Some time ago, in a discussion group, a woman posted that she had been sexually assaulted by a shaman at an ayahuasca retreat center in the Upper Amazon. That accusation provoked considerable discussion, since the shaman and the retreat center were well known. The shaman had both defenders and attackers, and the woman’s account of her experience at the center was both credited and challenged. The shaman emphatically denied the allegation of sexual assault that had been made against him. At the same time, accounts by the shaman’s defenders and by visitors to the center supported the claim that the shaman had engaged in allegedly consensual sex with many visitors and patients.

During the course of this occasionally heated discussion, I had a conversation with one of the defenders of the shaman and the center, in which I took the position, which I still maintain, that it is unethical for a shaman to have sex with a patient under any circumstances, even when the sex is apparently consensual. At the risk of being repetitious — I apparently felt the need to reiterate my argument several times — I reproduce the relevant portions of my posts below, and I welcome comments and discussion.

Whatever the facts may be of this particular case, I think that it should be obvious beyond cavil that a shaman, especially one giving psychoactive substances to clients, should not, under any circumstances, have sexual contact with those clients. This is especially the case with gringa clients in the Amazon. Here the shaman is in a special position of trust and authority with regard to a client who may well have travelled great distances to be under the shaman’s care; the client is in a remote and unfamiliar environment, far from help and her usual sources of social and economic support; and the client may have experienced significant psychological and physical stress from drinking ayahuasca. Even if the patient appears to welcome the sexual contact, the potential for abuse and exploitation is simply too great, and there can be significant doubt about the genuineness of any purported consent. See, for example, the Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Society, Standards 10.05 through 10.08. For similar reasons, several states have passed criminal statutes prohibiting sex between therapists and patients.

As always, if I am wrong on any of these points, I am sure people will let me know.

There appear to be two different views being expressed here. The first is that it is studly and charismatic for a healer to have sex with his patients, and the other — which I adopt — is that it is cultish and pathetic. As I have said, I have no way of knowing, based on what has been posted here, whether any particular healer is or is not having sex with his patients. At the risk of repeating myself, let me break this down.

When a foreign woman comes to seek healing from a shaman in the Amazon, often from a great distance, the shaman is placed in a special position of trust and authority. The woman is in a remote and unfamiliar environment, far from help and her usual sources of social and economic support. She may be in the midst of crucial personal problems; she may have experienced significant psychological and physical stress from drinking ayahuasca. She is, in short, vulnerable, and even if she appears to welcome a sexual advance, the potential for abuse is simply too great, and there can be considerable doubt about the autonomy of her purported consent.

For a healer to have sex with such a patient is exploitative and contemptible. Since she is vulnerable, exploiting her is in no way evidence of manliness or charisma. It is, instead, evidence of a willingness to take advantage of the susceptible, and thus, in my view, a sign of weakness. It is not generous, it is not kind, it is not courageous, and it is not honorable. It is, simply, not the way a real man behaves.

I want to engage with your arguments as seriously as I can… I am wondering if you think that it is okay for an adult to have sex with a child, or a high-school teacher to have sex with a student, or a coach to have sex with a player, or a priest to have sex with an altar boy, or a psychiatrist to have sex with a patient, or a boss to have sex with a direct subordinate, or a professor to have sex with a dissertation advisee. And by “okay,” I mean something like kind, generous, humane, honorable, ethical, and unselfish, as opposed to creepy, underhanded, and exploitative.

In each of those cases we have a person in a position of power and authority over another person who may lack the understanding or power to say no — or may believe she lacks the power to say no — and who therefore lacks adequate ability to give free and autonomous consent to sex. Each of those cases is, I think, significantly different from freely consensual adult sex.

Perhaps you think that some or all of these cases are okay. If so, I would very much like to hear your reasons.

I have taken the position that an Amazonian shaman having sex with a patient who is troubled and far from home falls, like the examples above, into the category of nonconsensual or inadequately consensual sex. If you agree that these cases are not okay, then you seem to be saying that it falls instead into the category of consensual sex. I have given detailed reasons for my position, and I would be very interested if you would do the same for yours.

Thank you for your response… But I don’t think you really answered my question. Let me try again.

There are circumstances under which a woman has sex with a person who is in a position of power and authority over her, when she believes she is unable to refuse a sexual advance, when she is emotionally vulnerable, when she fears the consequences of refusal, or when she is undergoing psychological stress and feels dependent on the seemingly powerful authority figure.

You have apparently agreed that examples of such circumstances include an adult having sex with a child, a high-school teacher having sex with a student, a psychiatrist having sex with a patient, a boss having sex with a direct subordinate, or a professor having sex with a dissertation advisee. You have apparently agreed that, in such cases, the woman has not given free and autonomous consent to sex, and that sex under such circumstances is creepy, underhanded, and exploitative.

