Despite a large body of research exploring psychedelics and their therapeutic potential, there is almost no research examining the recreational use of psychedelics; and as a consequence there is little documentation about the practices of pleasure of hallucinogenic drugs as they are experienced beyond non-clinical research settings. Yet, most people do not use psychedelics because of their therapeutic potential, but rather because they are a fun and enjoyable way to alter the user’s experience of reality.
There has been an erasure of the topic of pleasure in conversations around drugs as a result of stigma against substance use, the domination of harm reduction policy as a public health narrative around drug use, and the medicalization of therapeutic psychedelic use. In 1988, sociologist Stephen Mugford argued that the dominant framework in the drugs field was the ‘pathology paradigm’ and that, “as a consequence, considerations of ‘pleasure’ in relation to drug use were marginalized.” To explore the pleasures of tripping, one researcher did an analysis of one hundred online anecdotal reports to map out how substances such as LSD – in combination with contextual factor (such as consuming among other people, the use of music and being in nature) give rise to a set of affective modifications of the drug user’s enhanced capacities to feel, sense and act.
The use of drugs in the context of sex and sexuality is receiving closer attention in the media and public health communities than ever before. Against a backdrop dominated by medical science perspectives, researchers are moving beyond the prevailing sex-on-drug discourse characterised by risk and harm, or even simple pleasure, but rather drawing on an expansive notion of enhancement.
They are exploring intersections between drug consumption and the experience of sex via the concept of ‘pharmacosex’: the ways in which certain populations experiment with a range of illicit substances that modify and enhance their sexual experiences in the context of broader processes related to the pharmaceuticalisation of sexuality.
In 1959, Thelma Moss journeyed through New York City to the clinic of psychotherapist ‘Dr M’ to take part in an experiment. Over the course of 23 sessions, Moss took small doses of LSD to “speed up the loosening of her mind”. The aim was to resolve symptoms of her neuroses, one of which was her self-professed “frigidity”. Once the experiment was complete, Dr M. suggested that Moss publish an account of her experience and in her resulting book, My Self and I, she told her story appearing under the pseudonym Constance Newland. Her book records the gradual resolution of her sexual repression and was celebrated as proof of the potential of LSD within a therapeutic context. Newland’s book isn’t just a “trip report”, it is a testimony to the success of psychedelic therapy and explores the boundaries of prescription and recreational drug use.
Author and adult performer, Annie Sprinkle recounts her own experiences with various psychoactive substances. In taking LSD, she claimed: “Rough as the night was, the next day I was a wiser person. I had experienced alternate realities, new dimensions, other ways of seeing and feeling. I discovered that life was not necessarily as it appeared. I learned that I had the power to radically change my consciousness, and hence the world around me. This was excellent information to have on my way to becoming an adult–a sexual adult. […]My perceptions were heightened, I felt electric, got all tingly, and was awed by life. My first experiences with altered states came not from having sex, but through psychedelics.”
It is important to consider the pleasures of psychedelic drugs because pleasure is one of the key motivators for the use of these substances; and because it is a unique aspect of the experience of psychoactive substances. In other words, if we ignore the notion of pleasure, we severely limit our understanding both of why people engage in drug use and of what happens to them when they do so.
Moore, D. (2008). Erasing pleasure from public discourse on illicit drugs: On the creation and reproduction of an absence, International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 19, Issue 5, Pages 353-358, ISSN 0955-3959, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2007.07.004. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395907001430
Bøhling, F. (2017). Psychedelic pleasures: An affective understanding of the joys of tripping, International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 49, 2017, Pages 133-143, ISSN 0955-3959, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.07.017. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395917302311
Moyle, L. et al. (2020). Pharmacosex: Reimagining sex, drugs and enhancement, International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 86, 2020, 102943, ISSN 0955-3959, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.102943. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395920302826
Spiritual Science Museum. (2022). Thelma Moss. Available at: https://spiritualsciencemuseum.org/Home/Master/252/Thelma-Moss
Dymock, A., et al. (2019, January 16). Acid and the sexual psychonauts. Wellcome Collection. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/W2G6IygAACkAZWnu
Sprinkle, A. (2002). How Psychedelics Informed My Sex Life and Sex Work. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Available at: https://maps.org/news-letters/v12n1/12109spr.html