normalization of circumcision in the West is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. It originated in response to the hysteria around masturbation in Victorian times, and was named a cure all for a number of other serious medical problems. However, the evidence for this was thoroughly debunked by the middle of the twentieth century and, as a result, circumcision rates in Europe began a steady decline. Only in America did this procedure remain standardized – the only nontherapeutic and “preventative” surgery that we commonly subject babies to. So what is a foreskin? Why does having one matter? How did a ritual practice become a prophylactic one? And why do we still circumcise today?
Sex 101: Foreskin and Function
The glans cover’d with its prepuce, which is at one of its extremities, has such tender and sensible [sensitive] flesh, that nature hath there established the throne of sensitivity and pleasure in women’s embraces.4 – Nicholas De Venette
Knowledge about the fully-formed human penis should be part of normal sex education – but it often isn’t. In America today it is common in anatomy books for the foreskin to be left out altogether.
The foreskin is not a birth defect – it is a normal part of male and female anatomy. The foreskin of the penis starts out growing from the same tissue as the clitoral hood, the skin that covers the clitoris. The gender-neutral term for this bit of skin is the prepuce. The glans (head of the penis) is an internal organ, meant to remain covered in the same way our eyelids protect our eyes or our fingernails protect our nail beds. In our society, women get to keep their foreskin, but men who are circumcised do not.
There are repercussions to making an internal organ external. In order to survive the organ must adapt. In addition to losing sensitivity, removing the foreskin means that over time the pH will be altered, the temperature will no longer remain stable, moisture and lubrication will be lost (leading to dryness and chapping), antibodies and healthy microflora will no longer exist, and callusing will take place. (To see a side by side comparison of an adult male penis, cut and uncut, click here. Warning: graphic content.)
The foreskin contains some of the most erogenous tissue in the male body. There are twelve to fifteen square inches of foreskin, containing an astounding 20,000 fine touch nerve endings – or Meissner’s corpuscles. Most of the rest of the penis has Pacinian corpuscles, the most common nerve ending in the skin. If you want to understand the difference between Meissner’s corpuscles and Pacinian corpuscles, stroke the back of your hand repeatedly and softly, and then do the same to the palm of your hand. The palms of your hand have Meissner’s corpuscles – as do the mouth, anus, frenulum, foreskin and other openings of the body.
Normally, the foreskin covers and protects the head of the penis, keeping contaminants out. The foreskin actually has many functions – it allows the skin to move around and the penis to remain softer, moister and warmer. In contrast to a circumcised penis, the foreskin actually contributes lubrication to sexual intercourse, as well as helping to keep the lubrication present in the sex act.
As Marilyn Miros, former nurse and “intactivist” (that’s an activist who campaigns for the penis to be left in tact) put it, “you can’t change form without altering function.”5 Circumcision, the removal of the foreskin, alters the function of the penis. Regardless of which side one falls on the circumcision debate, it is important to know and understand how function changes.
“The biological sexual act for the circumcised male becomes a satisfaction of an urge and not the refined sensory experience it was meant to be.”6 – C.J. Falliers
The problems of painful intercourse, lack of lubrication, premature ejaculation and inability to climax can be related to circumcision. Without the foreskin the male takes longer strokes to ejaculate because he has no fine sensitivity. With these longer strokes, each withdrawal of the penis drags some of the lubrication out – on top of not contributing any lubricant of its own, as an intact penis would. He has to work harder and harder to climax as he gets older and loses more sensitivity due to increased dryness. In the meantime, if he has a female partner she loses her ability to “ride the wave to orgasm”7 as Miros puts it, because of his constant withdrawing. Without an honest and open discourse on the effects of circumcision, it is possible that many are struggling in their sexual relationships over issues they have no idea are due to the male(s) being circumcised.
No one actually knows how the ritual of circumcision came about. There are endless (often contradictory) theories on the reason for it. As Wikipedia summarizes:
It has been variously proposed that it began as a religious sacrifice, as a rite of passage marking a boy’s entrance into adulthood, as a form of sympathetic magic to ensure virility or fertility, as a means of enhancing sexual pleasure, as an aid to hygiene where regular bathing was impractical, as a means of marking those of higher social status, as a means of humiliating enemies and slaves by symbolic castration, as a means of differentiating a circumcising group from their non-circumcising neighbors, as a means of discouraging masturbation or other socially proscribed sexual behaviors, as a means of removing “excess” pleasure, as a means of increasing a man’s attractiveness to women, as a demonstration of one’s ability to endure pain, or as a male counterpart to menstruation or the breaking of the hymen, or to copy the rare natural occurrence of a missing foreskin of an important leader, and as a display of disgust of the smegma produced by the foreskin.8
The only thing all these theories have in common is that they have nothing to do with health. The argument that circumcision is “cleaner” because it prevents the normal buildup of smegma (the substance which is actually produced by both the penis and the vagina) is the equivalent of saying it’s easier to chop off some of your ear than to have to clean out your earwax. Washing the intact penis is a simple matter of pulling back the skin and rinsing with water (not soap, which is irritating) in the shower or bath, just as a female might clean her vagina.
Circumcision is strongly associated with Judaism, but the ancient Egyptians practiced it as well. Bodies dating back to 4000 B.C. and hieroglyphs from before 2300 B.C. show circumcision in ancient Egypt and it is likely the Jews learned from the Egyptians. Circumcision was also performed by many other Semitic peoples as well as tribes throughout Africa.
But the amount of foreskin cut and the age at which the ritual takes place has changed over time. The Egyptians performed circumcision on boys rather than infants, and ritualized circumcision took place with large groups of boys being cut at the same time. (In Islamic traditions to this day, circumcision traditionally takes place as a boy, before age ten.) The Jewish tradition eventually became to circumcise infants. Originally it was the mother who would circumcise her baby, though later that role was taken over by the mohel.
The circumcision of ancient times, as was supposed to be practiced by Abraham, was a much less severe operation than it is today.9 Originally just the tip of the foreskin was cut, called milah. This practice lasted two thousand years, until the Hellenistic period, when many Jews started stretching their foreskin back in order to conceal their circumcised penises (which were looked down upon by the Greeks). Because of this, the rabbis of the time decided that circumcision must be performed in such a way that there would be no way to disguise it. So began the practice called periah, the removal of the entire foreskin. It is this practice which was originally taught by Jewish mohels to Western doctors in the nineteenth century, and which remains our standard practice of circumcision to this day. This technique is significantly more severe than most ritual or tribal varieties – or what the God of the Old Testament was said to have commanded.
A Note on Language
Moving into modern history and away from religion and ritual, it seems appropriate to examine the language that is used today around circumcision. The word “uncircumcised” to refer to a whole, intact penis implies that an uncircumcised penis is not yet in the normal state. It would be similar to referring to women who had not had a mastectomy as “unmastectomized” – which would be strange indeed! Therefore for the rest of the article I will refer to “uncircumcised” as “intact”. For “circumcision” I prefer the more neutral term “male genital cutting” which is a more accurate description of what is occurring – although some would argue that the term “male genital mutilation” would be appropriate as well.
The first medical (non-ritual) male genital cutting took place in Britain in the eighteenth century, becoming a routine preventative procedure by the late nineteenth century, in the context of Victorian morality. Up until this time men valued their foreskins as the “best of your property,”10 as demonstrated in the mid-eighteenth century when Jewish emancipation was feared in case it meant universal circumcision – seen back then as both humiliating and mutilating.
It was the rise of hysteria around masturbation that is the key to this story. This medical crisis over masturbation is an example of what Thomas Szasz describes as the “therapeutic state” where “social controls are legitimized by the ideology of health.”11 At this time, many things that were taboo from a spiritual or social point of view such as masturbation, homosexuality or suicide – then become forcibly controlled through medical justifications.
In this case, a variety of illnesses came to be blamed on masturbation. Young boys and even babies caught masturbating were given the mistaken diagnosis of “phimosis”, where the foreskin does not retract back over the glans. It was later proven that phimosis is the normal state for intact penises until pre-pubescence. Back in those times however, the diagnosis of phimosis would be used to justify the cutting of the foreskin.
While today we argue over whether male genital cutting affects the sensitivity of the penis, back then there was no question. Often the whole point was to reduce sexual pleasure and therefore sexual temptation:
Another advantage of circumcision is … the lessened liability to masturbation. A long foreskin is irritating per se, as it necessitates more manipulation of the parts in bathing. … This leads the child to handle the parts, and as a rule pleasurable sensations are elicited from the extremely sensitive mucous membrane, with resultant manipulation and masturbation. The exposure of the glans penis following circumcision … lessens the sensitiveness of the organ. It therefore lies with the physicians, the family adviser in affairs hygienic and medical, to urge its acceptance.12
To understand how masturbation could be blamed for so many medical issues, one has to understand the degenerative theory of disease, which said that the body had a limited amount of energy. This energy could either be conserved through “correct living”, or permanently lost through “wrong living”. 13 Sexuality then represented a life-threatening loss of energy, because the non-procreative use of the sexual organs was seen as physically dangerous. The Reflex Neurosis Theory of Disease “postulated that the sexual organs and the erotic sensations they produced were the cause of all human disease.”14 Preposterous now, but this was the original justification for circumcision in the West.
In this way, patients who might have been suffering from various illness due stresses such as overwork, bacterial infections, mental disorders or malnutrition, would then be interviewed by doctors to inevitably reveal that they masturbate, which doctors concluded was the reason for their conditions. All of sexual function was pathologized, with erotic sensation being redefined as “irritation”, orgasm redefined as “convulsion” and erection now termed “priapism.” 15 Thus sexuality became both symptoms and cause of disease, and the stimulation of the genitals could “cause” problems throughout the body.
As time went on there were few things that male genital cutting wasn’t “proven” to treat. By reducing pleasure and therefore masturbation, circumcision would cure and prevent cancer, epilepsy, paralysis – you name it!