If I have misunderstood your agreement so far, please let me know.

So the question is: When an Amazonian shaman has sex with a patient who is troubled and far from home, does that fall, like the examples above, into the category of nonconsensual or inadequately consensual sex? Is an Amazonian shaman having sex with a patient sufficiently similar to, say, a psychiatrist having sex with a patient that the conduct is blameworthy? I think it is, and I have given reasons for thinking so. If you think it is not, I would be very interested to hear your reasoning.

The problem, of course, is that the willingness and enthusiasm of any person under such circumstances is open to question. And surely the psychiatrist — or the high-school teacher, or the dissertation advisor, or the shaman — is absolutely the last person in the world in a position to judge whether his sexual advances are being freely and autonomously welcomed or not. That is precisely why there are blanket prohibitions against psychiatrists having sex with patients or teachers having sex with students, because the discernment of the psychiatrist or teacher — his ability to distinguish between autonomous and coerced consent — is presumably impaired by his own needs. I think that a similar blanket disapproval of all sex between a shaman and a patient is appropriate as well.

I am surprised that you are offended at my taking a moral stand with regard to nonconsensual sex. I also take a moral stand with regard to murder, robbery, battery, and theft — that is, I do indeed push my morals onto murderers, robbers, batterers, and thieves, and I assume you do too. Moreover, I think that we in fact do agree in principle on issues of nonconsensual sex. I think the key line in your response is this: “I don’t believe that [the shaman] is forcing himself on vulnerable women — that is my boundary. Beyond that, it is not my place to judge.” So you and I would both hold blameworthy someone who crossed that boundary and forced himself on vulnerable women.

Where we seem to disagree, of course, is in specifying just what conduct constitutes forcing oneself on a vulnerable woman. I believe that certain power relationships are inherently coercive. You apparently agree, at least with regard to certain instances — a psychiatrist having sex with a patient, say, or a teacher having sex with a student. In neither case need there be physical force for the sex to be nonconsensual or inadequately consensual.

And, as I have said, I believe it is reasonable that ethical considerations in such unbalanced power relationships be maintained by blanket prohibitions. It is certainly not the power-bearing person in the unbalanced relationship who should get to decide whether he has too much power, or he is being too insistent, or the woman is not really vulnerable. Presumably his judgment is compromised by his own need. And I should add that for some sexual predators it is precisely the coercive nature of the sexual advance — the power of psychological manipulation, the exercise of dominance and control — that provides the greatest satisfaction.

So again, the question is: In just what way does a shaman having sex with a patient differ from a psychiatrist having sex with a patient, or a teacher having sex with a student, such that the psychiatrist or teacher is blameworthy and the shaman is not? And why should there not be a similar blanket prohibition against a shaman having sex with a patient?

Let us say that someone tells me that a particular shaman does not “force himself on vulnerable women” who are his patients. One of the first questions to arise is: How do you know?

One answer might be that the reporter knows because the shaman does not have sex with any of his female patients. Although this answer is not infallible — the shaman may be very clever at concealing his sexual activities — it is still a pretty good one, especially if the reporter has, say, spent several years in close contact with the shaman.

In the absence of such assurances, then I would ask again: How do you know? Does the reporter listen in on private conversations between the shaman and his female patients? Does he peer through the window when the shaman and a female patient are alone together in a hut? Does he conduct extensive clinical interviews with the shaman’s female patients, and does he have the training, experience, and expertise to judge their level of distress and vulnerability?

If not, then I must confess that I would find the reporter’s assurances shallow and unconvincing. And, of course, that is why codes of professional ethics, and rape statutes in many states, seek to enforce the first and more convincing answer.

That is pretty much where the conversation ended, but I can add a few things here. The prohibition against a therapist having sex with a patient goes back to the Hippocratic oath, which states, “Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons.” Note that this prohibition is very broad, and includes not only the patient but any member of the patient’s household. I see no reason why any healer, including a shaman, would not, in general, subscribe to the Hippocratic Oath.

States having either civil or criminal laws against a therapist having sex with a patient include California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. For example, in Wisconsin, the criminal statute Wis. Stat. § 940.22(2) provides that a therapist having sexual contact with a patient or client is guilty of a felony and may be imprisoned for not more than 5 years and/or fined not more than $10,000 — and it is irrelevant whether the patient purportedly consented.

There are certainly shamans and healers in the Upper Amazon with impeccable reputations for personal integrity, and they are worth the effort to seek out. At the same time, travelers who are interested in drinking ayahuasca among strangers in remote places must not be naive. They should recognize their potential vulnerability, and take at least the same precautions they would take if they chose, say, to become intoxicated in a strange and distant city.

