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.
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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All fired up? Here are some great resources for sharing:
“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!”
‘Sacred sexuality’ isn’t a phrase you hear everyday. Indeed, our porn culture is so dominant that it hardly seems possible to conceive of sex in a spiritual light. One could say this is the result of being brought up in society whose most prominent religions treat sex as dirty and shameful unless for the sole purpose of procreation.
However, the separation of sex from the sacred is a relatively recent (and mostly Western) social norm. A brief study of ancient goddess-worshipping cultures such as Sumer, Babylon, Crete, and Canaan makes it astonishingly clear that in those times, sexuality was at the heart of spirituality and religion. Some archaeologists prefer to use the term ‘fertility cults’ rather then giving these traditions recognition as legitimate religions, yet another reflection of Western bias. These ‘fertility cults’ were widespread across the Near and Middle East for thousands of years in goddess (or should that be Goddess?) worshipping cultures that celebrated and honored the creation of life – namely, sex.
Originating in India, Tantra is another ancient belief system that celebrates sexuality and connects the carnal to the ethereal. These ancient Indian books (over two thousand years old) teach that sexual energy can be harnessed to achieve union with the divine. These traditions show a very ancient connection between sex and religion, sometimes pre-dating the rise of Judaism or Christianity.
Freedom of religion is one of the most frequently cited aspects of the 1st Amendment of the American Constitution. The signing of the Bill of Rights was a landmark in history for the rights of the individual to his or her own spiritual practices, free from prosecution. Those very rights came in question last week when the police raided the Phoenix Goddess Temple in Arizona, leading to the arrests of more than 18 people affiliated with the temple on charges of prostitution. They are still hunting the other 19. Among those arrested was the temple’s Founder and Temple Mother, Tracy Elise.
There have been no shortage of news reports on the raid. Not one has left open the possibility that the interdominational temple’s neo-tantra practices were in earnest; sexual ceremonies and tantric teachings as part of their religious belief system. The idea of sacred sexuality has no place in our society. Instead there are endless puns, jokes and quotation marks around every spiritual term used to describe their sacred sexuality.
Putting aside for the moment the actual temple in question, where in our society do we have room for this ancient tradition? And how could genuine believers in sacred sexuality practice their beliefs without the donations that all religious organizations rely upon to survive being conflated with illegal prostitution?
Nevertheless, the temple remains accused of being a front for a whorehouse.
“They were committing crimes under the guise of religious freedom,” Phoenix police spokesman Steve Martos said. “It’s a sad situation when people are trying to hide behind religion and church to commit a crime.”
So let’s take a look at Tracey Elise, the founder of the temple in question. Here we see her being interviewed earlier this year about the Phoenix Goddess Temple. Does this look like a madam covering up her illegal activity? (Excerpt from full interview here.)
No indeed she is adamant, evangelical even, in defense of practicing what she says is perhaps the world’s oldest religion: worship of the Goddess, the female aspect of the divine.
“Our temple is an open source for all who wish to better know the Great Mother and her unique gifts for healing body, mind and soul. We seek to help women, men and couples discover their own divine connection between soul, light body and sacred vessel. We offer group classes and one-on-one teachings and training, play shops and internships, all designed to bring HER wisdom back in this modern era. Our teachings are body centric, emanating from the resonating vessel, which is your own Sacred Self. We see the beauty of every person’s story in every age, body shape, color and gender. Our healing practices make use of the gifts of the Goddess, tools for transformation that have been with humanity since the very beginning.”
Police obtained a search warrant after initiating several undercover deals and determining that the Temple Goddess employees had been trained to use evasive vocabulary. “For example, ‘johns’ were not ‘johns.’ They were called ‘seekers.’ Sexual intercourse was called ‘sacred union,'” Martos said.
So what would have convinced police that these were sacred unions being sought out by seekers, rather than whores being sought by johns? The fact that other activities held at the Phoenix Goddess Temple include yoga classes, study groups, and High Holy Day celebrations? Or the fact that there are people who have testified to receiving healing sessions at the temple regardless of the fact that they couldn’t afford the suggested donation?
