Psychedelic Intimacy: Communication, Consent, and Contact

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Let’s talk about enhancing intimacy and pleasure in altered states! What are the best-practices for physical contact on psychedelic journeys with friends and lovers? Why explore consent and pleasure? How do we communicate our desires while learning and respecting other people’s boundaries? Join us for engaging discussions and activities to examine living in consent with ourselves and others, physical contact as a healing modality, and boundaries between friends and lovers in altered states.

Presented for The Psychedelic Club of Denver on August 17, 2022

We are changing the world. In 2019 Denver, Colorado ignited a psychedelic renaissance by decriminalizing magic mushrooms for personal use.

Since then other cities like Oakland, Seattle, Washington, DC and the state of Oregon have passed similar laws.

Research from major medical institutions like Johns Hopkins, MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), Yale, and others are demonstrating the healing power of psychedelics. Magic mushrooms and MDMA are showing to be effective treatments for PTSD, anxiety, depression, arthritis, and more. 

This November, Colorado voters will get a vote on the Natural Medicine Health Act of 2022. This ballot initiative would decriminalize psilocybin, DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline for personal use for residents and visitors 21 years and older. It would also set up a medical access model to license psilocybin manufacturers, healing centers, and facilitators. 

If it passes, we will have new choices for improving our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Even if the Natural Medicine Health Act doesn’t pass, psychedelics aren’t going anywhere. The renaissance is upon us. Psychedelics are mainstream.

Movies like fantastic fungi, shows like how to change your mind, and celebrities like Will Smith and Aaron Rodgers are changing public perception.

Being here in this place at this time presents exciting opportunities and dangers.

As a psychedelic community we need to have a conversation about consent, communication, and contact in psychedelic spaces.

Psychedelics, enhancing my own communication, learning about consent, and touch have all played a vital role in my own personal transformation. I’ve been on my own healing journey using psychedelics for the past 20 years. Living in consent, an authentic life, has also been vital to my own healing process. Sharing my stories helps me learn and grow.

Throughout my life I’ve suffered from anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, food addiction, and chronic pain and fatigue. I’ve been diagnosed with several chronic conditions including Fibromyalgia, Endometriosis, Hashimoto’s Disease, and arthritis. I’ve always struggled with my weight and body image. At my heaviest, I was 220 pounds.

My first psychedelic experiences, first with cannabis then with ecstasy, or street MDMA, and later magic mushrooms initiated my personal growth. Although they were recreational, and I didn’t realize it at the time, they were incredibly transformative. My childhood was traumatic. There was abuse.

For many years I needed Xanax and Prozac to function. 20 years ago I was crippled with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I wouldn’t have been able to give this talk. Just at the idea and standing in front of this packed room, I’d turn into a little ball, curled up in the corner, my knees to my chest, rocking back-and-forth, sobbing my eyes out, my brain and voice paralyzed.

When we get anxious, our breath rate increases. If our breathing continues to be rapid, it can trigger a ‘Fight or Flight’ response. Our bodies all respond to stress differently. Some folks get angry, others want to run away, some people will freeze up. others might fawn (also called appease), while others will disconnect from the situation altogether or dissociate. 

One of my first A-HA moments of self discovery, when I started exploring body-based modalities like dance, tantra, yoga, and meditation trying to heal my own “dysfunction,” was that my breathing was triggering my stress response. Since there wasn’t any real danger, it was causing my panic attacks.

I spent a lot of time disconnected from my body. Training my breath to slow down overtime through practice and breath-work helped me relieve my panic attacks. Noticing and then slowing down were the first steps. Gradually I created a new normal. Through Neuroplasticity I was able to develop a new relaxed breathing pattern. Neuroplasticity just means that our brains are able to form new connections throughout life.

I trained my brain to notice when my breath rate started to increase, and then mindfully apply a more relaxed breathing pattern. This requires thinking about how I think, which is called metacognition. Analyzing our own thought processes offers valuable insight and is a method applied in Cognitive Learning Theory. Cognitive Learning Theory practices enhance Neuroplasticity. Research shows us that psilocybin also enhances our ability to create new neural networks. So, we have the ability to change our brains; magic mushrooms can amplify this power.

In March 2021, on my 38th birthday, I went on my first intentional mushroom journey. I had just moved back to Denver from New York City. I was anxious, depressed, experiencing chronic pain and fatigue, and I was reliant on pharmaceuticals to function. My intention was to relax. My trip-sitter, who I had met at a networking event advertising his professional services, arrived. I drank my potion, and then I waited for something to happen. About an hour later, a blanket of warm relaxation swept over me. He asked if I would like a massage. Thinking that sounded yummy, I said yes and we moved to the bed….

Time out! Let’s look at this situation as a case study and learn as we go. What are the potential problems here?

  • enhanced vulnerability
  • consent to physical contact
  • abuse of power

We have heard many examples of abuse of power. This isn’t a new problem. We’ve witnessed sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in many cultures and professional fields. Recently the psychedelic field has been highlighted in the news.