Male genital cutting wasn’t the only surgery of the time aimed at eliminating sexual desire. America specialized in alternative treatments to curbing carnal lust. “Spermectomy”, a less drastic alternative to castration (but more severe than a vasectomy), involved surgically removing the spermatic ducts. Neurectomy had a brief popularity in the 1890s, which involved severing the dorsal nerves of the penis, permanently and completely destroying sensation and function. This was commonly performed on boys who were caught masturbating. Other less drastic measures included:
slitting open the urethra, cauterizing the prostate, corporal punishment, blistering the penis with caustics, acid or heat, flaying the skin of the penis with razor blades, sewing the penis shut with metal wire, encasing the genitals in plaster or lockable metal cages, or fitting the penis with rings studded with sharp teeth to discourage erections.16
New diagnoses such as “spermatorrhoea” emerged. The tell tale symptoms of spermatorrhoea included the ejaculation of sperm under any condition other than marital intercourse. How did one treat spermatorrhoea? Circumcision, of course.
The hysteria around sexuality wasn’t exclusively for boys. For young girls, the preferred treatment for epilepsy and masturbation was clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris).17
In this time, one often encounters medical articles with such titles as “The value of circumcision as a hygienic and therapeutic measure”, which might bring to mind today’s claims that circumcision is more “hygienic”. But it’s interesting to note that back then the word “hygiene” was being used to refer to moral hygiene (i.e., not masturbating), not personal cleanliness.
In the UK, male genital cutting became routine and widespread among the wealthier classes by the end of the nineteenth century. The final push had been a paper published by English surgeon Jonathan Hutchinson claiming that it provided protection against syphilis (paralleling the rise of the claim that it protects against AIDS today) – one of the most influential texts in the history of circumcision advocacy. There were some pretty extreme flaws in Hutchinson’s methodology. The paper was based on his observations at the Metropolitan Free Hospital in east London, where many Jewish immigrants had settled. He observed that fewer Jews than Englishmen sought treatment for syphilis. As noted by Robert Darby:
Being innocent of any awareness of the principles of statistical analysis, epidemiology, the germ theory of disease or the quarantine effect of ghetto living, Hutchinson asserted that only circumcision could account for the difference in the incidence of the disease.18
Despite these flaws, Hutchinson’s paper retained its influence until the 1940s.
The president of the American Medical Association in 1890, Dr. Lewis A. Sayre, spent his entire career urging physicians that they must examine a boy’s prepuce first, in all cases of disease. While his claims seem ridiculous now, they were always supported with numerous case studies and endless clinical evidence. This is a running theme with male genital cutting, with new “evidence” popping up for new justifications, just when the old ones had been debunked.
My original intention in writing this piece was to track the history of medical justifications (and their later disproving) throughout the past two centuries. But this turned out to be too arduous a task. It’s a long and checkered history, and if one is really interested, “A short history of circumcision in the United States” by Robert Darby is an in-depth history that is highly recommended and thoroughly annotated (footnotes at end of Part 2 of the article.)
To summarize, in the last two hundred years circumcision has been “proven” and then disproven to prevent or cure:
Inflammation of the bladder
Curvature of the spine
Restlessness and Irritability
Even after the germ theory of disease was established (and diagnoses like tuberculosis were therefore no longer attributable to the intact penis), anti-sexual attitudes and bad information prevailed. An article that appeared in the September 1941 issue of Parents Magazine by Dr. Ian F. Guttmacher, an obstetrician at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, openly admits that circumcision “causes blunting of male sexual sensitivity” but argued that this was an advantage.19 Myths about the difficulty cleaning the penis prevailed in American literature just as they were being disproven in British medical journals. Guttmacher argued that circumcision at birth is easier for the mother, so that the mother doesn’t have to handle her son’s genitals as much – making masturbation less likely.
The landmark 1949 study “The fate of the foreskin” by Cambridge pediatrician Douglas Gairdner, published in the British Medical Journal, marked the end of the era of mass circumcision in the UK. Gairdner debunks the phimosis myth, and rejected the “evidence” that male genital cutting reduced risks of syphilis and cancer as spurious. As a result the National Health Service in the UK did not cover the operation, which would have to be performed at parents’ discretion through a private doctor. Circumcision rates plummeted as a result. To this day, the NHS website states, “most healthcare professionals now agree that the risks associated with routine circumcision, such as infection and excessive bleeding, outweigh any potential benefits.” 20
In the United States, however, Gairdner’s paper was ignored. Old circumcision myths were recycled, new myths were created (such as the idea that male genital cutting was actually good for the male libido), and the Gomco clamp went into mass manufacture (the stainless steel device still widely used today to crush the foreskin and isolate it during the surgical procedure). There was a new cancer scare that was blamed on foreskin, blaming it for prostate, penal and cervical cancers. In this same period of time there was another push to popularize circumcision of adult females by removal of the clitoral hood.
But by 1962, theories that retaining a foreskin caused cancer or that smegma was carcinogenic were disproven, even in America. Further medical research led to the revolutionary statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1971 that “There is no valid medical indication for circumcision in the neonatal period.”21
This lead to a period where an American grass roots movement questioned the ethics of neonatal circumcision and considered the issue of who had the right to consent for a baby to have an unnecessary surgical procedure. In the mainstream however, myths began circulating in popular baby care guides that it would be terribly traumatizing for a child to realize that his father’s circumcised penis differed from his own.
Another myth that created social pressure for circumcision was the idea that uncut boys would feel awkward and weird in school locker rooms.
Meanwhile, even female circumcision hung about as a possibility in the American medical practice of the 1970s. Dr. Leo Wollman published an article arguing that the removal of the clitoral hood was a cure for frigidity.22 This was aimed to appeal to the ethos of the sexual revolution – and was the exact opposite of the argument being made in support of circumcision a century earlier!
What should have been the final death knell for neonatal circumcision appeared in 1975 when the American Academy of Pediatrics clarified:
There is no absolute medical indication for routine circumcision of the newborn… A program of education leading to continuing good personal hygiene would offer all the advantages of circumcision without the attendant surgical risk. Therefore, circumcision of the male neonate cannot be considered an essential component of adequate total health care.23
But another decade, another excuse. There was a scare that intact penises were more prone to urinary tract infections – little mention being made that UTIs are relatively common for girls as well and no one has suggested cutting their clitoral hoods off as a preventative measure (not yet anyway!)
There is a clear historical pattern here of finding ever new reasons to perform male genital cutting. I will take a brief look at the modern medical justifications later in this piece.
What Does Circumcision Involve?
First however, it seems appropriate to take a minute to clarify exactly what this surgical procedure looks like. Often misconstrued as “a little snip”, male genital cutting is a serious operation that is often performed without anesthesia.
This video is not for the squeamish, but as Michelle Storms, an obstetrician who stopped performing circumcisions in 1988 for reasons of conscience, said, “any person who wants to subject a child to this should be required to witness one first.”24 Many parents have expressed regret in the aftermath of the procedure, only then realizing the severity of what has been done to their child.
Not often spoken of, there are common surgical complications, from the scarring that is universal to penile adhesions, punctures, skin bridges, “buried” penis, and even accidental full amputation of the head. Postoperatively, there can be difficulty breastfeeding, excessive bleeding, long-term aggravated response to pain, infection, meatitis, necrosis, and even severe permanent disability or death.
Why Do We Still Do It?
Even today there are popular news stories with dramatic warnings on the dangers of the falling rate of circumcision and the public health repercussions, like this CBS news article, for example. There are also revivals of medical justifications, such as the idea that circumcising reduces risk of prostate cancer, such as this study from just last year.
The current justifications for circumcision, outside of social pressures and mistaken ideas about hygiene, include the prevention of UTIs, penile and prostate cancers, HIV, HPV and other STDs.
The American Cancer Society actually disagrees with the idea that circumcision prevents penile cancer, which has an incredibly low rate of 1/100,000 in any case. A similar number of people actually die of circumcision related deaths (117) to penile cancer (328) in the United States each year.25 26
The main 2002 study that linked foreskin to cervical cancer a) presumes that the child will be having sex with a woman when they are an adult and makes a surgical decision based on that presumption, and b) was later invalidated because the partners in the study were actually found to have different strains of HPV, and therefore could not have gotten it from each other.27
The idea of circumcision for HIV prevention got its start in the 2000s, but there were many problems with the three randomized control trials in Africa that are cited as evidence, including the fact that circumcised men were provided more access to condoms and safe sex information than intact men. The idea that the author promotes of likening circumcision to an effective vaccine, when they are only claiming a 60% effective rate, is hugely irresponsible. There are now people (mostly in Africa) who think they are immune to HIV because they are circumcised.28
The major 1986 study that is often cited as confirmation that circumcision is an effective preventative measure for UTIs was skewed. In the study, parents of children with foreskins were told to wash with soap – interrupting the normal colonization of bacteria and leading to increased risk of infection. 29
It’s also ironic to note that the United States, with the highest rate of sexually active, circumcised men in the world – also has one of the highest rates of genital cancers and STDs in the Western world. By contrast, countries such as Japan and Scandinavia, where circumcision is practically unknown, have much lower rates.30
But in the meantime, the American Association of Pediatrics backtracked once again in 2012, moving way from their more neutral position to state that the health benefits of infant male genital cutting outweigh the potential risks.
As one can read here, the medical associations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, UK, Germany, and Canada would disagree.
Social Pressures: Normalizing Mutilation
Some of the most common reasons given today for circumcising a child are social pressures: wanting them to look “normal” or like their father, for instance. In what other situation today would we allow a parent to elect a nontherapeutic (not medically necessary) surgery for their child in the name of a social or aesthetic preference?
While the female genital mutilation that we often hear about and judge in Africa can vary from the removal of the clitoral hood to the removal of the entire clitoris, it is worth comparing notes for a minute. The justifications used in Africa often sound the same – better or preferred appearance, necessary for social acceptance – as well as “medical” justifications based on the idea of increased “hygiene” and disease prevention. Backwards social practices often hide under the accepted and institutionalized discourse of the time – in this case, modern medicine.
