“I felt like a steam train, powering into her tunnel,” 31-year-old Robbie tells me. “I was filled with energy at a deep, cellular level. My movements were in-sync with my heartbeat and my heart was in sync with hers. And it felt like everything was building and building…”
His eyes are clouded-over with memories. He looks wistfully at his 28-year-old girlfriend, Fran. We’re sitting in the office of their eco food business on the outskirts of London. She nods. “But it was spiritual, too. Intense.” Her hair is twisted into long braids and she strokes them absent-mindedly as she talks. “Ego death is fine,” she says of the psychedelic experience, brought about by taking large or “hero” doses of a drug like LSD (as the name might suggest, people who’ve experienced it have likened it to dying). “But there’s more out there…”
The “more” is why I’m here. I first met the pair at a party at the end of 2017, in one of west London’s pricier postcodes. It was hosted by a friend with the lofty intentions of starting her own psychedelic revolution. However, looking around at the strange assortment of tech types, hedge fund horrors, and “trendy” south London designers, I realised that 50 years after the first Summer of Love, psychedelics were no longer the drugs that people took to turn on, tune in and drop out.
The guests there had been inspired by the renaissance in neuroscientific research. In 2016 scientists scanned the brains of people tripping on acid using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results went viral. Psychedelics became headline news thanks to their apparent ability to fire-up the creative faculties and reset frazzled brains. People started looking for that little chemical uplift to make themselves more “optimal”. And, like everything else, it seemed that psychedelics had been co-opted by the relentless millennial drive to be more productive – more plugged in.
“I think that group was quite misguided,” says Fran. “Everyone there just wanted to sit around and pat themselves on the back for “hacking their brains” or whatever. For us it’s always been about finding deeper connections to other people.” Along with three other couples, Fran and Robbie have started their own Sex and Psychedelics meet-up group; an antidote, they claim, to “too much meaningless sex and too many meaningless parties”.
“It started as a bit of a joke,” says Robbie. “A WhatsApp group with a silly name. Now we have dinner once a month and take the exploration a bit more seriously. We don’t have sex as a group. We just have sex on psychedelics [in our couples] and then discuss our experiences.”
Many ancient civilisations mixed sex with powerful plant hallucinogens. Ceramics found in coastal Peru showing the psychedelic shamanic sex rituals of the Mochica and Nazca people have been dated as far back as 100 – 800AD. But lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, ushered in a new, high-octane age of psychedelic sex. It was first synthesised in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who ended up, er, tripping balls after accidentally ingesting a tiny amount in 1943. The “extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours” piqued his interest and a few days later he took a larger dose.
Throughout the 1940s and ’50s LSD was used in CIA experiments and by Hollywood psychiatrists. By the 1960s, thanks to the work and writings of Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary (who called LSD “the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man”), it was the drug fuelling San Francisco’s counterculture.
“LSD and sex have definitely overlapped since the 1960s,” says Dr Alex Dymock. She is one of three researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London heading up the Wellcome Trust-funded Pharmacosexuality project. The project launched in May 2018 with the aim of exploring and documenting the varying ways, reasons and contexts in which people in 2019 mix drugs and sex. “Before I started the research I had never realised how much people were using acid in the late 1960s and how that sat in concert with the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. It’s a heady mix of movements and acid is very much part of it.”
The difference between then and now, she muses – “though it’s hard to say for sure” – is the seriousness with which some groups approach their experimentation. “There are some psychonauts [people who take psychedelic substances or practise meditation to explore the furthest limits of their own minds] who will take a fairly measured approach to different drugs, mixing until they find one combination which really enhances their sexual experience. I heard of one group who get together and use 2CB [basically, a mix between ecstasy and acid], nitrous oxide [“laughing gas”] and GHB [a sedative that can have euphoric effects]. It’s an intense mix,” she warns, “but through trial and error they found it works for them and their sexual play.”
Robbie’s and Fran’s own findings are, so far, fairly sparse. “Sometimes it’s just really random,” says Robbie. “There was that time I felt like a train.”
“Choo choo,” jokes Fran.