Testament to the actual goings on at Phoenix Goddess Temple can be found in the occasional comment left on news reports by those who have experienced temple life first-hand (buried in a sea of abuse left by those who haven’t.) One attendee of the church comments:
“The “donations” are actually donations, left in a basket at the end of a session, not counted and verified, and not required. The Temple also holds many educational events, (also on a donation basis), seminars and trainings, religious services, as well as social events. The vast majority of these stress communication, connection, outward focus, and clarity of intention; rarely do any of these events involve nudity or sex.”
“I know Tracy, and many of the goddesses, and have attended several rituals at the temple, as well as having attended the Daka – Dakini Conference in Sedona 2 years ago. The event was attended by Practitioners from around the globe, and I have had the opportunity to experience these people, meet them where they live, on their terms, in a non-judgemental environment of acceptance…I know from firsthand experience what Tracy and the goddesses’ intentions were, and it is simply this: to spread love and connection to others, to make the world a more whole and peaceful place. To them, it IS a legitimate religion. Upon opening in their present location, they extended an invitation to the mayor of Phoenix, as well as the city council. They gave many TV, radio, and print interviews, operating in a signed, clean, well-lit building on a major thoroughfare about 3 miles from city hall. They are most certainly not “disguised”, and if anything, their downfall is rooted in being TOO visible. I call upon those of you with courage and love for freedom and people to be of support to these women, who practiced and operated in love and good faith. I, for one, am chilled to the bone at the sight of masked, bodyarmored, helmeted, police militias armed with assault weapons and battering rams storming into a church filled with women in chiffon, armed with nothing more than candles and incense. How long will it be before those heavily armed government agents come for you and yours, because your beliefs fall outside of the traditional judeo-christian ethic?”
This case is a landmark in history for the sacred sexuality community in the United States. But it seems to be going unnoticed. In the meantime, Tracy Elise and many others face criminal charges for practicing their religious beliefs. Tracy Elise’s bail has been set at an unprecedented one million dollars.
God Bless America.
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Would you like to help Tracy Elise and the others arrested at Phoenix Goddess Temple? Sign this petition to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer:
Click here for the official site to make offerings of love and support to help save The Phoenix Goddess Temple. All proceeds raised go directly towards the legal defense of members of the Temple members who have been wrongly accused. Help in the protection of all civil liberties, including the 1st Amendment: the freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble & the right to practice religion without persecution.
You can also visit End The Witch Hunt to file a complaint with the ACLU so they know there is support for this cause.
If you would like to volunteer, contribute or make an offering of support of any kind, please email GoddessBless@GoddessBless.org.
Yet another drug headline with ketamine in the news lately, after a recent study in Bristol (Mason, et al, 2010) found that some users are suffering long-term bladder damage – a few even needing their bladders replaced at the tender age of twenty.
A Class C drug in the UK (or Schedule III in the US), ketamine is not generally seen to be one of the more harmful illegal drugs. The evidence to date seemed to show ketamine to be a relatively safe drug when coming from pure, pharmaceutical grade vials. Originating as a liquid, ketamine is usually ‘cooked’ into a crystalline powder which can be snorted like cocaine, although heavier users prefer to use the liquid form for intramuscular injections, as would be given in a medical setting.
Ketamine is widely stereotyped as a ‘horse tranquilizer’. Actually ketamine is an anesthetic that has been used in both human and veterinary medicine since the 1960s (although less so in humans today due to some patients’ negative reactions to hallucinations or ’emergence reactions’ as the medical community calls them).
In much smaller (recreational) doses, ketamine can have paradoxical stimulatory and dissociative effects. Some users take small ‘bumps’ up the nose when out clubbing – others take a larger dose to find themselves in the famed ‘k-hole’, a dissociated state where one can have out-of-body and near-death experiences, or seemingly travel to other mystical and magical places.