Denial, Grief, Mourning
Why do many still defend circumcision in the face of evidence? It is an emotionally charged issue for many reasons. There is denial, grief, and anger at the realization of having experienced what in reality was a completely unnecessary violation and loss, a kind of abuse. There is also the pain of realizing what one might have unknowingly done to one’s own child. It’s an emotional issue, to say the least.
There is an aspect of “cognitive dissonance” here, whereby the easiest way to deal with the fact that one may be missing something important or have deprived a child of something important, is to discount the foreskin, claiming it’s no big shakes. But the answer cannot be to turn away from the facts.
Foreskin Restoration and Resources
Some circumcised men are now reclaiming their foreskin as part of a physical and psychological healing process. While it is not possible to regain the lost nerve endings, it is possible to stretch and expand the skin back into a foreskin, over a course of years. This has the effect of recreating the mucus membrane, increasing sensitivity of the glans and lubrication, as well as healing any callousing. Some who have undergone foreskin restoration say the process also promotes psychological wellbeing through a sense of reclaiming wholeness. For more resources on regrowing foreskin, see the end of this article.
I believe the time has come to acknowledge that the practice of routine neonatal circumcision rests on the absurd premise that the only mammal in creation born in a condition that requires immediate surgical correction is the human male.31 – Thomas Szasz
Many practices that are now seen as very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks…what’s happening right now with circumcision…the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how blatantly inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.32
– Brian Earp, research associate at Oxford University
Throughout history, many injustices have hid in plain view, normalized by the society of the time. Male circumcision is one of them. We hear justifications all the time: “it’s cleaner”, “it looks better”, “everyone does it”, “I’m circumcised and I’m fine”, “babies don’t feel anything”, “doctors do it”, “it’s just a little snip”. But looked at from a fresh angle, we see a procedure that removes a healthy unique organ part as a social ritual and not a medical treatment. Such a procedure would be illegal on girls but is more or less standard for boys in America, in spite of potential complications and lifelong loss of function.
It’s interesting to note that it was glaringly obvious that male genital cutting would greatly reduce man’s sexual pleasure a hundred and fifty years ago, but we argue today over whether it makes any difference. Or at least we do in America, as opposed to Britain where studies are still being published showing that:
The glans of the circumcised penis is less sensitive to fine touch than the glans of the uncircumcised penis. The transitional region from the external to the internal prepuce [ridged band, removed in all circumcisions] is the most sensitive region of the uncircumcised penis and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis. Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.33
Only three in ten men in the world are circumcised, but eight out of every ten American men are. There is a conversation that needs to take place here. Our society needs a better understanding of the repercussions of circumcision so that, if nothing else, parents make more informed decisions. And perhaps one day we will recognize that no parent has the right to perform a cosmetic and medically unnecessary surgical operation on a child who is unable to consent.
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The story I want to share here is a little shocking – or at least it was to me. It makes one question the most basic assumptions commonly held about how rational science and modern medicine operate, to find out that a substance like ibogaine could go through all this scrutiny and still end up far from the hands of those who need it. Here is the story of how we almost cured addiction.
To begin I must introduce our main character: a little-known shrub native to Western Africa (mostly Gabon and Cameroon) called tabernanthe iboga. The legend has it that the pygmies first discovered the magical powers of the iboga root, which is powerfully hallucinogenic. The pygmies are said to have taught this knowledge to others, eventually becoming the practice of Bwiti, a spiritual tradition that revolves around the use of iboga. Bwiti belief is animistic, and iboga is used to contact the spirits and the ancestors as well as to heal the sick. Bwiti revolves around a three-day initiation in which the initiate consumes copious amounts of this revolting tasting bark. I should know, I was initiated into the Bwiti last year (but let’s save that for another post).
In Gabon, iboga is seen as a sacred medicine (the original word boghaga literally means “to care for”). Sometimes referred to as the “Holy Wood”, each community has a nganga (chief healer) who is responsible for leading ceremonies of initiation and other healing ceremonies. Iboga has been used as a sacrament by the Bwiti for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In 1864 a French doctor is the first Westerner to discover the root and bring it to France, where a botanist names it Tabernanathe iboga H. bn (as is often done, he gave the plant his initials, because clearly he discovered it even though African people have been using it intentionally for eons).
But it’s not until 1901 that two French scientists extract the easiest alkaloid to produce from the plant and name it ibogaine. Ibogaine then goes through several manifestations as a prescription drug to combat fatigue in low doses under the name Lambarene, which remains on the market until ibogaine is eventually banned in the United States in the 1960’s.
In the meantime, secret CIA research is being done on various hallucinogens. It’s not long before scientists get the hunch that these substances may have an impact on opiate addiction. At the Federal Narcotics Hospital in Kentucky, Dr. Harris Isbell, a doctor working for the CIA, conducted experiments with LSD and ibogaine on African-American prisoners addicted to heroin. They use low doses however, where psychological effects are significant but not usually enough to interrupt addiction. The CIA would later neither confirm nor deny that they discovered the anti-addictive properties of ibogaine. In 1956, the researcher Jurg Schneider discovered that ibogaine amplifies the effects of opiates, allowing one to take half as much for the same effect. But this research is also kept under wraps until the 1980s.
In the 1960s, a few intrepid psychonautic explorers try ibogaine, at that time little known and in limited supply. It was also of interest to very few people, lacking the sensory attractions and kaleidoscope effects, and involving more physical side effects (such as intense nausea and vomiting). Even Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary weren’t interested, because it wasn’t euphoric like other psychedelics.
Finally, a young man named Howard Lotsof is offered ibogaine by a chemist friend, who says, “Try this, my friend, it’s a thirty-six hour trip!” Lotsof passes it on to another friend who calls him a week later to tell him that since he took it, he’s miraculously experienced zero cravings for any drug that had previously been part of his day-to-day experience.
And so it begins. Lotsof goes through the difficult process of procuring more ibogaine and organizes the first (informal) group trials. In the first group, five of the seven volunteers who are regular drug users stop all drug usage for six months following treatment. The other two go back to it. When Lotsof asks why, they reply, “Because we’re junkies. We like being junkies.” Here the importance of a strong desire to quit becomes clear. Ibogaine is an addiction interruptor, but it’s power is only as strong as your intention. But it can be powerful indeed, as Lotsof explains:
I don’t know if you know anything about heroin addiction, but one of the people that it worked on was a roommate of the other two that it didn’t work on. He was living with those guys for six months while they were shooting up every day, and he wasn’t using it. Now if you know anything about heroin addiction, you know how hard that is. So we knew we had something very unique here.
Minimizing withdrawals, even the heaviest heroin addicts find themselves clean and withdrawal free within a few days, sometimes overnight. Gone are not only the withdrawals, but the cravings as well. To a junkie, this seemed a true miracle drug.
Underground psychedelic psychotherapists such as Leo Zeff and Myron Stolaroff hear of ibogaine and begin using it in treatments, but outside of this work, ibogaine is practically unknown, as “King Heroin” takes over the culture. Even though it was never widely known or used and had practically no recreational potential, ibogaine would be swept into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act in 1968 along with all the other psychedelic drugs, meaning it was deemed to have no valid medical use or potential. In this time, going into the 1970s, ibogaine all but disappears. Howard Lotsof ends up in prison and then addicted to opiates again and, ibogaine now unavailable to him, has to struggle to get clean on his own this time.
In the meantime, by the early 1980s the use of cocaine, crack, and heroin skyrockets.
It’s in this context of the 1980s and 1990s that we finally see traction being made. Lotsof makes an ally in marijuana legalization activist and Yippie member Dana Beal. With Beal and Lotsof’s wife Nancy, Lotsof founds the Staten Island Project to secretly dispense ibogaine treatments. In one year, half the Yippies’ expenditures secretly go towards funding these treatments. This proves unsustainable and Lotsof ditches the project and moves on to focus on legalization and research.
Lotsof realizes he had to gain credibility in the scientific community. So he buries himself in the library, forms a non-profit corporation and files a patent for ibogaine. (This could be seen as a pretty cavalier case of cultural appropriation, as is too often the case – yet another case of a white man patenting the knowledge of indigenous peoples, even if in the name of a greater good.) Unfortunately Lotsof meets only indifference and skepticism at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Those who do take interest, like Dr. Doris Clouet, lose credibility and eventually their jobs. Such are the risks of working with stigmatized substances, regardless of the science behind them.
Large pharmaceutical laboratories show no interest either. Between the fact that ibogaine comes from a plant (so any patent can only be for its applications) and the fact that it is a Schedule I illegal substance, getting ibogaine to market would mean a lot of investment for a relatively small return. As an example, the official response from pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigy was: “While the indication for narcotic addiction withdrawal is almost certainly worthwhile, it has not been identified as a strategic commitment for our company”. It’s strange to think of the ramifications of private medicine, of all the peoples’ lives that could have been saved or at least who could’ve benefited from ibogaine had it only been a more “strategic commitment” to private corporations.
The non-profit route seems to be a dead end. In 1986, Lotsof starts a private company offering shares and gets some investment this way. With this money, Lotsof finances the first International Conference on Ibogaine in 1987. He also flies to Gabon and convinces President Omar Bongo to give researchers enough iboga to do research (Bongo had previously deemed iboga to be a “strategic national heritage product” and made it illegal to export from Gabon).
The first human experiments with ibogaine were done in Holland, the only country at the time to have a real policy for the prevention of drug addiction. At the same time, research with Dr. Stanley Glick back in the U.S. shows that ibogaine will reduce self-administration of morphine in rats, which is very promising.
Ibogaine finally gets its chance in the post-Reagan AIDS era due to the growing call for harm reduction. Harm Reduction calls for prevention, safe sex, de-stigmatization of HIV positive people, the development of treatment, needle exchange, and for the therapeutic use of cannabis. ACT UP, a large direct action advocacy group, learns how to work the lobbying process and get the required media attention at the same time, gradually gaining some influence in the political sphere. Dana Beal joins their ranks, and those in the U.S. harm reduction struggle against AIDS now take on the ibogaine cause as well.
