Photo by Zoe Helene

Sexual Assault in the Amazon
New York Magazine | The Cut | Love & War
by Rachel Monroe

As the ayahuasca tourism industry grows, so do accounts of abuse.

Despite the advice to abstain from it, sex has become a common part of the ayahuasca experience. “Many young men and women show up at ceremonies in a highly open, receptive, compliant state,” wrote Chris Kilham... in The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, his 2014 guide for curious psychonauts. “They are open to experience, and some shamans want to be part of a more intimate experience than those who come to them might expect.”

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Supporters of ayahuasca’s healing effects are quick to point out that sexual misconduct isn’t an intrinsic part of the experience; it’s fueled more by the power imbalance between spiritual seekers and their guides than by any property of the drug itself. “I’ve taught yoga for 45 years. Yoga teachers can get laid any day of the week,” Kilham said, bringing up another potent student-teacher dynamic. He believes that the influx of outsiders also gives those with an impulse to behave badly a greater opportunity. “All of a sudden, these shamans find themselves in the position where there are zillions of American and European women falling all over them. Some of them are hard-liners, it’s just a definitive no. Others are like, zip-a-dee-doo-dah! Why would I pass this up?”

Kilham and I were talking by phone. As we were finishing up, his wife, Zoe Helene, said she has something to add. She took the phone out onto the porch so we could talk privately. We proceeded to have one of those frank conversations that happen with depressing regularity among women, swapping stories of scary situations and near-misses, of friends and family members who are still coping with the aftermath of sexual trauma unrelated to ayahuasca. “I’ve been journeying with ayahuasca for nearly a decade,” Helene told me. “I cannot imagine being raped while in the medicine space. There would be such a deep betrayal there — your heart and mind is opened up in that particular way, so that wound would be really deep.”

January 2017