While ketamine is generally associated with the dance and rave scene, at these higher doses ketamine is safest taken at home, in a familiar environment to offset the possible dangers of being in a dissociative state in public surroundings. Many taking ketamine fall into the ‘psychonaut‘ category, like this user in a UK study on ketamine use (Muetzelfeldt, et al, 2008), who stated that ketamine allowed “new ways of thinking and an understanding of the mind/body question which 3 years of a philosophy degree could not reach.”
There is some interesting potential for ketamine use in exploring consciousness and success has been documented using ketamine to treat alcoholism and depression. What doesn’t seem to be properly investigated is the extent to which ketamine is harmful to the body, and in what quantities it becomes so.
The most obvious danger of ketamine is of injuring oneself while in the dissociative state. This has been the downfall of several respected members of the psychonaut community such as D M Turner:
“On New Years Eve, 1996, the noted author and lay-psychedelic researcher known only by the pseudonym D.M. Turner drew a hot bath, injected himself with an unknown amount of ketamine, and settled in for the last trip of his life. When his body was found weeks later, the cause of death was determined to be natural causes. It is assumed that Mr. Turner lost consciouness at some point during the evening, slid under the water, and quietly drowned.”
Another tragic loss to the community was Marcia Moore, the heiress to the Sheraton Hotel fortune, a yoga teacher and world famous writer on astrology and ‘hypersentience’:
“Marcia Moore named what she perceived to be the ‘highest’ level of her experiences ‘the cosmic matrix’ or ‘cosmatrix’, the source from which everything was said to be derived. She noted that ketamine produced a ‘higher, clearer and more real trip’ than LSD, although some people just felt ‘disconcertingly whacked out’, and that ketamine produced fragmentation into subpersonalities, including her role as ‘priestess of the Goddess Ketamine’. ‘The Priestess’, aged 50, disappeared on a freezing winter’s night in January, 1979. Her bleached skeleton was found two years later. She had gone at night into a nearby forest, and frozen to death after injecting herself with all the ketamine she could find.”
Aside from the danger of unsupervised pyschonautic exploration, the overall health risks of ketamine cannot yet be quantified. The Bristol study was not large enough to extrapolate the correlation between ketamine use and bladder destruction for light recreational users, with some in the study reporting incredibly heavy use of more than two grams a day (and others refusing to report the extent of their use altogether). Indeed perhaps another unexplored aspect of ketamine use is its potential for addiction; while not physically addictive, there seems to be a high potential for compulsive use to become a serious issue (even for its most thoughtful and educated users, as seen with D M Turner, Marcia Moore, and John Lilly).
Reading through frequent ketamine users’ discussions and reports online, aside from the common bladder complaints, there is recurring talk of what have been mysteriously termed ‘k-cramps’ – a kind of severe gastric pain. As the 2008 UK study cited above states:
“The classification of ketamine-associated ulcerative cystitis has recently been established, however the etiology and treatments of ‘K-cramps’ are still unknown. Nevertheless, it seems to be a prevalent symptom which may represent a broader public health concern if the use of ketamine continues to increase.”
“Ketamine causes ulcers in high habitual dosing. There is little information on this on the internet but if you search just hard enough you will hear rumors of it. Well why isn’t this a known fact? Well one would have to take ketamine daily or semi daily at least to get this nasty side effect.
I was unfortunate enough to have this happen on 3 separate occasions. The first time on a cruise ship, resulting in collapsing on the deck screaming for my life, which resulted in a diagnosis of ‘gastritis’ and a double shot of morphine. The second time at home which kept me pent in bed in the fetal position a few days. The third time in the snow in the midst of a rock scramble/ice climb, which made for a difficult, cold, and dire crawl two miles to safety.
From communication with 3 other habitual ketamine abusers this phenomena was familiar with all 3 and equally as gruesome. For the record all 3 consumed a minimum of 3-5 grams a week often more.