“Another time I was stroking Fran and every time my fingertips ran over her clit, her vagina would, like…light up. Which was really something.”
Often though, the experience tells them something about the dynamic of their relationship at that moment. “Like once Fran and I put a tab in at the pub. By the time it really hit us we were walking home; we got to our door, were making out and I felt this intense, carnal, animalistic desire.”
“Yeah, it was almost overwhelming for me,” says Fran. “And when we went inside, he was, like… chasing me up the stairs. I was a bit fearful, but in a weird kind of turned-on way. It was like we were acting out this sexual dynamic where I was more submissive and he was more dominant. It’s never been like that before,” she continues. “But we ended up talking a lot about why that might have come out. It’s, like, acid allows you to tap into your subconscious, into what you’re storing in there.”
“At the dinner, when we told the others about this whole chasing-sub-dom dynamic, it led to a really interesting conversation about gender roles,” adds Robbie. “The others had all had their own experiences of psychedelics revealing a more primal part of them within the sexual experience. It’s interesting to explore those parts of yourself and not something you ever get the chance to do otherwise.”
Obviously, the problem with mixing drugs (or alcohol, for that matter) with sex is that legally, you’re not deemed as having the capacity to consent if you’re under the influence. And without being a buzzkill, hallucinogens can be particularly dangerous in a sexual situation. As one 31-year-old woman that I speak to explains: “I took acid once at a sex party and while I think I had fun, I really don’t remember much about the sexual experiences. I just get flashes of arms and legs and giggling. It’s uncomfortable to think that I actually don’t know what I did.”
As a couple, Robbie and Fran have been together for almost six years and agree they would only mix acid and sex while together. “If you have no idea what’s going on, it can get really frightening,” says Robbie. “Or if you have full personality dissolution, then it’s a whole different ball game…”
Though the science of ego death experiences is ever-evolving, a 2019 study from the University Hospital for Psychiatry in Zurich found that as the drug hits the system, the brain’s neural gatekeeper (the thalamus) becomes compromised. Where generally the thalamus filters out unnecessary information, when you’re on LSD it malfunctions, flooding some parts of the brain and cutting off stimuli to others. One of the parts that gets deluged is the posterior cingulate cortex, the part thought to help create a person’s sense of self. Theoretically, as a tidal wave of light, sound, taste and smell hits it, our sense of self – as a separate entity to the environment around us – dissolves.
It can prove to be terrifying. “You might end up a screaming, quivering mess,” says Helena, a 32-year-old chef, who started experimenting with sex and psychedelics two years ago. “I remember seeing an army of bodies rise up from freshly turned soil, like I was in a zombie film and then feeling like I didn’t have a body any more. Once you’ve experienced the death, though, what’s left behind is this unfiltered self.”
Problematically, this process – one of the most extreme hallucinatory experiences a person can go through – renders many people incapacitated, not knowing exactly who, where or what they are. Again, consent in this scenario is pretty impossible to give or to obtain and by law, a person in this state of incapacity cannot be consenting, even if in the moment they might seem to be up for it. “You have to sort of wait to come out of it a bit,” Helena says. “And you have to be around people you trust. But then if you can add in that sexual element – it’s like you’re meeting the other person’s soul. It’s everything sex should be – meaningful, hedonistic, real.”
And potentially quite confusing. One 27-year-old guy that I speak to tells me about how he took acid with his girlfriend and another couple. “We met them at a fetish night and brought them back to ours. We all wanted to really relax into it, so we didn’t take too much. I’m bisexual but the other guy isn’t, so I was conscious of not making him feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, when the drug hits you, it can be tricky to work out what’s going on. I just remember looking down at the bed and seeing all these arms and legs but not really being able to work out which limb belonged to who. I didn’t want to accidentally grab him, which was tough because he had quite girlish thighs. I kept trying to follow an arm or a leg back to the head to make sure I was touching the right person but in the end I just had to take myself out of the equation for a while. That was quite frustrating.”