Psychotherapist Richard Yensen was found to engage in a sexual relationship with a patient during an MDMA assisted therapy trial.

A recent high Time’s article called, We Need To Talk About Sexual Assault In The Psychedelic Community, Highlighted tales of sexual assault. One was of a woman who witnessed a shaman forcibly kissing someone else during the ceremony. 

The BBC also recently highlighted sexual assault stories within the psychedelic community. One was that of Rebecca who was sexually abused by her shaman during an Ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazon. We could go on and on and on.

As leaders in the psychedelic community, with potential decriminalization around the corner, the world is looking at us. This is our opportunity to do our part to heal ourselves, our family, our friends, and our community. To share the community healing model we build here with the world.

So, let’s explore the connection between pleasure and consent. Consent is defined as giving permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. But what does consent look, sound, and feel like?

Being in consent Is more than a yes or no. It’s how we communicate bodily autonomy, boundaries, safety, and respect in relationships with coworkers, acquaintances, family, friends, and lovers. Consent is key to healthy relationships.

When should you ask for consent? Anytime you are giving or receiving an action involving another person. Consent should feel good. Being in consent with yourself, and living in consent means following your inner YES. 

Consent can always be revoked. Details can be negotiated, and boundaries can be set. What does consent look and feel like for you? You can use this chart (above) to help. 

Where would you fall on your spectrum of response if I asked:

  • Do you want a piece of pizza? How about with anchovies? 
  • May I give you a hug? 
  • Will you help me move some furniture this weekend?

Pleasure and consent can be found within ourselves. Pleasure can be hard to notice. As a society we’re very disconnected from our bodies. Many of us feel numb or frozen.

We often associate pleasure with sex. But pleasure can be comfort, warmth, healing, and love. Take a few minutes to notice what pleasure feels like in your body. Think about how you would like to be touched. Play with your own touch, maybe a gentle hand massage or warm hug. Focus on feelings and sensations like temperature, texture, and pressure. Practice letting go of distractions. Be gentle with yourself and exercise self-care. What did you notice?

What are the best practices for physical contact during a psychedelic journey with family, friends, or lovers? Research demonstrates the power of touch during a psychedelic journey. Touch can be a catalyst for healing. Many protocols including MAPS and Yale’s Manual for Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy of Depression advocate reassuring touch. Because psychedelics can bring up trauma, nurturing touch can relieve anxiety and provide the support someone needs to heal. Depriving a person of touch can even replicate past experiences of neglect. It’s equally important to note that unwanted touch can re-traumatize a person.

Oregon recently passed a medical access model, and is currently creating rules for licensed psilocybin facilitators. Their advisory panel reviewed the question and concluded that reassuring touch is permitted, but only with prior informed consent.

Most of us aren’t license facilitators. We are journeying with friends, family members, neighbors, and lovers. Those around us right now. What does reassuring touch look like?

  • Holding a hand
  • Place arm on shoulder

How do we touch with integrity? Touching with integrity means touch is always…

  • Intentional – what is its purpose? Who is doing? Who is it for? Who is giving? Who is receiving? Are you giving or receiving with a full and open heart?
  • Respectful – Demonstrate safety and care with your language: “May I…”, “Will you?”
  • Mindful – Paying attention to body language, context, set and setting, effects of psychedelic, state of consciousness, relationship dynamics
  • Consensual – Always ask for and obtain consent before a journey. Boundaries may change. Pay attention to body language. Create a safe word or signal.

How is this applicable to my own transformation? Let’s go back to my journey. Therapy alone wasn’t enough for me. I needed embodiment practices to heal and feel whole. Connecting with myself and releasing emotions through dance, yoga, moving energy, mindfulness, meditation, healing touch, and Tantra improved my quality of life immensely. 

A transformative moment for me was the first time I received a Tantric massage. We often associate Tantra with sex, but at the heart of Tantra is love for ourselves. We now know that many Tantric practices are highly effective. Just like slowing down your breath, a slow sensual touch has the power to relax the body. So, on my journey I requested a sensual massage. I set boundaries and directed my guide’s touch. He was respectful and I experienced a transformative level of relaxation. I had not been able to achieve this state on my own. It was an A-HA moment: this is what relaxation is supposed to feel like!

I have been in such a heightened state of stress my entire life that my body didn’t know how to relax on its own. The mushrooms, along with a comforting touch, showed my body how.

I turned 39 this past March. I’ve been microdosing and journeying intentionally for over a year now. I feel in control of my anxiety. I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. I am off all of my medication. My fibromyalgia is in remission. I feel like I’m 25 again. Magic mushrooms gave me my life back.

Psychedelics are magic! The world is looking at us. Opponents of decriminalization point to abuse of power as a fundamental objection. At the end of my journey, my trip-sitter tried to kiss me. He was not successful. Our opponents have a valid concern. 

I have a vision of a community healing model that promotes empowerment through teaching consent and touching with integrity. How can we implement community-based solutions moving forward?

Published by Ashley Ryan, M.S.

Ashley is an educator and coach who earned her M.S. from Colorado State University.

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