Interested readers can look here for more thoughts on traveling safely to drink ayahuasca.

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18 Responses to “Sex with the Shaman”

  1. Fred says:

    Steve – It’s so good to see you back on your (non-Facebook) blog. For an evidentiary backup from India, see the following excellent article:
    Sarah Caldwell, The Heart of the Secret (pub in Nova Religio in 2001):
    or, skipping a step:

    The problem for someone studying this is whether what we clearly see as males taking advantage of an unequal power base, is actually different in the cultural eyes of the shaman. Certainly I agree with you completely, but is there any evidence to suggest that the shaman’s sexual and contextual aggression (if this is what it is) is so culturally embedded that he believes his behavior is not a violation? I don’t see that you have addressed this explicitly, and I don’t know the answer.

    • Shamansex says:

      Just got back from ayahuasca experienced and ead disgustef by the stories if the shamans abusing their mind power during ceremonies and having sex during ceremony with women, this had to stop

  2. Eha luta hoksila says:

    Thanks Steve, my two cents are next (although I have a full dollar):
    Accountability is at the heart of the issue. States with larger indigenous populations like New Mexico and South Dakota require traditional healers to adhere to similar protocols like priests, doctors, teachers or anyone that is also a mandated reporter, therapist, or direct service provider. Yet these situations continue because these men hide behind the curtain of spirituality and culture. (They swear that their heart was in the right place). This is also harder to enforce in some communities where people may not be familiar with the cultural traits ceremony. However, we should also think a little before going to the ceremony that charges $200 and is lead by a man that gives a long explanation about his visions and dreams, but doesn’t work for a living or can explain much of the culture in which the ceremony being practiced originated. This is especially hard in some countries in Europe and Latin America.
    Real healers and elders are people of community, they have the spiritual connections, cultural background and the development under their age given wisdom (One, should always question any “healer” under 52 years of age). Way too many temptations and tests need to be overcome by developing ceremonial leaders, and they need to be under the eye of community and elders, if they are the real deal no need to hide from them right? If the ceremonial leader has an issue with kids, doesn’t allow anyone to hold them accountable, and do not allow other traditional leaders to be in their presence, there may be something out of line with that person.
    One should also see how the ceremonial live their lives and how these men relate to family and work. Do they make a living from their ceremonies, do they bring their wives or young kids to ceremony? If there is lack of transparency about their lives, there is a chance that there is lack of integrity in their healing work as well.
    Hunger for power and control can be seen across cultures, and it it looks pretty obvious to indigenous eyes as well. That is why most of the times the abuse occurs towards well intended, naive, fragile or thrill seeking foreign (to the country, ceremony or culture) women. These men (and the occasional woman), should have integrity, and if genuinely interested in a person (beyond the stereotypical hook up, or conquest) should take off their feathers, amulets, etc. therefore taking away their perceived power, be vulnerable, and approach the person as an equal. That of course takes away the magic away from the experience. For these healers giving away their spiritual trump card, gives the guerita in question an opportunity to snap out of the illusion of the “medicine” of the man, ask for help, or have the strength to say no. Yet, I see the role of community as an important one as well. As members of a ceremonial- cultural community, we should make sure that the men and women in which we trust our hearts, hopes, pain, children, wives, mothers, etc. are people of sound minds and hearts. No one is beyond accountability. The well being of all the community is the real treasure, the real sacredness of the people, and that which the healer should always work for.

  3. Sidra says:

    I think this is our American viewpoint. We think our morality should be applied by others. In other culture, a woman taking drugs and leaving herself vulnerable is giving “permission” to be sexually assaulted. It sounds terrible, but this was the case in all of Western society a century ago, and this thinking still exists among many people today. I live between two cultures, so I can see both views. I would advise women (and men) to go with another person for safety.

  4. Love says:

    I was also taken advantage of sexually during a ceremony in Brazil by a shaman from a native tribe. Normally during ceremonies, you are not allowed to have sex 3 days before or after and definitely not during so they are braking their own law too. It is not only the actual physical act at the time which is abusive and illegal as , it is also the fact that he invaded me when I was wide open and took over my blueprint, my energy field, my matrix and pushed away my beloved who I was due to meet. I have seen how he actually planned it as this was several days into the ceremonies. From what I have seen, many shamen and sham women use their powers wrongly and can easily enter someone’s energy field during and before the ceremony. I have struggled now for years to get rid of him and others from the tribe and honestly wanted to commit suicide as my life force was sucked out of me and my life was literally taken over ( I am an energy healer and can see what is going on on a deeper level). After complaining, it got much worse and I had him, his chief and other shamen trying to shut me down. This is spiritual, energetic abuse and brain manipulation. I was woken up so many nights with a penetrating laser in my head brainwashing me. My energy field was invaded, my love life completely blocked each time I tried to engage with a new man. The crazy shaman entered my boyfriends body and our energy field when we made love to block us. I have never experienced anything this abusive in my live. I think we should join forces and raid a case for abusive shamen and say that this type of abuse; physical, mental, energetic and spiritual is not legal and they should be held accountable for what they do.