Now the physiology of it seems to be a disruption in the pH of the gall bladder causing an ungodly acid reflux. (literally feels like the acids going to eat clear through to your skin)
The way to end the agony is stop using ketamine till it subsides. It can take up to 3 days for it to go away with abstinence. Pink Bismuth (pepto bismol) was found to alleviate some of the pain, as did pain killers. Thought I would share as it took me nearly a year to figure it out, and found next to no information on the net about it.”
This is but one of dozens of reports of excruciating pain by ketamine users, accounts that can be found by googling ‘k-cramps’ and ‘ketamine’.
Once thought to be a ‘safe’ drug in terms of abuse due to the absence of physical dependence, ketamine is now known to be associated with bladder dysfunction when abused, but its effects on the gall bladder, liver and gastrointestinal system have been largely ignored.
The only two studies relevant to this phenomena I’ve been able to locate originate from Hong Kong, where ketamine has long been the party drug of choice. Those more medically inclined may find the following two studies of interest, certainly a place to start for UK and US investigation into this phenomena:
“In addition to urological problems, ketamine abusers may develop hepato-biliary toxicity manifested as recurrent epigastric pain, abnormal liver function, and biliary tree dilatation. The proposed mechanism for ketamine-induced cystitis is direct toxicity of ketamine metabolites on urinary tract mucosa. Because ketamine is metabolized in the liver and excreted in bile, mucosal toxicity has also been postulated as the cause of dilated bile ducts.”
The Daily Transmission does not believe any drugs should be illegal, but if one is to have a classification of drugs surely it should be based on relative harm. The UK has LSD and MDMA in Class A, cannabis in Class B, and ketamine in Class C. The US has cannabis, LSD, and MDMA as Schedule I, and ketamine as Schedule III.
David Nutt, the UK government’s former chief drugs advisor, was proposing reclassification of drugs such as MDMA, cannabis, and ketamine based on scientific evidence. Then he was sacked for being out of line with government policy. Which leaves us with politicians upholding the status quo at the expense of the health of the people.
I can’t see what kind of logic these categorizations are meant to be based on, but it would seem its time for a serious rethink (and some proper research) before more and more people find their way from the ‘K-hole’ to ‘K-Hell’.
Last week the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) held its 2010 Conference in San Jose, California – and the press stood up and took notice. It only took 40 years, but the government has finally given a few researchers permission to study the potential therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs. Based on the preliminary results, it looks like mainstream science, and the media, are finally ready to move past the stigma of 1960s drug taking.
Brain-imaging studies in healthy volunteers show that MDMA quiets the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that some researchers call a “fear center” due to its central role in triggering strong negative emotions. MDMA also releases a flood of the brain messengers serotonin and dopamine while increasing blood levels of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which promote social bonding. This potent mix diminishes fear and defensiveness and boosts empathy and the desire to connect with others, says Holland, so “the therapy work goes faster and deeper.”
For anyone interested in the use of psychedelics pre-Timothy Leary, I highly recommend this National Film Board of Canada documentary:
This documentary offers a compassionate, open-minded look at LSD and how it fits into our world. Long before Timothy Leary urged ageneration to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” the drug was hailed as a way to treat forms of addiction and mental illness. At the same time, it was being touted as a powerful tool for mental exploration and self-understanding.
A long time coming, but I think we’re about to conquer the final frontier: the human mind.
David Bowie once said “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.'”
Of course he’s not the only one. It’s an aspiration as timeless as the quest for the fountain of youth, or at least mere immortality.
In the meantime, we’ve seen Michael Jackson use technologies such as plastic surgery and skin-lightening drugs over the course of his career. He effectively blurred all identifiers of gender, race and age in one of the most dramatic transformations publicly witnessed. He left us at a turning point in the development of technologies for human enhancement. We are now learning to perform body modification at the most fundamental level.
