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.
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.
‘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.
~ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ~
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.