Sarah, 30, and Rick, 33, first took acid together at an orgy in Hammersmith. They both work in advertising and have been regulars on the London sex party circuit for the past year. “At the intersection of LSD and sex there’s this whole world of intimacy and weirdness,” says Rick. Though the two couples don’t know each other, like Robbie and Fran, they too believe that psychedelics offer them a fast-track to a deeper, more profound type of connection.
“It was incidental at first,” explains Rick. One night in May 2018, a plain-looking ex-council low-rise, owned by a mutual friend of the couple became the epicentre of their sexual awakening. “We’d both just come out of relationships,” says Sarah, “and were getting into the kink and fetish scene. People [on the scene] are very friendly, as you might imagine, and so one evening we both ended up, with a group of 10 or so others, at this orgy. Someone gave us each half a tab of acid and, basically, that’s how we got to know each other.”
Over the course of the summer, that same group met every few weeks to take acid and have sex. “That first time it was more like, ‘Oh, we’re having a bit of acid because it’s a party,’” says Rick. “But it also made our first sexual experience together much more intense. So the next time there was more intention to it.”
He characterises sex on acid as “dissolving into the sea and being ravished by plankton. Your whole self comes to the fore. Our world is so visual and curated. This is the opposite of that, it’s the unfiltered you. It’s the you that not even you are aware of.”
“It can be hit and miss,” says Sarah. “If I’m not 100 per cent comfortable with the person – if they’re not one of my regular partners – then I just get giggly and silly, which I’ve been told is a real boner killer. So, someone’s trying to be sexy, maybe trying to finger me and I’m going, ‘Ha ha ha, your dick looks like boiled ham.’” But both her and Rick agree that introducing acid to their sexual encounters – something they now do once every few months – has fast-tracked their connection. “It’s not just 13 hours of fucking. You talk in a completely unguarded way. It’s like skipping over years of small talk and boring dates.”
Dr Dymock points out that LSD has been considered a good aphrodisiac because “it makes people lose their inhibitions, so they’re open to different experiences. And our senses – touch, taste, everything – aren’t just amplified, they’re so amplified that they can start to feel alien.”
She’s interviewed hundreds of people about their experiences of sex and drugs. “[On acid], lots of people have talked about getting very distracted,” she explains. “They’ll get a really strong visual [hallucination] and won’t be able to continue. The weirdest thing I’ve heard is people being halfway through sex and then realising that they’ve just been lying there, staring at
each other for 20 minutes, not actually doing anything.”
She describes a study participant who thought his girlfriend had turned into one giant breast – “so he basically thought he was having sex with a huge boob” – and another who said her boyfriend’s penis seemed significantly bigger when she was on acid. “There’s a degree of wish fulfilment which ends up being filtered through an acid trip and that can change how sex feels. It plays with our idea of what sex is.” She points out that many people are just doing it to have a good time – but that there’s also a groundswell of others who see it as a way to get more intimate and more connected than they otherwise might.
Arguably, we’ve reached a point in our history where many of our intimate moments are mediated through a screen: from the “HBD!!!” WhatsApp messages we send to our closest friends to the porn, which turns us on with the kind of speed and precision few flesh-and-blood partners ever could. Most of the people that I speak to say that combining sex and psychedelics allows them to experience a deeper connection with a partner. A truer, completely unmediated connection.
“It makes sense that more of us are doing this,” says Fran. “We’ve grown up with PornHub and now apps have turned dating into some weird game.” Helena agrees. ”I found myself going on dating apps and feeling completely bankrupt. I just decided to run as far in the opposite direction as possible.” She waits until she knows a partner well before introducing psychedelics. “But I now date with the intention of finding people who I can have those bigger experiences with.”
As I leave Fran and Robbie, though, I can’t help but think about one of Dr Dymock’s most interesting findings. “Some people now use sex to enhance the drug experience – not the other way around,” she explains. “When we started the project, we thought a lot about how drugs can improve sex. There isn’t really any research on how sex can improve drugs, though. But it came up a lot with the people we interviewed.”
So you do have to wonder – for all the high-flown talk of intimacy and connectedness, maybe the new generation is just trying to get extra fucked up?
*Names have been changed.