The scientists currently grasping at the reigns of evolution are known as transhumanists. In 2008 the World Transhumanist Movement became Humanity+. (The term ‘transhumanism’ is now often symbolized by H+ or h+, as in ‘human enhancement’.)
Last weekend David Wood led the Humanity+ UK 2010 conference, and I felt privileged listening to ten equally brilliant speakers representing a full spectrum of the transhumanist agenda. With technology advancing at the rate that it is, Mr. Bowie’s ‘repulsive’ needs just may be met. New developments blur the lines between high-tech and sci-fi.
The convergence of current technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) and future technologies such as artificial intelligence, mind uploading, cryonics, and simulated reality, is truly inspirational. Overwhelming however are the numerous moral debates which dominate the transhumanism Wikipedia page. There are so many different ways humans may be enhanced, so many ways of defining enhancement, and of course, the existential risks we face if those enhancements go wrong.
I think we all have a vested interest in Aubrey de Grey’s idea that aging is simply a disease, and a curable one at that. His plan is to identify all the components that cause human tissue to age, and design remedies for each of them through his approach called SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). Once we can extend human life spans by thirty years, we’re well on our way to immortality. Aubrey de Grey claims that the first human being to live a thousand years has probably already been born. From the way he talks, the biggest challenge in the race against mortality is funding! So I highly encourage those of you with means and an interest to donate to the SENS Foundation.
Another fascinating speaker was David Pearce, advocating the abolition of suffering throughout the living world. This mission can be accomplished through the use of drugs or ‘wire-heading‘ but perhaps more interestingly through genetic engineering as we come into a ‘reproductive revolution‘. He argues that as we develop these technologies, it is both our moral and hedonistic imperative to rid all sentient beings of pain. He has a fantastic array of resources for you to read through online. Within a few decades, we will see breakthroughs in in-vitro meat. It will be grown in a lab without any killing or cruelty, but tastier than any ‘real’ meat. A cruelty-free world without even having to revolutionize our diets by ‘breaking our addiction to meat’!
On a final philosophical note, Amon Twyman reminded us that we are naturally unaware of the limits of our perception, and that trans- or post-humans may sense things imperceivable to us now. I’ll leave you with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Future Shock Levels (SL), an interesting way of categorizing just how familiar or far out different technological developments or concepts are:
• SL0: The legendary average person is comfortable with modern technology – not so much the frontiers of modern technology, but the technology used in everyday life. Most people, TV anchors, journalists, politicians.
• SL1: Virtual reality, living to be a hundred, “The Road Ahead”, “To Renew America”, “Future Shock”, the frontiers of modern technology as seen by Wired magazine. Scientists, novelty-seekers, early-adopters, programmers, technophiles.
• SL2: Medical immortality, interplanetary exploration, major genetic engineering, and new (“alien”) cultures. The average sci-fi fan.
• SL3: Nanotechnology, human-equivalent AI, minor intelligence enhancement, total body revision, intergalactic exploration. Extropians and transhumanists.
• SL4: The Singularity, Jupiter Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computing, Apotheosis, the total evaporation of “life as we know it.” Singularitarians and not much else.
I say if you can speculate what SL5 is, you’re already post-human.
Since the movie’s debut, there’s been a lot of publicity about Avatar viewers who experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after having to return from the movie’s magical world ‘Pandora’, back to our (comparatively) bleak one. Eliezer Sobel of the Huffington Post wrote this very interesting article about escaping into other worlds (whether by entering a 3D virtual reality like Avatar or having a good old-fashioned psychedelic experience). He makes the inspirational point that:
“The alluring world of Pandora is not ‘out there.’ It surrounds us every moment, it is the very atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. Hell and heaven are separated only by an infinitesimal turn of the mind and inner view.”
“Are drugs the quick and dirty route to insight? I wanted to try the slow route, too. So I have spent more than 20 years training in meditation – not joining any cult or religion but learning the discipline of steadily looking into my own mind.