Unfortunately, there are some huge stumbling blocks for ibogaine. Before scientists can conduct research on classified substances, they must get permission from both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Scheduled substances face a lot of stigma and ostracizing, and most respectable scientists don’t want to be associated with this kind of research.
To get around this, Lotsof has scientists from the US brought to observe treatments in Holland. One such example was Dr. Carlo Contoreggi, who worked for the Addiction Research Center (ARC) of NIDA. Dr. Contoreggi, who was used to working with addicts, was absolutely flabbergasted:
This tall, straight, athletic-looking guy walks in. No pallor. No trace of withdrawal. In fact, he’s radiating good health, looks like he’s been working out. There’s a bounce in his step, a twinkle in his eye. The thing is, I’m a clinician – an M.D., not a rat scientist. I knew we had nothing in development that could do that. It’s physically impossible in that timeframe.
Unfortunately this enthusiasm reaches the ears of ARC director Dr. Jerome Jaffee, a conservative and total adversary of ibogaine. He doesn’t want to hear anything about successful treatments. Jaffee actually threatens to send Contoreggi off to a different department if he continues his work examining ibogaine treatments before and after. Jaffee himself then goes on to undertake a study called “Ibogaine Doesn’t Work”, based on a single study of rats. These results contradict the findings of all previous studies on ibogaine.
Dr. Glick’s team of researchers do an ibogaine study at the same time, demonstrating the real effectiveness of ibogaine. Unfortunately this won’t be published until 1991, a year after Dr. Jaffee’s research is published, due to low funding. In the meantime, resistance at NIDA and the ARC starts to build.
Nevertheless, Lotsof and the ibogaine movement persevere. In 1990, the march to “Stop the Drug War” from Boston to Washington is a big success. Dhoruba Bin Wahad, ex-member of the Black Panther Party, is one of the speakers at the rally. A former political prisoner and hero with African American activisits, Bin Wahad adopts the ibogaine cause. He believes ibogaine is a weapon from Africa against the “genocide” (his term) inflicted upon his community by drugs – drugs that he claimed were distributed with the complicity of the CIA. It is through Bin Wahad’s outspokenness that many other African American activist groups join the ibogaine movement as well.
In June 1991, Lotsof makes contact with Dr. Deborah Mash at the University of Miami who wants to conduct clinical research on ibogaine. It just so happened she was married to a high-ranking Democrat who had Hillary Clinton’s ear. Clinton promises to do something about ibogaine once her husband takes office. Dr. Mash drafts a first phase of trials and receives FDA approval.
While ACT UP’s efforts manage to get ibogaine on NIDA’s list of “medications to be evaluated for the treatment of addiction”, NIDA simultaneously opposes any clinical trials and bans even pre- and post-treatment evaluations, saying they could be seen as tacit approval by NIDA. This would prove to be NIDA’s modus operandi, claiming to be working towards ibogaine research, but sabotaging it all the way.
A new study of forty treatments emerges from Holland. In the study, 25% of addicts gave up hard drugs for good after a single treatment. Another 25% found it worked to keep them sober at least a month. An additional 15% find that they are no longer interested in drugs after trying them again and are therefore clean after six months. This constitutes a 40% success rate. The other 35% are able to conquer their addiction with additional monthly ibogaine treatments in conjunction with Narcotics Anonymous programs. The total success rate then becomes 75%, an absolutely astounding result in the world of addiction.
ACT UP comes bearing this study as well as research from Dr. Glick’s team showing that ibogaine is not just a maintenance drug like methadone. In response, NIDA actually presents a plan for a phase of clinical trials within a year’s time. But first, the ibogaine team will have to redo the toxicity studies in rats. As Dr. Peter Hartsock later criticized, the strategy was basically to block ibogaine by endlessly prolonging trials on rats and hoping for a failure at that stage so that things would never move forward to human research.
Meanwhile more and more researchers take the initiative to work on ibogaine and more articles on ibogaine are published in 1992 than in all previous years combined. Lotsof comes back from Holland with the first HIV-positive patient treated with ibogaine. She had been addicted to heroin and methadone and was now totally clean. This earns ACT UP and ibogaine some good press.
Unfortunately, just as ibogaine reaches peak levels of media attention, two conflicting studies come out. Dr. Mark Molliner’s study showed that ibogaine was neurotoxic when injected into rats at 100 mg/kg. Of course the standard dose for anti-addiction treatment is 17 mg/kg and that dose is taken orally, but media reports don’t often go into that kind of nuance. Dr. Mash’s results on monkeys show no cerebral toxicity but unfortunately she was only able to conduct tests on three monkeys. Of course, the media latches onto the rat study, portraying ibogaine as a controversial and “dangerous” treatment for addiction.
In 1994 the biggest internal defender of ibogaine in ACT UP, Robert Rygor dies. Divisiveness reigns. The ibogaine cause seems to compete with that of needle exchanges. ACT UP also faces stigma from other organizations, which accuse it of being a front organization for legalizing marijuana and ibogaine. In the end, Rygor’s death marks the death of an ACT UP-supported ibogaine movement as well.
Meanwhile, things still look promising as NIDA meets with ibogaine experts in May 1994. All teams agree that at therapeutic doses, ibogaine is not neurotoxic. The FDA’s Doctor Curtis Wright is satisfied, saying, “It sounds to me you folks have a Phase I clinical trial”. NIDA makes all the proposals for detailed clinical trials but sets no dates. In fact, the trials would never take place.
The elections of 1994 bring unwanted change for the ibogaine crusaders, with Republicans pushing a tough line on drugs, bringing back the drug war of the Reagan era. The Democrats, under political pressure, follow suit, competing on who is the “toughest on drugs”.
The anti-ibogaine militants take advantage of this new atmosophere. A last official meeting on ibogaine takes place at NIDA. All ibogaine experts (including Mark Molliver whose study had originally found neurotoxicity in rats) agree that it is safe to move forward with ibogaine trials in humans. But Frank Vocci, the conservative associate director at NIDA, brings in external consultants who have never worked in this area. They, of course, say they do not believe any treatment can act to break addiction.
In the end, Vocci decides to stop everything, even the preclinical investigations. No more public funds will be invested, the death knell for ibogaine research. Vocci later justifies this saying that ibogaine opponents were more convincing. But in reality, the clinical trials were put aside due to pressure from the Republican pharmaceutical industry lobbyists. The FDA would take a more liberal approach and approve Dr. Mash’s research in Miami but in the end the FDA has no influence over NIDA and the requests of Mash’s team are denied.
All legitimate research with ibogaine has now ended, with this sharp right turn in U.S. drug policy. President Clinton is persuaded to crack down on marijuana use and his drug czar calls ibogaine “a dangerous and addictive hallucinogen, and a trick”.
Looking back at ibogaine’s failure, Agnés Paicheler notes that it was almost inevitable due to the number of obstacles in the way:
Arising out of African rituals similar to sorcery, promoted by former hippies, ex-junkies, and African American activisits, and erroneously labeled as a hallucinogen, ibogaine was laboring under a bad image, as much in terms of deserving to be taken seriously as from the standpoint of morality….Even among scientists, there are many who don’t want to even hear of ibogaine, quite simply because that would mean admitting that nonscientists, and on top of that actual drug users, had made an important discovery.
In the end, ibogaine was of no financial interest to anybody, and that’s mostly what this came down to. Political decision makers would have had to show enormous dedication to ibogaine to bring it through legalization as a prescription medicine through public sector funded research.
And that was never going to happen. Ibogaine is a dangerous competitior to the commercial sector from anti-addiction treatments. In fact the promoters of methadone were the first to block ibogaine’s development. Even certain scientists, whose entire careers were based on methadone, had fought ibogaine research.
There may be additional cultural factors at play as well. In this morally conservative country, addicts are seen as “guilty” and deserve to “pay” for their mistakes. It would almost be too soft a punishment, allowing addicts to just be “cured” – especially by taking a “hallucinogenic drug”. Indeed, it would make a mockery of our drug laws to have a schedule I drug turn out to be a lifesaver.
And so ibogaine waits in the wings, for modern medicine to approach it once more. Some, like Dimitri Mugianis, have worked illegally treating people with ibogaine within the United States (until he was caught, read coverage of his work in the New York Times and the Village Voice). Ibogaine clinics all over the world (in places like Mexico and Costa Rica, where it is legal) continue to treat addicts, but often at a steep price. It was through a legal iboga treatment center that this writer kicked her two-year ketamine addiction, and met many others who have kicked their habits as well. It’s not a magic bullet, the person has to be willing to do the work themselves to stay clean. But it’s a hope in a world where there isn’t much hope to be found.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is currently funding two research studies looking at the long term impact and effectiveness of legal ibogaine treatments outside the US. No other legal research can take place in the US as things currently stand. And in the meantime, the majority of people suffering from addiction have never even heard of this miraculous addiction interrupter: iboga, the simple root bark of an African shrub.
Can a provider of sexual services facilitate healing? How can transformation take place within such an exchange? We don’t often hear about them, but there are plenty of anthologies of sexual healers’ stories, for those who would seek them out. It is these men and women’s voices that I’d like to amplify in this piece. It would be illuminating to hear from their clients as well, but those accounts are few and far between. However, it is interesting to note that many of these people actually started out as clients, with trauma or pain to be healed, and later in life became healers themselves. Often their personal essays include stories of being in both roles.
Why is sexual healing necessary? Joseph Kramer, founder of the Body Electric School and a self-professed “sacred prostitute“ says:
You can talk to a psychotherapist about sexual abuse for years, but for intervention on the physical plane, we call on a sacred intimate…It is in the physical world that the trauma took place and that’s where the healing most effectively takes place. (Blackburn, 2007, p.61)
It seems important to note that the terms “sexual trauma” and “sexual abuse” carry a lot of stigma, and it is easy to forget that these things take place on all different points along the spectrum. Being addicted to drugs can mean being a “functioning addict” or being a “junkie” on the street. Although one might seem better off than the other, we’d agree that both people need treatment. Similarly, having a conscious memory of egregious abuse as a child is not the only qualification for trauma. I would argue that most of us carry sexual pain and trauma from living in this sexually dysfunctional society, whether or not we are conscious of it.
