The psychedelic experience is often spoken of in relation to “healing,” that emotions and memories can “bubble up” to the surface, begging the tripper to deal with them head on. It’s a staple of psychedelic therapy, especially MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD. And during the past few months, I've been deep in psychedelic research—listening to podcasts, reading the entire canon of psychedelic literature and interviewing over a dozen psychonauts—for a book on psilocybin mushrooms I am working on. Through my research it felt like I stumbled into another universe, one where men are open about their feelings and discuss them publicly with a sensitive vocabulary. It got me thinking, could psychedelics be the answer to toxic masculinity?
In short: Perhaps. A recent 2018 study found that male recreational users of LSD or psilocybin were less likely than non-psychedelic users to engage in intimate partner violence. The researchers analyzed an anonymous online survey of 1,266 people that asked about psychedelic use as well as participants’ ability to regulate emotions. They found that psychedelic users were not only less likely to be violent toward their partners but were also able to better regulate their emotions than non-users. Begging the question as to whether or not psychedelics are the missing link in helping men recognize and regulate their feelings, especially violent ones.
Psychedelics seem like the antidote to traditional masculinities, which dictate that “men should be stoic and strong both emotionally and physically.” Stoicism, or the idea of the “strong, silent type” who never admits to feeling fear or sadness, can actually be detrimental to men’s health. In fact, the American Psychology Association came out last year with “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men” that informs practitioners: “Traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict, and negatively influence mental health and physical health.” At the same time, according to Linwood Lewis, PhD psychologist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, toxic masculinity is when these traditionally masculine traits are used to harm other people, either emotionally or physically.
Psychedelics are kind of conducive to feeling softer, feeling more open, having more space, and being less reactive and aggressive.
The expectations on men to be “manly,” to “man up,” or “grow some balls” can also be a major source of internal conflict. When they don’t live up to the ideals of traditional masculinity—or the “strait jacket that comes with expectations of traditional patriarchal masculinity,” as Lewis puts it—it can result in psychological stress and tension, which can negatively influence men’s mental and physical health. “When you’re in competition with an idea, the idea always wins,” says Lewis.
I actually began to think about the possibility that taking an "empathogen" (like MDMA or a psychedelic like psilocybin mushrooms) could help men out of the “strait jacket”from listening to the Entheogen Show podcast, so I decided to call up the hosts, three men, for their two cents. “I think psychedelics enhance your awareness…. and you’re able to see yourself a little bit more fully. I think that inherently goes counter to what I associate with toxic masculinity which is an inclination to close off and to be not be aware, that you’re unwilling to understand yourself and the nuances of social dynamics,” says Entheogenco-host, Brad*.
“Psychedelics are kind of conducive to feeling softer, feeling more open, having more space, and being less reactive and aggressive,” says Joe*, Entheogenco-host.
And then, the third co-host of the podcast, Kevin*, brought up a good point: that psychedelics don’t affect everyone the same way, and so this more sensitive and aware outcome won’t be across the board for all men. “I keep going back to that Dr. Neil Goldsmith quote where he said something like, ‘If you give LSD to Richard Alpert, you get Ram Dass. But if you give it to Charles Manson, you get Charles Manson,’” says Kevin.
Through all my psychedelic research, I’ve learned that tripping on these substances isn’t enough to enact any lasting personality changes. People really need a safe and supportive environment and to go into the experience openly with a willingness to learn, and possibly, with the intention to become more self-aware and accepting. Not to mention, a trained therapist, guide, or shaman might be necessary for these kinds of revelatory outcomes, as well as actively “integrating” the psychedelic experience in the days, weeks, and months following.
That being said, current scientific studies that provide “healthy normals” with psychedelics as well as adequate support and preparation are finding incredible results. A landmark paper by Katherine MacLean who worked on the psilocybin trials at John Hopkins found that mystical experiences facilitated by magic mushrooms made people more “open” even a year after their trip. According to the study, the personality trait of openness is correlated with awareness of feelings in self and others, among other traits –yet, that’s not the only reason this finding was so significant. The current body of psychological research says that people’s personality traits are “predominantly stable after age 30,” meaning adults don’t typically change. Unless, perhaps, they trip safely and mindfully on shrooms.
You have to be able to identify the emotion in yourself before you can learn how to express it in a positive way without hurting other people.
Thinking again of masculinity, could men actively engage in making their personalities more open by taking a psychedelic? Lewis reminds Playboy that it’s not just men choosing to act in a certain way, but the expectations of behavior by their communities also plays a huge role. “We blame individual men for their choices, but sometimes we don’t look at the context that only allows for bad choices,” says Lewis.
But what if men’s social context encouraged good choices? The Entheogen Show podcasters often bring the conversation back to Burning Man as a place where they experience the opposite of toxic masculinity. “It’s like all the nice dudes from high school,” says Kevin. “Your guard can be down because you don’t have to worry about encountering that kind of an attitude.” Yet, is it just because the “Burner” community has different expectations? Brad points out that while, yes, he meets many wonderful, open and compassionate men in the psychedelic community at places like Burning Man, at the same time, “correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.” Making me wonder, could it be that more sensitive and open minded men are seeking out the psychedelic experience to being with?
However, thinking of my own psychedelic experiences, especially the cathartic tears and profound realizations I’ve had on magic mushrooms as well as the beautiful connections I’ve made with people on MDMA, it’s hard to believe men could come out of a strong psychedelic experience without an increased emotional awareness. Not to mention, if traditional masculinity is the cultural norm, then those who have “opened their doors of perception” might be more likely to reject this stifling social structure. While it’s always been a popular belief that psychedelics make people question authority, especially during the 1960’s and 70’s counterculture, there’s recently been some research to support the idea. A 2018 paper out of the Imperial College of London found that psilocybin measurably decreased participants’ “authoritarianism” a week after their trip. In 2019, maybe this anti-authoritarian influence could promote a less toxic and more emotionally vulnerable sense of masculinity?
Lewis recommends something similar, that men make space for a view of themselves that may be contradictory to what traditional masculinity expects of them. He also suggests men practice noticing “forbidden” feelings, like sadness or fear, within themselves as a good first step. “Being aware of when you’re feeling sad and taking a step back to say, I’m going to express feeling sad and not express that as being angry at the person who made me feel sad, is the place to start,” says Lewis. “You have to be able to identify the emotion in yourself before you can learn how to express it in a positive way without hurting other people.”
So are psychedelics the answer to toxic masculinity? They could be a useful tool in helping any person with their emotional intelligence and self-awareness, if used safely in a supportive environment. However, maybe psychedelics will play an integral role in shifting away from a patriarchal culture that values hostility over empathy. At the end of my conversation with theEntheogen Show podcasters, co-host Joe brought up an interesting point: “You know, we’ve never integrated psychedelics into Western society…maybe toxic masculinity is a side effect of just depriving ourselves of the use of psychedelics to grow?” With psilocybin legalization initiatives in Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, and the trend of using psychedelics mindfully for healing, it looks like we’re at the cusp of finding out.
*Last names held for privacy.