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Female Psychonauts
Illustration Callum Abbott

The women psychonauts taking on macho magic mushroom culture, and winning

With the psychedelic renaissance in full swing, Dazed meets the women pushing ‘subversive tripping’ by exploring issues like body positivity and the patriarchy

Mushroom mania has worked its way deep into the public (sub)consciousness, with the chaotic coronavirus fever dream turning Brits onto the healing properties of magic fungi. A 2020 study by Lifesearch found that one in five young people microdosed through lockdown, while TripTok – the trippy side of the app which peddles tips and tricks for higher consciousness fun – has been viewed 11.1 million times. Even fashion has gotten caught up in the psychedelic zeitgeist, with a ubiquity of shroom iconography appearing across Marc Jacobs’ Heaven, Gucci, Ashish, and JW Anderson’s collections.

However, the psychedelic renaissance hasn’t just been confined to society’s DIY, countercultural underbelly. In April 2019, Imperial College London officially launched the world’s first formal centre for psychedelic research to explore the therapeutic effects of hallucinogenic drugs, especially psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The results have been groundbreaking, with the New England Journal of Medicine publishing earlier this month that the faculty had found that psilocybin is as effective in treating depression as antidepressants

With previous studies also showing that one dose of magic mushrooms can reduce depression for as long as five years, as well as make you more tolerant in distressing situations such as terminal illnesses, it’s no wonder that George Goldsmith of Compass Pathways, told The Guardian earlier this year that “if everything works out well, by 2025 psilocybin-assisted therapy could be prescribed on the NHS for treatment-resistant depression”. Moreover, unlike antidepressants which alleviate symptoms, psychedelics help users unpack the root causes and induce fresh perspectives on how to think about the past and the future. 

But this year more than any has shown that mental health issues can be intrinsically linked and exacerbated by the society we live in. Just how the physical setting can affect the outcome of a trip, so does the mindset (or ‘set’), which can be affected by racism and/or sexism, as well as other socioeconomic conditions that impact an individual’s wellbeing.

“You start to realise when you’re healing with these medicines that the system we live in feeds into a lot our traumas and mental health issues,” says Buki Felipe, the founder of Adventures in Om, a resource platform for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, white, and non-binary psychonauts to integrate their psychedelic experiences into holistic healing. “In this last year alone we’ve had the Black Lives Matter movement and the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard which highlighted the generational and entrenched nature of trauma, and it’s important to have a practitioner with an understanding or training in these complex issues.”

Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case, with a serious underrepresentation of women and minorities in the research surrounding psilocybin-assisted therapy. Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist at the University of Ottawa, conducted a review of psychedelic studies from 1993-2017 which found that 80 per cent of participants had been white caucasian. While a 2020 report found that across seven psychedelic conferences, 68 per cent of the researchers were men and over 90 per cent were white. 

“This is a society-defining moment that could radically affect the way we treat mental health,” continues Felipe, “and the efficacy of it for so many people in dire need of it will be undermined if we don’t step up and start including and empowering more voices.”

For Felipe, minorities have been completely underrepresented because the modern-day industry started in an exploitative way. The inception of the first wave of psychedelic research is largely credited to R. Gordon Wasson travelling to Mexico in 1955 to meet María Sabina, a Mazateca curandera (healer) who led multiple veladas (healing ceremonies) for the CIA-funded amateur mycologist. Wasson then went on to publish these experiences in Life magazine, which galvanised a flood of mushroom-greedy gringos to head south in search of her. The demand was so unprecedented that Sabina was overwhelmed, and mushrooms became scarce to the point that there was little left for the Indigenous community’s ceremonies, leading Sabina’s people to retaliate against her.

Despite the historic place of womxn as leaders of psychedelic healing in their indigenous settings subsequent to the 1950-60s boom in Western culture, serious scholarship has been virtually absent on the topic of women experimentation with altered states of consciousness. In her 2009 book, Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo discusses this dearth of analysis and representations in popular culture, and that the psychonauts brave enough to venture to the frontier are typically depicted as men. Figureheads such as Timothy Leary, Adolus Huxley, Abran Hoffer, and Neil Agnew – all white men, all privately educated – are publicly recognised as the purveyors of the first wave of psychedelic exploration and research, while their wives are broadly remembered as “trip-sitters” or “care-givers”.

“I had always associated psychedelics with this ‘macho’ mindset of blasting past limits into infinity – transcending our bodies and what’s around us in this kind of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-esque manner,” says 22-year-old Londoner Rebecca*, who also notes that only four out of the 20 celebrity participants in Netflix’s 2020 Have A Good Trip documentary were female, with most of the psychedelic accounts detailing aggressively strong tripping. “From the moment we’re born, women are told by modern culture that we need to disappear. For me, psychedelics aren’t about blasting your identity, and disappearing into nothing. It’s about embodiment, rebirth and rebuilding, and teaching us how to come into a healthy, powerful eye.”

For the last six months, Rebecca* and two of her female mates have been meeting up once a month to consciously trip together. It’s a tradition they started after reading about the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics during lockdown, which inspired the trio to experiment with their own, alternative healing.  

Before taking roughly 2.5g of Golden Teachers, the three discuss issues such as body positivity, the patriarchy’s tendency to pit women against each other, and the recent news cycle reporting the rising violence against women, to name a few. One will always sit-trip, while the others will then grapple with the ways in which society has socialised them on the astral plane, touching down six to eight hours later to unpack and integrate their findings. 

It’s an approach to hallucinogens that falls under “psychedelic feminism”, a term coined and popularised by cultural activist Zoe Helene to describe and promote the ways psychedelic psycho-spiritual practices can empower women. 

“If the greater society is patriarchal, and you have a movement within it that isn’t a feminist movement necessarily – it’s just a movement, you’re going to take a slice out of the greater culture,” says Helene on the importance of the psychedelic feminism doctrine. “One would think that because people in psychedelics profess to be enlightened in life, you’d think we’d be a little better, but the truth is it’s literally identical – it’s a little slice of the patriarchy pie.”

Helene’s work emphasises the importance of integrating inclusivity into psychedelics, and although she sets up many womxn-only circles to ensure safe spaces to harness their female power through psychedelics, she also uses ceremonies to guide men in seeing blindspots in their unconscious sexism. 

“Psychedelics … have great potential to show us the humanity in each other, and to understand our unequal positioning” – Zoe Helene 

“I’ve got to the point where unless there is a community to help others see their blindspot, we can bypass some things we really need to see,” continues Helene, “The problem we have culturally is that we have this individualised way of healing – you’re sick, you go to your doctor and they give you a pill and you’re doing everything on your own. Whereas psychedelics, they make you see how interconnected everything is – they have great potential to show us the humanity in each other, and to understand our unequal positioning and how that can detrimentally affect others. Not only can that heal the individual, but it’s got real scope to heal society as a whole.”

With The Centre for Mental Health predicting up to ten million people in England will need support for their mental health as a result of the pandemic, and society-at-large fractured through over a year of isolation and coronavirus-accelerated inequality, the psychedelic Second Coming could be pivotal in the years to come. That is if the current swell of subversive shroom-takers is anything to go by.

“The underground movement to diversify and empower psychedelics is already happening,” concludes Felipe on the white man-washing of government-backed trials. “Now it’s time for the clinical trials to catch up.”

*Names have been changed.