A legitimized role for sexual healers is not that far of a leap from what we already have as (almost) socially acceptable in society today: sexual surrogates who are sometimes recommended by psychotherapists as an adjunct to talking therapy. Still controversial, they are gaining acceptance. The International Professional Surrogates Association has a training program that you can go through if you wish to work within the realms of traditional medicine and therapy. The men and women featured in this article mostly work outside of those worlds, with only a couple of them doing official “surrogacy” work.
Two prominent and important aspects of all the featured healers’ stories is their ability to offer acceptance and presence:
A common trait of all the sacred intimates in this book is their full acceptance of themselves and those who come to work with them. Such complete acceptance is so rare that it is much more radical than any of the physical activities that take place during their sessions. Perhaps that is why we so often hear that shame is released in sacred healing sessions – because, in the presence of a loving person who accepts another ‘warts and all,’ a person can let go of their self-loathing and recriminations, even if for one precious moment. (Blackburn, p.215)
Presence means that you are met ‘where you are’ physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Presence doesn’t mean that the person is like you in all these ways, but that she respects you and accepts you fully. To be present also means that the sacred healer attends fully to the individual(s) he is with and the situation he is in, without jumping to conclusions about what is happening inside the person, and without attempting to lead or control. Sacred intimates often describe their experience of being present as being an open conduit for healing, as channeling divine energy, or as just being a witness for their client. They limit their own personal input, and allow healing energy to take over the situation. That level of presence allows wonderful and amazing things to happen. (Blackburn, p.219)
Similar to presence is the gift of allowing a person to feel wanted and received, something not all of us feel in life. Sensual masseuse Carolyn Elderberry says, “The men…knew they wanted their wives to desire them; they hadn’t realized the extra dimension of their frustration was their need to be wanted and received” (Stubbs, 1994, p.164).
In terms of healing, many clients have issues around trust, intimacy, sharing and surrender. All these things are important in living a “healthy” life and these kinds of sessions allow them to experience them, and to build their ability to have these experiences with another (non-working) partner. None of these sexual healers (and not all sex workers in general, for that matter) think of their job as providing a strictly sexual service, although sex is often (not always) a part of the time they share with their clients. It is the service of providing intimacy. This is increasingly common, as is well documented in Columbia professor Elizabeth Bernstein’s Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex.
Other aspects of healing can occur through exploration of fantasies:
We suspect that many of the dark fantasies we love to explore in SM are paths to the Shadow – paths to parts of ourselves that we wish to bring back into consciousness, split-off parts that we want to welcome back so that we can be whole. Seen in this way, the theater of SM is a sort of psychodrama, tracing a scary painful path to some dark cave in our iceberg, but with someone else to share in the journey and act as mirror to validate our experience…What if bringing our dark fears into the light of awareness can heal us, make us more whole? (Easton, 2004, p.167)
So if all this healing is possible, why would anyone choose to work outside of sexual surrogacy and brave the underworld of sensual massage and other services that could have them arrested for prostitution? As Selena Truth put it:
One of the pleasures of doing sensual massage was that I reached people who would never have come to see me if I had called my work “spiritual” or “healing.” Yet often they were the ones most in need of healing. The promise of an exotic sexual experience lured them in, and once they were there, they often received much more than just a hand job. Like with this man, I used the opening that happened with orgasm as a way in, to plant seeds of self-loving, heart-healing and a glimpse of a broader reality. (Truth, 2009, p.103-104)
Carol Queen, activist and self-identified call girl says:
To guide another person to orgasm, to hold and caress, to provide companionship and initiation to new forms of sex, to embody the Divine and embrace the seeker – these are healing and holy acts. Every prostitute can do these things, whether or not s/he understands their spiritual potential. (Stubbs, p.201)
To see an act of prostitution as “healing” or “holy” is to turn Judeo-Christian and Puritanical values on their head, to look at the world through a completely different lens. A lens that is sex-positive, that embraces embodied spirituality (rather than a spirituality that denies the body), one that seeks immanence rather than transcendence. Through this lens we see a whole new world of possibilities for healing, connection and oneness ahead. Shepherding us from the old world to the new are these bright spirits, these modern day sexual healers, leading the way.
A lot has changed for this author since the Daily Transmission went on hiatus… But what hasn’t changed is my passionate belief that sex, drugs and consciousness are important topics that need revisiting by society at large.
I’m now back at school, completing a masters program in Consciousness Studies at the incredible Goddard College in Vermont. The focus of my thesis will be the healing and spiritual potential of psychedelics and conscious sexuality. I’m specifically fascinated by how we can, as a society, develop/rediscover legitimate roles for sexual and psychedelic healers. In the coming weeks I’m going to start sharing some of my process and the work I’ve been doing towards this at Goddard.
So expect more updates soon! I so look forward to your feedback as my journey continues.
The world may not actually be coming to an end, but the era of drug prohibition is, even as our politicians remain in denial.
Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana (not just medical marijuana) via ballot initiatives that came into effect this month. A perfect opportunity for Obama to liberalize drug laws without sticking his neck out, right? Nope, according to the New York Times the administration is weighing it’s legal options which vary from having federal prosecutors making examples of low-level marijuana users to filing lawsuits and cutting off the states’ federal grants. I suppose Obama is really determined not to be the first black president who legalized marijuana (especially after his stoner past was splashed across the papers). Don’t worry Mr. President, no hurry, there are only nearly a million Americans arrested for pot every year (and as a black man you very easily could have been one of them). It’s not like it’s a basic human rights violation or anything.
Andrew Sullivan makes it even more personal. “Mr. President, don’t even think about it” he writes. “The president wasn’t just once a pot-smoker, he was a very serious pothead. His own life and career prove that this substance is no more potentially damaging to a human being than alcohol, which is not only legal but marketed to us with abandon….the federal War on Marijuana is racist in its enforcement, ridiculous as a matter of science, outrageous in terms of personal liberty, and inimical to federalism.”
So what gives? It seems we have to break the taboo – the numbers are there, the support is there, but politicians don’t seem to have gotten the message. Which is exactly why “queen of consciousness” Lady Amanda Feilding’s Beckley Foundation has spearheaded a new global grassroots campaign in association with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Virgin Unite, Avaaz and Sundog Pictures. Senseless or not, it’s still rare for politicians to speak openly on the failed war on drugs, and even more so to speak of liberalizing drug laws. (Well that is, until they’re out of office – and become supporters of campaigns like this one.)
“The Global Commission on Drug Policy, and initiatives like the Beckley Foundation’s Public Letter — signed by around 70 of the world’s most respected and influential figures, including 9 presidents, 12 Nobel Prizewinners, and celebrities like Yoko Ono, Noam Chomsky, Sting, Sean Parker and Sir Richard Branson — are rapidly making drug policy a subject that politicians can raise without the stigma that has traditionally accompanied any mention of the “d-word.”…
…The wave of reform is swelling, as President Pérez of Guatemala and President Santos of Colombia — both signatories of the Beckley Public Letter — have been joined by leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Argentina in calling for a new approach to the problem….
…And it is looking increasingly likely that drug policy will be the platform from which a united Latin America will once and for all establish its independence from its domineering northern neighbor on the world stage.”
Exciting times indeed. The new documentary film “Breaking the Taboo” is narrated by Morgan Freeman and features President Clinton and President Cater.
“In 1925, H. L. Mencken wrote an impassioned plea: “Prohibition has not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. … The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”…
…Here we are, four decades after Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and $1 trillion spent since then. What do we have to show for it? The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with about 2.3 million behind bars. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for a drug law violation. What a waste of young lives….
…In business, if one of our companies is failing, we take steps to identify and solve the problem. What we don’t do is continue failing strategies that cost huge sums of money and exacerbate the problem. Rather than continuing on the disastrous path of the war on drugs, we need to look at what works and what doesn’t in terms of real evidence and data.”
Here’s an idea:
For further evidence that the drug war is a joke, one only needs to look at last weeks headlines. HSBC signed off on a “record” financial settlement of $1.9 billion after admitting to laundering billions of dollars for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as violating other important banking laws. No criminal prosecutions were pursued by the Justice Department.
As Matt Taibi put it, “If you’ve ever been arrested on a drug charge, if you’ve ever spent even a day in jail for having a stem of marijuana in your pocket or “drug paraphernalia” in your gym bag, Assistant Attorney General and longtime Bill Clinton pal Lanny Breuer has a message for you: Bite me.”
“By eschewing criminal prosecutions of major drug launderers on the grounds (the patently absurd grounds, incidentally) that their prosecution might imperil the world financial system, the government has now formalized the double standard.
They’re now saying that if you’re not an important cog in the global financial system, you can’t get away with anything, not even simple possession. You will be jailed and whatever cash they find on you they’ll seize on the spot, and convert into new cruisers or toys for your local SWAT team, which will be deployed to kick in the doors of houses where more such inessential economic cogs as you live. If you don’t have a systemically important job, in other words, the government’s position is that your assets may be used to finance your own political disenfranchisement.
On the other hand, if you are an important person, and you work for a big international bank, you won’t be prosecuted even if you launder nine billion dollars. Even if you actively collude with the people at the very top of the international narcotics trade, your punishment will be far smaller than that of the person at the very bottom of the world drug pyramid. You will be treated with more deference and sympathy than a junkie passing out on a subway car in Manhattan (using two seats of a subway car is a common prosecutable offense in this city). An international drug trafficker is a criminal and usually a murderer; the drug addict walking the street is one of his victims. But thanks to Breuer, we’re now in the business, officially, of jailing the victims and enabling the criminals.”
