Zoe Helene on location in the Amazon with ayahuasca vine. Photo by Tracey Eller

These Women Are Fighting Sexism in Psychedelic Research

The movement has always been mostly white and male, but 'psychedelic feminists' are making sure the so-called renaissance doesn’t repeat mistakes of the past.

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May 10 2017, 6:58pm

Zoe Helene on location in the Amazon with ayahuasca vine. Photo by Tracey Eller

Your older acid burnout friends may not have heard about psychedelic heavyweight Kat Harrison, but they have probably rambled on once or twice about her former husband—some guy named Terence McKenna. Like many women researching in the field since the 1960s, Harrison ran the risk of having her kids taken away by lecturing on illegal drugs, and therefore largely worked behind the scenes.

As Harrison points out in a series of video interviews cut from the 2010 documentary the Spirit Molecule, there are many reasons women might not want to talk about their work around psychedelics. These substances, despite their renewed status in popular culture and research, are still illegal in the US and Canada. And when used for healing and personal purpose, Harrison says women haven't historically sought public recognition for their contributions.

"I know many of them, great women doing great work," she said. "We've been doing this work with each other, with our families, with our lovers, with our partners and even in the history of shamanism. And this is where our own patriarchal cultural bent comes in, which is that if it's not showy, then the powers that be don't necessarily notice it."

Any field of study will suffer from a lack of diversity if the only people with enough clout to withstand the scrutiny and the legal ramifications are white men. But as the psychedelic renaissance gains momentum, there are signs that power is shifting. At a recent psychedelic conference in Oakland, California, Brazilian ayahuasca and drug policy expert Bia Labate made inclusion a priority while hosting a new research track on plant medicine.

"I lobbied for this more holistic approach to Psychedelic Science 2017. More women, more Indigenous [voices], more voices from the South, more anthropology, more plants. Less molecules, less clinical trials—more healing in context," she told VICE. "Because of the plant medicine track we had more balance between the genders. It raised the whole balance of the conference."

The plant medicine track included research presentations and talks on ayahuasca, DMT, peyote, psilocybin, mushrooms, iboga, ibogaine, cannabis, salvia and the "mysterious" toé from Peru. For Labate, it makes sense that this emerging area of psychedelic study would also be led by women and outsiders.

The challenge of how to the raise the profile of women working in the field of psychedelic medicine runs into the same difficulties as all male-dominated fields. "Having more women in on the conversation, it's an achievement in itself," she said. "This problem of gender is not a problem only of psychedelics. It's a problem of division of power in society. The same thing happens with biomedical knowledge in relation to social sciences… Some five or so male biomedical researchers from the US and the UK are usually the sources for everything."

Ayahuasca researcher Bia Labate holds peyote. Photo by Ellen Spiro

Labate points out that colleagues of hers who are less inclined to play the media game don't get the kind of recognition that their media-savvy contemporaries do.

Zoe Helene, the founder of Cosmic Sister, an umbrella organization for psychedelic feminists, agrees with Labate. "Men do tend to get out there, they're more declarative, and they put themselves up as an expert and as a star. And they will stand up there no matter what they look like. They get up there, they do their thing. Whereas women, in general, will not."

But it's not just a matter of public relations, or of getting the message out there. Psychedelic subculture has long been associated with weirdness and fringe ideas. When women like Labate focus on knowledge-building outside the lab, those ideas are often undermined by the scientific mainstream. "Science is not the only measure of reality," Labate said. "I think that's one kind of knowledge, but I'm not against that knowledge per se. I'm against that knowledge being the only reference."

The conference also included an intersectional panel focused on the emerging use of psychedelics to heal trauma from institutional oppression, organized by Natalie Ginsberg of MAPS. That taking psychedelics like ayahuasca or mushrooms could possibly help undo "social programming" imposed by patriarchy is something Helene has been talking about for years.

"Programming is insidious. It's inside and it's very hard to identify," she told VICE. "These psychedelic plants and these ceremonies… I've never seen anything even come close for uncovering those—for helping us to see those little pieces of social programming, in ways that actually help to get us over them or at least identify them, which is the beginning of the journey."

Helene says she's seen women work through body image and self esteem issues with the help of psychedelic plants. Combining these ideas with the core beliefs of feminism and the anti-authoritarian anti-establishment world of psychedelics makes sense to Helene and the many women who have reached out to her and Cosmic Sister.

"All these women from all over the world, journalists, scientists, psychedelic shrinks, all kinds of women, interested in journeying, artists, attorneys, all sorts of people are reaching out to me about psychedelic feminism because they feel they are a psychedelic feminist."

"I understand it. I have a knack for getting in and meeting people and building relationships with others and for some reason this has really caught on, this idea of psychedelic feminism," she said. "People respond to it. They just light up."

By bringing in more women experts, and hosting more self-reflexive conversations on how intersectionality impacts psychedelic research and subculture, Labate hopes that the field can evolve beyond its past mistakes. She points to gatherings like the Women's Visionary Congress in California as a sign of progress.

"One of the founders, Annie Oak, tells the story that she went to one of the psychedelic conferences on the 100th anniversary Albert Hoffman's birth [in 2006] and she said that out of the maybe 100 speakers 98 were men. So that inspired her to create this Women's Visionary Congress."

Ten years later, the field is more female than ever as it expands along with their work.

"We're sure as hell not going backwards," said Helene. "That's not going to happen."

Follow Kate Richardson on Twitter.

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