  5. Paula says:

    That´s horrible, a true shaman/medicine men don´t abuse sexual of a person and should
    be denounced, much business around this with a lot of false shamans.

  6. angelwings says:

    I was also sexually abused by a shaman. I agree with you on joining forces. Have you found ways to heal from this abuse? How do you protect yourself from the spiritual attacks? I do not know anyone else who has gone through this and I am eager to hear your advice.

  7. SunMother says:

    I visited the Amazon in 2010 for several months and met several women who had been sexually assaulted and raped during ceremonies, and heard stories of several more. Frequently their partner was also in the room so attending with someone else, if they also drink aya, is unfortunately no guarantee of safety. The biggest problem is that the rapists are/were some shaman who have appeared in videos on YouTube, and have a strong online presence and are ‘bigged up’ by fans as being superior people, when in fact they are gamblers, alcoholics and abusers.

    One Shaman did ceremonies in the UK which we attended and my husband insisted he saw an apprentice putting his face in the lap of one of the clients during ceremony – I thought he was imagining things until I heard about all this other abuse.

    If people ask me where to go for shamanic work, these days I only recommend Temple of the Way of Light or Percy Garcia, both in Iquitos. The Temple has a combination of male and female shamen, and many gringo assistants who watch over ceremonies. Percy has a female apprentice and female assistant who assist in his very small ceremonies.

    The well known phrase ‘Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely’ is very apt here. It takes a strong and clear psyche to manage adoration, power and money and clearly some of these shaman do not have this.

    Also I was very interested to find out that many of the shamen I worked with have only done one or two dietas for maybe a month at a time or less. We were told that to be a true healing shaman it needs at least a year in solitude in the jungle dieting the plants … it only takes 30 days to learn how to be a brujo (sorceror).

    I understand that in Ecuador all shamen offering ceremonies are licensed by the government – this prevents a lot of the abuse seen in Peru.

  8. SunMother says:

    I can also highly recommend working with Tracy James who runs workshops with indigenous shamen in Pucallpa.

  9. Scott says:

    Thank GOD for this article. I know a woman who told me she was dating a shaman. They were living in a cabin, where he would have other women come for him to “work” with. Eventually the woman I know was told by the shaman to move out. He said, “I can’t work with these woman shamanically, knowing you are here and it upsets you.”

    I asked, “What does work with them shamanically mean?”

    She said, “Have sex with them.”

    I never felt more nauseated in my life. To be honest I don’t know what is worse: what he did, or the fact that she DATED him!!!

  10. You are completely right. As a psychologist and therapist and author of a book about shanmanism and therapy I couldn’t agree more. Not only can sexual conduct between a healer, shaman, therapist and a ‘client’ lead to abuse. There are many other points: 1. It cannot be a ‘consensual’ experience, as the power status of the healer / shaman / therapist and the one seeking healing is unequal – on many levels. 2. Spiritual ecstacy and sexual ecstacy are quite similar and the confusion that arises in the seeker when teachers mix them, can be substantial. 3. It is difficult to say ‘no’ and not being ‘flattered’ when somebody in a very powerful position seems to ‘desire’ you. So, consent is questionable from that ankle as well. 4. It gets even worse when Ayuhuasca or any other entheogen is involved as powerful shamans can influence visions. But, having said all that, unfortunately male spiritual teachers have done it everywhere – shamans are just the latest addition to something that has existed for a long time. It is for women to be discerning and if possible work with female shamans. I have worked therapeutically with women who were scarred by such experiences – and not one of them had been ‘raped’.

  11. Gillian says:

    Hello, I was sent this link by a friend on FB, I recently returned from Iquitos, having taken part in ceremonies where the “shaman” pestered me for sex, tried to touch me, get me to touch him when I was left alone with him, he took “selfies” of him holding me up, I’m almost unconscious and he’s kissing me, I can’t remember this taken , he sent the photos to me, we were warned by the chap ( an American) who owned the venue that this shaman had a reputation, I was later told by this American that the shaman had been fired from a retreat for having sex with a patient/ tourist when I told him what had happened, he said if I posted that photo I would make his children homeless.

    • Sarah says:

      Hi gillian,
      This sounds very similar to an experience I have had in iquitos. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions about it?

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