“By coincidence, on the very same day that the DOJ announced that HSBC would not be indicted for its multiple money-laundering felonies, the New York Times published a story featuring the harrowing story of an African-American single mother of three who was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 27 for a minor drug offense…
…As the NYT notes – and read her whole story to get the full flavor of it – this is commonplace for the poor and for minorities in the US justice system. Contrast that deeply oppressive, merciless punishment system with the full-scale immunity bestowed on HSBC – along with virtually every powerful and rich lawbreaking faction in America over the last decade – and that is the living, breathing two-tiered US justice system. How this glaringly disparate, and explicitly status-based, treatment under the criminal law does not produce serious social unrest is mystifying.”
So the “War on Drugs” doesn’t work. Now what?
How about understanding why people (especially young people) take drugs to begin with? “Drugs are taken for pleasure” says David Nutt in the Guardian. “Realize this and we can start to reduce harm”. Most people who take drugs are not addicts. To help us understand more about drug use, MixMag and the Guardian are asking volunteers to fill out the Global Drug Survey, the biggest independent survey of drug use patterns in the world.
But the reason we take drugs may be even more interesting. Ronald K. Siegel in his book “Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances”, argues that the instinct to pursue intoxication with plants, alcohol and other mind-altering substances is a fourth drive, after food, sleep and sex. This natural part of our biology creates an irrepressible demand for intoxicating substances. If this is true, the war on drugs is actually a war on biology – and even evolution. Drug-taking causes changes in thoughts and behavior that may create variations or mutations that drive evolution. Fancy that!
Whatever the reason, apparently “Everything We Thought We Knew About Drug Users Was Wrong”: “Would you believe that people who use drugs are, on average, more educated than the average citizen? Or that less than 10 percent are unemployed? Around the world, the mythology of the drug user – as a desperate, ill or uncontrollable person – has often influenced policies that were poorly informed about actual drug use.”
With seventeen states now implementing medical marijuana programs, a growing admission of the “War on Drugs” as a failure and over half of all Americans favoring legalizing marijuana, it feels like we’re at a kind of tipping point in the case for legalization. If rumors at GQ magazine are to be trusted, President Obama plans on tackling the drug war if elected to a second term. (Although it’s fair to be skeptical after Obama broke his campaign promise to leave state medical dispensaries alone, in fact coming down harder on them than Bush ever did. Read more about “Obama’s War on Pot” in Rolling Stone magazine.) Politics aside, sometimes a picture’s worth a thousand words. Here’s a graphic to show your conservative friends who might not be convinced yet:
The “Miami Zombie” or “Miami Cannibal” was the perfect headline to go viral, as it shocked people around the world. For those of you who somehow avoided the media blitz, a naked homeless man was shot and killed by Miami police after he was caught literally chewing off the face of another homeless man on a sidewalk near the MacArthur Causeway. The poor man’s face was unrecognizable by the time he was sent off to the hospital, you can see pictures of him pre-surgery and post-surgery (but please don’t click if you have a weak stomach.)
Finding out victim Ronald Poppo was an alumni of Stuyvesant High School in New York City (my alma mater) piqued my personal interest in the story. How does one go from Stuyvesant graduate to homeless in Miami and victim of a freak cannibal attack? More confirmation that attendance at a ‘prestigious’ school guarantees nothing.
Back to the story. From the very beginning, it was portrayed as a drug-related incident – adding another sensationalist layer to the headlines:
“Cops: New LSD May Be Behind Miami Cannibal Attack” – CBS News
“Apparently LSD Can Turn You Into a Face-Eating Zombie Now” – NY Magazine
[Armando] Aguilar, president for the Fraternal Order of Police, tells Banana Republican that Eugene exhibited signs he was high on LSD, as well as symptoms for “excited delirium,” a controversial syndrome that supposedly turns drug users (primarily cocaine enthusiasts) into raging and almost unstoppable incredible Hulks. “I’m going by similarities in other cases of excited delirium I’ve researched in the last couple of days,” Aguilar says.
Spoken like someone who’s definitely never taken psychedelics. Remember all those violent hippies in the 1960s?
The story quickly shifted over to ‘bath salts’, a legal high that commonly contains research chemicals mephedrone and MDPV. But the LSD angle still stuck.
“Miami man shot dead eating a man’s face may have been on LSD-like drug” the Guardian reports. Hilarity ensues as one reads the article:
A man shot dead by police as he ate the face of another man may have been under the influence of a potent LSD-like drug called bath salts, investigators believe.
Eugene was naked and Poppo was wearing only a shirt when police arrived, possibly a result of the delirium-inducing drug, which can have effects similar to cocaine and LSD. It can raise users’ body temperature significantly and make them feel they are burning up inside.
“When a person has taken all of his clothes off and become violent, it’s indicative of this excited delirium that’s caused by overdose of drugs,” Armando Aguilar, head of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, told the city’s WSVN news. “What’s happening is, inside their body their organs are burning up alive.”
Paul Adams, an emergency room doctor, said that synthetic stimulant drugs such as bath salts, named for its powdery substance, can make users feel invincible and give them superhuman strength, but can also trigger aggression, extreme paranoia and hallucinations.
“It’s the new designer drug,” he told the Guardian. “It causes a state of excited delirium, raises the body temperature and causes irritability and confusion, which is heightened when combined with a lack of adequate hydration. You find yourself not making sense, and you don’t control your emotions or your actions.”
How a drug can have “effects similar to cocaine and LSD” is beyond me, as the two drugs have almost polar opposite effects on consciousness and behavior. And “their organs are burning up alive”? Who is this guy?
In fact, “bath salts” (as they are sold in the US) are another name for the legal high that caused a similar (although not quite as sensational) moral panic in the UK a few years ago: mephedrone (sold as “plant food” and commonly called “meow meow” or “mcat”.) A story based on rumor and police statements claiming that a fourteen year old girl had died due to mephedrone led to a swift ban at the end of 2009. Less than a year later the Guardian reported “Mephedrone found not guilty” as it turned out mephedrone was not involved in the incident at all. (Several additional incidents cited as reasons to ban mephedrone turned out to be hoaxes or unrelated to mephedrone as well.) If only newspapers bothered to fact-check against their own prior reporting mistakes before publishing…
Mephedrone’s pharmacology has hardly been studied but it is chemically related to the amphetamines. Users describe effects that suggest its actions are between those of amphetamine (speed) and MDMA (ecstasy); it activates, energises and makes them feel good but is relatively short-lasting. This has been known for years, so articles describing mephedrone as LSD-like should be completely unacceptable under any standard of journalism.
But it’s not. Why? Because unfortunately our media (and police) are about as educated on the effects of drugs and illicit substances as the rest of society. The group of illicit substances that we colloquially label “drugs” have a mind-blowingly vast range of effects on consciousness and often have nothing in common other than their illegality. Only in a society this ignorant could articles like this be published and syndicated again and again with little to no questioning. Not to mention the fact that whenever anyone does something crazy, LSD is the favored scapegoat. Ironic when the heavily over-prescribed (legal) anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, painkiller and ADHD medications all cause various levels of psychosis either in overdose or withdrawal. But the tripped out “Ritalin Cannibal” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
So that’s it, case closed. Mention “bath salts” to your average person, and it’s likely that the “Miami Cannibal” will be the first thing that comes to mind.
Except that yesterday the coroner’s report on attacker Rudy Eugene was released. Time Magazine reports “The Cannabis Cannibal? Miami Face-Eater Didn’t Take ‘Bath Salts’”. It was found that the only drug in his system was cannabis, confirming earlier reports where his girlfriend stated that he never took drugs other than marijuana. Bath salts were only ever part of this story as pure police and media speculation, based on a complete lack of knowledge as to what effects bath salts generally have on the user.
Inevitably of course, the true story will never get circulated even a fraction as widely as the original was. And so another urban legend is born. Now all there is to do is wait for the inevitable political backlash against bath salts, which remain legal in some states. Not for long!
In case you haven’t heard: there’s a new moral crusade on the rise. It began two years ago with a campaign for Craigslist to take down it’s adult advertisement section because it was being used by sex traffickers to advertise their victims. After winning every legal battle in court, Craigslist finally caved to public pressure and took it down. What followed was the inevitable exodus of adult services ads to another website, this time Village Voice owned Backpage.com, another website for classified ads. It wasn’t long before the anti-trafficking crusade was up in arms again.
The pressure has reached critical mass in recent weeks as scathing editorials by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times have become near-weekly and a petition with a quarter million signatures was delivered by local clergy and council members to Village Voice Media in NYC. The movement is growing nationally with 19 US senators and 51 attorneys general signing on to the cause.
The idea behind this is a simple one. For example take the Brooklyn District Attorney, who has claimed that in two years, 70 percent of the 40 trafficking cases his office dealt with involved ads on Backpage.com. They conclude from this that Backpage is effectively pimping underage/trafficked girls and that the site’s adult services section needs to be taken down.
The thought on this issue seems to stop there. Firstly, it would seem obvious that whatever website is most popular for those seeking adult services is going to be the place traffickers go to advertise their victims as well. The whole discussion around this issue seems to also show a certain naiveté around the prevalence of consensual prostitution, which makes up the vast majority of the ads placed on Backpage.
Aside from that, it is clear from what happened after Craigslist was shut down that this is really a game of Whac-A-Mole. With the advent of the internet as a marketing tool, we are dealing with a new era for the sex industry (as for any other industry), and shutting down one website at a time is simply not going to solve the problem.
Not only is it not going to solve anything, it’s actually a dangerous tactic for several reasons. Any website that cooperates with law enforcement and is proactive about screening its advertisements for any hint of coercion or underage sex (as Backpage does) is an opportunity to monitor a world that law enforcement can’t usually access. Assuming that these ads will eventually all move to a new website (even the District Attorneys attacking Backpage admit they will), there is no guarantee that this new website will have the rigor or interest in pursuing this on the scale Village Voice Media does, never mind the funding to do so. There are an estimated 5000 adult advertisement websites that advertise sex workers/escorts in the United States, and an increasing number of them are not on US shores. Therefore not only might they not take a principled stand on this issue (as Village Voice has) – but they may not be under US jurisdiction either. Many prosecutions of sex trafficking cases use information obtained from Backpage via subpoena, something not possible with an off-shore company.