Gradually, the mind calms, space opens up, self and other become indistinguishable, and desires drop away. It’s an old metaphor, but people often liken the task to climbing a mountain. The drugs can take you up in a helicopter to see what’s there, but you can’t stay.
In the end, you have to climb the mountain yourself – the hard way. Even so, by giving you that first glimpse, the drugs may provide the inspiration to keep climbing.”
As you leave a screening of ‘Avatar’ or the last traces of a chemically-induced buzz wear off, coming back down to social consensus “reality” is often depressing. You want to go back, to retain those feelings and thoughts during your day to day existence. You’ve been taken in for a sneak peak at something incredibly different. Now you feel like you’re back where you started. But you’re not really – the experience you had up there (or in the cinema!) can inspire and drive you to start climbing back the hard way. I believe it’s possible to achieve all kinds of altered states without outside help or stimulation, but it takes a lot more patience, time, and effort.
So why bother? Because in the end most methods of ‘getting high’ still leave you with the inevitable process of coming down. Some descents are bumpier than others and it’s common to find yourself quickly seeking out another escape in order to avoid a crash landing. As Sobel put it:
“There is really not much use in continuously revisiting artificially induced states if it is at the expense of doing the actual work required to integrate the teachings from those selfsame states into one’s life in a meaningful and less transient manner. Philosopher and Zen practitioner Alan Watts compared it to a scientist in a lab who discovers something under the microscope; she doesn’t just keep on repeating the experiment and staring at the result; she takes new actions informed by her discovery. Or, switching metaphors, Watts also said, ‘When you get the message, hang up the phone.'”
In the 1960s, Dr. Richard Alpert (soon to become spiritual teacher Ram Dass) gave the Indian guru Maharaj-ji a massive dose of LSD, and was shocked to find it had no effect on his mind whatsoever. Was he already living in – or beyond – the psychedelic state of consciousness?
Maybe spiritual teachers sell their philosophies all wrong. In this day and age, who wants to go through all that work just to become ‘enlightened’? How about marketing the practice of meditation as a way to achieve powerful natural highs that are entirely under your control – with no hangover! (You won’t believe it’s still legal!)
In all seriousness, it does sound amazing: To depend on nothing and no one else to make you happy. The ability to create your own ecstasy and internal bliss – anytime, anyplace.
Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out that spirituality was the ultimate high – the greatest escape of them all?
Reading the full version of his article alerted me to an astounding set of statistics:
“A telling review of 10-year media reporting of drug deaths in
Scotland illustrates the distorted media perspective very well
(Forsyth, 2001). During this decade, the likelihood of a newspa-
per reporting a death from paracetamol was in per 250 deaths,
for diazepam it was 1 in 50, whereas for amphetamine it was
1 in 3 and for ecstasy every associated death was reported.”
Talk about distorting perception of danger…
Also at Brainwaving is an excellent review of the movie Avatar by Dr. Ralph Metzner, for anyone who’s interested in looking deeper into this newest cultural phenomenon:
Reason magazine has a fantastic article called The Salvia Ban Wagon about the ridiculous panic-driven rush to make salvia divinorum illegal in the US. Highly recommended reading.
Salvia divinorum (literally “diviner’s sage”) is a psychoactive herb traditionally used in divination and healing, which was legal in the US until recent media attention triggered dozens of states to implement bans on its sale and use.
One of the fundamental obstacles we face is a society that cannot come to terms with the idea that experiencing other states of consciousness through the use of substances is a time-honoured, ancient, and important component of human existence.
It’s ironic considering we all accept certain substances, such as alcohol, as serving a purpose socially. We know alcohol is a tool that can be used to have a good time or be abused to have a bad one. But we can’t seem to carry that logic through to other currently illegal drugs.
More than just having a good time, ‘hallucinogenic’ or ‘psychedelic’ drugs allow one to enter states of consciousness that are not unnatural, but rather inaccessible to most of us in our modern society. Spend some time in a sensory deprivation tank, meditate alone in a cave for a month, and you’ll probably have a trippy experience more intense than any schedule I or class A drug. Some plant-based drugs provide a shortcut to that experience.
It’s funny because in America we have drugstores on every corner. So in terms of these mind-expanding or consciousness-expanding drugs, it must be the mind-expansion, not the drugs, that we’re afraid of!
Salvia has a long history of medicinal and spiritual use by the Mazatec shamans and the banning of this drug based on fear drummed up by the media and a few immature You Tube videos is a terrible shame. Let’s not repeat the mistake we made in the 1960s and rush to ban a drug that’s hurting no one. Instead let’s see this as an opportunity to re-examine our drug policies and attitudes towards altered states of consciousness in a society that so desperately needs a good shaking up.
The CCLE’s focus is on protecting the unlimited potential of the human mind, and we maintain that criminal drug prohibition infringes on the inalienable right to freedom of thought. We maintain that the war on drugs is not a war on pills, powders, and plants, anymore than the earlier governmental efforts to ban books or to censor publications was a war on paper and ink. These are wars against thinking certain ways, and for this reason we maintain that criminal drug prohibition is unconstitutional cognitive censorship, and inconsistent with the basic values and freedoms upon with the United States was founded. So long as a person does not endanger others, the CCLE maintains that the government lacks the constitutional authority to punish the person simply for self-determining his or her own cognitive processes.
The CCLE strives to protect the fundamental right to freedom of thought — a right that Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo has called “the matrix, the indispensable condition for nearly every other form of freedom.” Because our enumerated rights date back to a time in which the drafters could not have conceived of modern methods of mental enhancement, or mental surveillance and control, the CCLE is committed to gaining legal recognition of cognitive liberty and to expanding legal protection for our rights of mind.
Following up on “Reality As You Know It Does Not Exist”, it’s time to look at the world through a new lens. It seems to me that our great instruments, which we had built to confirm our concept of the world as a machine built out of predictable and understandable parts, have now shown us that the universe is an ethereal, drifting mirage! Nothing is really solid, just slow moving energy. The universe is a seething field of potential.
What is even more astonishing is the realisation that this potential only becomes a ‘reality’ when it is observed by a conscious mind. Quantum physicists found that “the state of all possibilities of any quantum particle collapsed into a set entity as soon as it was observed or a measurement taken.”
When you put this together with the idea that everything (including us) in the universe is part of a dynamic web of interconnected and inseparable energy patterns, that the universe is only a series of relationships, you can see how it makes sense to say that we are all one.
So then the spiritual idea of God ‘creating the world’ would be equivalent to the scientific idea of our individual and collective consciousness actively shaping the world we live in, as it is doing this very moment. Prayer, meditation, and belief are ways of focusing consciousness, and work because we are all part of ‘God’ (rather than praying to some exterior force).
This unity (God, Brahman, Tao, Spirit, Energy, Light, Vibration) is central to all major religions, thus their common moral foundation of “Do unto others as to thyself” – because the other is no different from the self.
Winner of the 2008 New York short film festival Tropfest, The Daily Transmission is delighted to share with you this inspirational little movie. Produced on a budget of $57 and shot entirely on a mobile phone, Mankind is No Island is an inspirational reminder to all of us that we are one.
Sometimes comedy can be a catalyst for change. Never a stranger to controversy, Bill Hicks knew how to use the truth to provoke. He had his finger on the pulse of everything that was wrong in our society. His routines could be uncomfortable at times, but always worth it in the end.
I consider Bill Hicks to be one of the best comedians of our era. Ironically I came three thousand miles to discover him here in London, as he is under-appreciated in his (and my) native America. He has been described as a philosopher, social satirist and even preacher, but he was ultimately a comic who believed that he could save his audience by confronting them with the truth. Bill Hicks might have died in 1994, but his spirit lives on stronger than ever. American: The Bill Hicks Story is coming out in 2010.