Exploring sex and psychedelics

Could psychedelics revolutionise couples therapy?

by Megan Townsend

Much of the focus on psychedelics has centred around addressing treatment-resistant mental illnesses but could they have applications that expand beyond this? Let’s look at the emerging world of sex and psychedelics and how this has the potential to revolutionise couples therapy. 

The history of sex and psychedelics

The connection between sex and psychedelics dates back to the sexual liberation movement throughout the 1960s and 70s. Psychedelics, in particular LSD, were associated with loosened sexual inhibitions and the resolution of past sexual trauma. Inspired by Timothy Leary’s infamous calls to ‘turn up, tune in, drop out’, psychedelics appeared as a tool for pleasure, love and self-expression. 

For sex guru Annie Sprinkle, using psychedelics through the 60s, 70s and 80s had profound positive impacts on her sex life. From opening doors to alternative realities, to increasing connectedness and sexual satisfaction between partners, Annie calls them her ‘greatest sexual educators’. 

She notes that the connection between sex and psychedelics is much deeper than arousal. Through each experience the user gains new information, allowing them to see themselves from a new perspective. This, in turn, can inform the individual’s sexual life.

Even though psychedelics remain illegal across much of the world, anecdotal evidence suggests that using psychedelics to enhance sexual experiences is still just as popular as it once was. However, as sex on drugs has inevitably been labelled a high-risk activity , there is a clear lack of hard-line statistics to back up such an assumption. 

The impact of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’

Considering the new medical applications of psychedelics , it also appears that the influence of the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has stretched to the world of couples therapy. This indicates the possibility of a new era for sex and psychedelics, taking on board the learnings of their more recreational applications and shifting them into the wellness setting. 

Again, the roots of psychedelic-assisted couples therapy date back to the 1970s, mainly centreing on the use of MDMA and the pioneering work of Anne and Sasha Shulgin. Research during this time found that MDMA could be an excellent tool for communication and the navigation of relational issues, allowing couples to overcome the fear of emotional hurt and promoting honest introspection. 

MDMA was made illegal in the UK in 1977 and in 1985 in the US, which put a sharp halt to research and forced practitioners to go underground. 

However, with the birth of the psychedelic renaissance and the increasing acceptance of psychedelics as medicine, there now appears to be a growing interest in psychedelic-assisted therapy. One trial from 2020 explored the use of MDMA-assisted couples therapy where one partner suffered from PTSD. The researchers found improvements in PTSD, as well as improved support and intimacy and less conflict within the relationship. 

There is also interest in psychedelics other than MDMA, although their applications within the therapy setting may differ. Tara Cornelius, a social psychologist at Columbia University, sees that the application of LSD and psilocybin to couples therapy is incredibly interesting as these substances don’t foster the same loving moods as MDMA, but still open the mind to new possibilities. As such, couples in these settings may trip separately, but come together afterwards to discuss experiences and learnings under the guidance of a therapist. 

A new era for sex and psychedelics? 

Sarah Tilley, CEO of Beautiful Space, explains that the most common issues that bring couples into psychedelic-assisted couples therapy are related to sex and intimacy. Over the course of a relationship issues may arise which create a loss of desire or arousal, many of which are underpinned by generational trauma. Sarah states that although most couples don’t approach Beautiful Space to address generational trauma, this often becomes the focus of therapy sessions

Speaking at this year’s Psych Symposium in London, Sarah acknowledged the current failings of traditional couples therapy:  Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce and most of those couples have been in couples therapy before that.”

To address this, Beautiful Space utilises psilocybin-assisted couples therapy to improve and deepen the traditional therapy experience. Starting with a sober preparation session, the therapy begins by generating an understanding of each person’s trauma and family background. On ‘medicine day’ the couple are guided through the experience individually, but within a shared space, using rituals such as music, meditation and blindfolding to help guide them through the experience. Following their trips, Sarah brings the couple together to share and understand their experience and how they can work on their relationship. 

This, of course, is just one example of a number of therapeutic retreats that specialise in psychedelic-assisted couples therapy. With the increasing acceptance of psychedelics and their use within the therapy setting, there is good reason to suspect that the practice will continue to grow over the next few years.

This piece was written by Volteface Content and Media Officer Megan Townsend. She is particularly interested in the reform of drug legislation, subcultural drug use and harm reduction initiatives. She also has an MA in Criminology from Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

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