This all doesn’t bode well for the future protection of victims of sex trafficking. And it’s only the beginning of the problem with the cause to shut down Backpage. While taking down Backpage may make some feel better, there is no evidence that doing so will help victims of trafficking. What we do know is that it will have many unintended and dangerous consequences for those involved in the sex industry by consent.
Backpage is a low-cost advertising site that has allowed many people in the sex industry to break away from a pimp or madam, get off the streets or out of a house, and work independently.
What happens when you shut down an advertising site that services so many people? Further marginalization leads to increases in violence, HIV and other STIs, stigma and discrimination. Without sites such as Backpage it is much harder for sex workers to screen their clients and negotiate their terms of service, such as condom use. Closing down low-cost advertising sites makes it harder to be independent and forces sex workers to rely again on third parties, leading back to exploitation and trafficking.
Having heard little discussion of these and other consequences in the crusade to shut down Backpage, I spent the day at City Hall yesterday waiting for a chance to testify on the proposed City Council resolution recommending the closure of Backpage’s adult services advertisements. I was joined by the wonderfully bright and articulate Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer from the Sex Workers Outreach Project of NYC. Chairing the panel were Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, Councilwoman Margaret Chin and Councilman Brad Lander.
It wasn’t so much a hearing as a lynch mob. Cameras rolling, I watched as members of our City Council practically lined up to abuse Village Voice attorney Liz McDougall (who came to testify by choice). She was interrupted, insulted and accused repeatedly – while her sensible and sensitive responses to their questions went completely ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder: knowing that the city has no power to shut down Backpage (the resolution is just a strong recommendation), surely the opportunity to sit and talk with Backpage’s attorney about these issues would have been better spent in an in-depth discussion of what Backpage could do to improve it’s current efforts to curb trafficking? Unfortunately all that ensued was finger-pointing, angry raised voices and public humiliation. Having spoken to Ms. McDougall I feel it’s obvious that she truly believes that the Village Voice is doing the right thing here (and I agree). It’s rare to see a sense of corporate responsibility these days and it was truly painful to watch her efforts met with sarcasm and bullying.
The rest of the testimony might as well have been a mutual masturbation session as City Council members, District Attorneys, and anti-trafficking organizations congratulated each other on having the courage to ‘stand up’ on this issue.
Except all I saw in that room was cowardice and politics. It is pure sleazy politics to not stand up and admit (as at least one council member is said to have done privately) that shutting down Backpage will probably not help the trafficking situation. It is pure cowardice to hide behind an easily passed resolution to be able to say you’ve done something about trafficking – instead of pushing for the funding for programs that would really help the populations most at-risk from this kind of abuse.
There are some real and tangible changes our society can make, as my fellow SWOP member Kate D’Adamo explained to the City Council:
“According to the John Jay College study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City, 95% of the youths interviewed said they exchanged sex for money because “it was the surest way to support themselves.” And we are not talking about a missing population who is isolated in their quest for support. 68% had visited at least one youth service agency. And while 87% expressed a desire to leave the sex trade, the barriers can feel insurmountable at times. 60% said they would require stable, legal employment, 51% identified educational needs, and 41% required stable housing before this was possible.
While these all seem like lofty goals, they are clear, decisive places to start that we know will have a huge impact on this population. The most frequent request for services? Stable, long-term housing, most acknowledging that the typical 90-day maximum stay does not provide enough time for them to get on their feet. In 2007, before the financial crisis, one study identified 4000 unaccompanied youth in New York City every single night, and even this number is low. This number does not include youth with their family in the shelter system. It does not include youth who have not tried to connect with the system in some way in order to be counted. It does not include the increase in homeless and housing unstable persons which occurred during the financial collapse a year later. To meet this need, the city funds just over 300 shelter beds. And while 45% of the population of youth engaging in the sex trade is male, and half of street-based youth identify as LGBTQ, the vast majority of these beds have gender restrictions. This year, Mayor Bloomberg is seeking to cut this number even further. Funding emergency shelter services could be a silver bullet into this issue, and it would be a solution which preserves the agency, the rights, and the autonomy of this population.”
I’m afraid to say our testimony fell on deaf ears. The council members present had already made up their minds a long time prior to this hearing. We were briskly thanked for our testimony and spared a single question or follow-up, unlike the many hours of questions we sat through during every testimony prior to ours. The message, in our eyes, was clear. Our ideas are not popular and the voices of the sex workers on whose behalf we were speaking are not exactly important in the political world. A depressing day indeed.
In the meantime, with it’s long-held tradition of standing up for marginalized groups and civil liberties, the Village Voice doesn’t look likely to back down anytime soon. And I’m proud of them. Shutting down Backpage’s adult section would have many unintended consequences. As well-meaning as the anti-trafficking campaigners are, it’s one of those cases where the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The problem of sex trafficking is complex and deserves a thoughtful, multi-level approach to prevent its occurrence and facilitate the rescue of its victims. In addition, sex workers’ voices (those working with agency and by consent) need to be heard when considering a policy that will affect them more than anyone else. Yesterday may have been disappointing, but we can’t afford to back down when there is so much at stake.
Occupy Wall Street is back in the news after a march to Liberty Plaza this past weekend celebrating it’s six month anniversary led to violence between the NYPD and protesters. While this writer was unable to attend, all accounts report undue force against protesters, who were given little notice to evacuate the park before things got heavy. Read more at the Huffington Post.
In light of what is now a much-anticipated “American Spring” it seems appropriate to have a look at where we left off in November when Occupy encampments were forcibly dismantled across the nation.
Here are a few things you might have missed this winter:
Keith Olbermann gave one of his more stunning tirades against New York City Mayor Bloomberg following the raid that took apart the original occupation in Liberty Plaza. Listening to it now amid reports of new violence, his words have renewed relevance.
No, answers Matt Taibbi in his blog for Rolling Stone, “Woman Gets Jail For Food-Stamp Fraud; Wall Street Fraudsters Get Bailouts.” In an example that is the epitome of what’s wrong with our nation, a mother of two who was ineligible for food stamps due to a past criminal drug offense lied about her history in order to feed her children and got caught. She paid the government back for the full amount of her fraud (a whole $4000). The judge didn’t feel she was punished enough so she ended up with a three year jail sentence. A stark comparison with the repercussions of corporate fraud on Wall Street ensues.
The examination of police brutality, corporate rule and corrupt politics in America could send us on a never-ending journey of pessimism. So if you’re craving some positive inspiration, have a look at TDT’s last post featuring a film that speaks to the soul of this movement, “Occupy Love”.
To end on a lighter note, I leave you in the capable hands of George Carlin. One can only wonder what he would have to say if he was still with us now in these changing times.
Hope that’s helped warm you up to this early spring. The weather’s ripe for revolution so keep updated on www.occupywallst.org/ for news of this global movement for change.
“A profound shift is taking place all over the world. Humanity is waking up to the fact that the current system that dominates the planet is failing to provide us with health, happiness or meaning. The dominant paradigm is based on separation, as exemplified by the financial system, and the corporate emphasis of profits before people.” – Occupy Love
Taking a moment to present to you the trailer for a very important documentary currently raising funds for completion. “Occupy Love” is a film looking at the bigger picture of the Occupy movement that made headlines last fall, arguing that the revolution is not only worldwide – the revolution is love.
The Indigogo campaign has raised almost $40,000 of its $50,000 goal, with 6 days left. So if the following video speaks to your heart, as it did to mine, you know what to do.
More from Occupy Love:
“Our headlong rush towards infinite growth is destroying our communities, our ecology, and threatening our very existence. The climate crisis is hitting us with droughts, extreme weather, floods, sea level rise and more, yet corporate lobbyists block any attempts at mitigation. Unemployment is at an all time high, and the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the remaining 99% is growing alarmingly.
People are losing their homes, and the quality of life for the many is plummeting, while the few are raking in absurd profits. Wall Street is making dangerous bets, greed is running rampant, and entire economies are collapsing. Governments have been bought by the corporations, and many of us had lost hope. Until now.
This crisis has become the catalyst for a profound transformation: millions of people are deciding that enough is enough – the time has come to create a new world, a world that works for all life. We have experienced an extraordinary year of change, from the Arab Spring, to the European Summer, and now, erupting into North America: the Occupy Movement.
This is a revolution rooted in compassion, direct democracy, and shared power, as opposed to the “power over” model of the corporate world view. The new story is one of Inter-dependence. Love is the movement. As the Occupy cry goes: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible!”
The modern version of Santa Claus as we know him can largely be attributed to Coca Cola’s marketing executives. But where does this strange legend of a ruddy faced merry soul and his flying reindeer really come from?
The figure of Father Christmas evolved out of centuries of pagan traditions, whose elements were first officially cobbled together in the poem “Twas The Night Before Christmas” or “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” in the 1820s by author and professor Clement Clark Moore of Albany, New York. Although Christmas is a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe. (The word ‘shaman’ comes from Siberian Tungus word ‘Saman’, the name they give their spiritual healers.)
But first we need to introduce a new character into our Christmas tale, the amanita muscaria mushroom, otherwise known as ‘fly agaric’. The amanita muscaria often seen illustrated in magical fairytales, children’s storybooks, cartoons and of course, Christmas cards and ornaments. The little red and white mushroom or ‘toadstool’ has gained celebrity status over the years for good reason (little known that reason may be). When consumed, it evokes an intense psychedelic experience. Fly agaric is one of the most potent psychedelic mushrooms on the planet, containing the active ingredient muscimol.
Eating the amanita causes visions and altered states, which have been used by tribal peoples to gain insight and transcendental experiences. The hallucinations usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. One of the side effects of eating amanita muscaria is that one’s skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow (sound familiar?). Those who indulge in the magic fungus tend towards states of euphoric laughter. “Ho, ho, ho!”
Origin of the Phrase, “To Get Pissed”
The active ingredients of amanita muscaria are not metabolized by the body, and therefore remain active in urine. In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushroom than to eat the mushroom directly, as many of the mushroom’s toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.
It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other’s urine. The mushroom’s ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body. Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase “to get pissed,” as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years. (For those not familiar with the expression, “getting pissed” is English slang for getting drunk.)
Someone who had eaten fly agaric may drink their own urine to prolong the state of hallucination, or offer it to others as a treat. Drinking the urine of one intoxicated by fly agaric has only a slightly less intoxicating effect than eating the fungus itself. Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the fresh piss was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. This method of ingestion was much less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with eating the mushroom itself.
How did ancient peoples gain this knowledge? Why, from the reindeer of course.
There are many indigenous peoples who used the amanita muscaria as their sacrament. Best documented are the Sami (Lapps) of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia and the Tungusic and Koryak peoples of Siberia. All of these groups live in the Arctic Circle and are traditionally reindeer herders.
Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as they were the source of food, shelter, clothing and other necessities. As it happens, the reindeer have a particular fondness for amanita muscaria, even seeking them out from underneath the snow. When they eat the mushrooms they become stupefied, staggering and prancing around while under the influence.
Reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, especially one who has consumed the mushroom. Reindeer will seek out human urine to drink, and some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.
When Georg Steller, and explorer, visited Kamchatka in 1739 he noted that reindeer were sometimes intoxicated. The Koryak people sometimes tie up the animals until their condition subsides and then kill them. All who eat the flesh become intoxicated. Jonathan Ott, an American author, suggested in 1976 that use of the fly agaric in the midwinter festivals of deepest Siberia may have inspired some of the imagery of Santa Claus.
The World Tree
These ancient peoples also share a belief in the idea of the World Tree. The World Tree was seen as a kind of cosmic axis onto which the planes of the universe are fixed. The roots of the World Tree stretch down into the underworld, its trunk is the “middle earth” of everyday existence, and its branches reach upwards into the heavenly realm.
Amanita muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens (Christmas trees) in a symbiotic non-parasitic relationship with the roots. The cap of the mushroom is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.”
The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the World Tree and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. Could this be the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, the reason that the super-shaman Santa makes his home at the North Pole?
The feeling of flying experienced on fly agaric easily accounts for the legends of shamanic journeys using winged reindeer to transport their riders up to the highest branches of the World Tree.
Some of these peoples lived in dwellings made of birch and reindeer hide, called “yurts.” Somewhat similar to a tee-pee, the yurt’s central smoke-hole (supported by a birch pole) can also be used as an entrance. The shamans of Siberia were responsible for bringing the mushrooms they collected from under the sacred evergreen trees to the houses of the the people on the winter solstice (a few days before our modern celebration of Christmas on December 25th). Sometimes dressing in the colors of the mushroom (red with white trim) and carrying a huge bag full of mushrooms that were picked and dried during the previous season, the shaman would go door to door to give the community the mushroom experience.
If the main door to the houses were snowed over (which they often were during the winter time), the shaman would enter the houses through the smoke-hole in the roof or the chimney. Climbing down the chimney-entrances, they would share out the mushroom’s gifts with those within.
The Amanita muscaria mushrooms are often dried before ceremonial consumption, reducing the mushroom’s toxicity while increasing its potency. Families would often hang them in socks around the fireplace to dry, ready to be shared on the morning of the solstice.
In the initiations of shamans in Buryatia, a tree will actually be erected inside the yurt. Sometimes the shaman literally climbs the tree, other times drumming at the base and only ascending with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends the tree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upper world. To journey to this upper world requires the ability to fly, so the shamans often change themselves into birds or ride upon a flying deer or horse to make the journey. The magic flight of Santa Claus through the midwinter night sky is a superb expression of the basis of all shamanism – ecstasy, or the flight of the spirit.
In Popular Culture
In Victorian times travelers returned with intriguing tales of the use of fly agaric by people in Siberia, Lapland, and other areas in the northern latitudes. One of the first was reported by the mycologist Mordecai Cooke, who mentioned the recycling of urine rich in muscimol in his A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi (1862). Patrick Harding of Sheffield University points out that Cooke was a friend of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), the author of the fantastic children’s story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). “Almost certainly, this is the source of the episode in Alice where she eats the mushroom, where one side makes her grow very tall and the other very small,” Harding says. “This inability to judge size—macropsia—is one of the effects of fly agaric.” It is also interesting to note that, in central Europe, the fly agaric has been adopted as the symbol of chimney sweeps.
There are some historians, such as Ronald Hutton, who refute the connection between the amanita muscaria and the legend of Santa Claus. “The Santa Claus we know and love was invented by a New Yorker, it really is true,” Hutton says. “It was the work of Clement Clarke Moore, in New York City in 1822, who suddenly turned a medieval saint into a flying, reindeer-driving spirit of the Northern midwinter.” Moore brought that beloved Santa Claus to life in his poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.”
From Wikipedia, “Hutton claims that reindeer spirits did not appear in Siberian mythology, shamans did not travel by sleigh, nor did they wear red and white or climb out of smoke holes in yurt roofs. Finally, American awareness of Siberian shamanism postdated the appearance of much of the folklore around Santa.”
But reindeer were very important in Siberian mythology, they even put antlers on their headdresses to symbolize the protective spirit of the reindeer. The Chuchki and Koryaks of Siberia do train reindeer to pull them on sledges. Hutton is right that shamans do not exclusively wear red and white, but this picture of a Kamchatkan (Northeast Siberian) shamaness with fly-agaric mushrooms proves this is a real phenomena. (Photo by Emanuel Salzman).
Whether or not the smoke hole was used as a second entrance to the yurt, the connection between the shaman and the smoke hole of the yurt is well documented. The dwelling of the shaman was easy to recognize due to the top of the tree placed inside poking through the smoke hole. During ceremony, the shaman would climb the tree to shamanize, calling deities and ancestor spirits from the top of the yurt.
Hutton’s final claim that awareness of Siberian shamanism came after the evolution of our Santa Claus is irrelevant. The date of the 25th of December, for example, is pagan in origin although for most of the last two thousand years most Christians were not aware of that fact. Traditions and ideas regularly evolve without public knowledge.
But don’t take my word for it. I leave you in the capable hands of the BBC. Merry Christmas!
Last night a battle cry went out across Facebook, Twitter, Livestream and the rest of the social networking world. Occupy Wall Street was being taken down, protesters kicked out of the park while the sanitation team and police department tried to both literally and metaphorically sweep them away. After an hour or two of staring at our laptops fixated, the opportunity seemed not to be missed. Down at Occupy Wall Street, First Amendment rights were being challenged as we watched the work of our bravest and loudest voices being torn apart.
With subways to the Lower East Side closed in coordination with the police raid, we set off on foot to march from Brooklyn to Foley Square, where hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters had congregated to regroup and plan the next course of action.
Tribal drums kept the pulse of the crowd steadily beating even after a long emotional night with no sleep. We marched at 9am to an open plaza at 6th Avenue and Canal St. Police in riot gear lined the march every step of the way, mostly blank, unsmiling and unsympathetic faces. Only once did we see a few short-lived smiles as we chanted “N. Y. P. D., it’s us that pay your salary.”
The people’s mic was in fine working order as the next possible moves were outlined. Some would stay and maintain a presence in the new plaza. But the Occupy Wall Street movement now had a court order signed by Judge Lucy Billings, giving us the right to reenter Zuccotti Park.
Off we went, marching again to Re-Occupy Wall Street. Time to test the boundaries between the ‘legal world’ and the ‘real world.’
Feet aching, bladder bursting, throat parched but who could be distracted when history was in the making?
Onwards, through the streets of Manhattan. Passersby stopped to stare and take pictures as we avidly encouraged them to join in. “We are the 99%!”
The energy was intoxicating. “Who’s streets? Our streets!” This, surely would be democracy in action. The will of the people, working peacefully and lawfully to organize and demand their rights. I suddenly became aware of the fact that marching along the street behind an American flag for the past few hours had felt completely natural. Perhaps patriotism isn’t just for Tea Partiers after all. We too have a vision of a better America.
The closer we got to Zuccotti Park, the more important it became to stay vocal. “The people, united, will never be defeated!” The overwhelming police presence was enough to put a damper on this first-time protester’s spirit. “They’re here to protect and serve”, I try to remind myself. So why do they look at us like we’re the enemy?
Yet I can’t help but feel sympathy for our ‘boys in blue’. “You’re sexy, you’re cute. Take off your riot suit!” They’re in the same boat. They too are the 99%. Perhaps at the right moment some of them too will feel emboldened to risk mutiny, joining us on the other side of the barricades. What a day that would be.
I was looking forward to encountering the media upon our arrival, the dismantlement of OWS being by now front page news. Yes, there were video cameras everywhere I looked – more often than not held by men in NYPD uniforms, apparently the only organization allowed to get real and up-close footage of the event. An eery conspiratorial shudder ran down my spine. Suddenly I realized my neighbor’s V for Vendetta mask served as more than just an iconic statement.
Liberty Plaza was before us. We walked up to the police barricades expectantly, copies of our precious court order in hand. But it would seem the laws of this country don’t necessarily apply to everybody. We were not allowed in, and anyone who didn’t keep in motion as we circled the park risked arrest.
And so we continued walking, chanting, talking, drumming, waiting. No, revolution doesn’t come easy. But somehow after today I know that when it does, the taste will be ever so sweet.
For this weary writer, revolution will start again tomorrow. Sleep now beckons, full of dreams of a better world now seemingly within our grasp.
Till Thursday November 17th, the International Day of Action. We will be celebrating two months of Occupy Wall Street, calling upon the 99% to participate in a day of non-violent direct action and celebration. “We are the 99%!” See you there!
For the latest news and streams of the Occupy Movement please visit: