Psychedelics in the Age of Sexual Liberation

BY HENRIK DAHL

In the mid-1950s, artists and writers with a penchant for the erotic—some occultists, others belonging to the Beat contingent—got interested in psychedelics. This resulted in several influential and groundbreaking eroto-psychedelic works in the fields of art, literature and film. And, as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, psychedelics were increasingly used in conjunction with sex, as manifested in numerous cultural and artistic expressions. In fact, towards the end of the 1960s the LSD-driven counterculture seemed to be completely engulfed in the search for sexual ecstasy.

Sex and psychedelics have intersected for millennia. According to various sources, both were part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret religious ten-day rite for the cult of Demeter and Persephone held every September in ancient Greece. During the climax of the Mysteries, the initiates ingested a sacred drink called kykeon. Many psychedelic researchers believe the drink was psychoactive. Debate over its actual ingredients has been a recurring subject in many books and essays on the history of entheogens, and the late Swedish psychedelic researcher Patrick Lundborg even referred to the Mysteries as “ground zero” for Western psychedelia.[1] It has been claimed that the rite also included sexual activity. Author and sex historian David Allyn has asserted that while little is known of what actually went on during the Mysteries, “we do know that they involved orgiastic [sexual] activities.”[2]

The intersection of sex and mind-altering drugs in antiquity—or for that matter almost any period—is a worthy subject for an article. This piece, however, will deal with contemporary history (post-1945), specifically the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. As this article will show, this period gave rise to numerous cultural, social, political and artistic events and phenomena relating to the subject of psychedelic sexuality. In particular, the increasing sexual permissiveness of the Sixties had tremendous influence not just on Western society at large, but especially on psychedelic culture.


Perhaps one could say that there is an erotic component to psychedelia, because anyone who decides to study psychedelic culture and art will inevitably discover countless references to eroticism.


Strangely, the close ties between sexual activity and the psychedelic experience are often ignored by today’s psychedelic researchers and historians. Yet the fact remains that sex and psychedelics seem to have a strong and long-lasting affinity. Perhaps one could say that there is an erotic component to psychedelia, because anyone who decides to study psychedelic culture and art will inevitably discover countless references to eroticism and sexuality.

Whilst rigid conservative values were the norm in the United States and elsewhere in the 1950s, bohemian and artistic circles began exploring their sexuality, and experimenting with drugs such as cannabis and peyote. With the 1960s came an era of greater sexual freedom and the popularisation of LSD. This resulted in two vastly influential social movements, namely the sexual revolution and the LSD counterculture.

The sexual revolution—also known as the era of sexual liberation—had a profound influence on Western society. In the United States, the FDA approved the birth-control pill, aka “The Pill,” in the year 1960. Attitudes were also changing with regards towards premarital sex and women’s right to abortion. Moreover, censorship laws were changing, and towards the end of the 1960s books with explicit sexual content were no longer banned in the United States.

Bodypainting became a widespread phenomenon in the late 1960s. Pictured is a still from Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip.

The Sixties also gave us psychedelic art, a fast-paced and experimental visual aesthetic that was spread via posters, handbills, record covers, lightshows, paintings, collage, photography and film. Unsurprisingly, since the appearance of the genre coincided with the era of sexual liberation, psychedelic art often included erotic imagery. This was evident in the work of several of the San Francisco poster artists, who borrowed heavily from late 19th century Art Nouveau, a style characterised by sensual flowing lines and, occasionally, depictions of female nudity.[3]

The new psychedelic aesthetic of the 1960s was notably expressed in bodypainting, where colourful patterns and swirling shapes were painted directly onto nude—mostly female—bodies. Thus, the bodypainting phenomenon was one of the most apparent examples of how psychedelics and nudity became intertwined during the counterculture era. Bodypainting soon reached the wider culture, and men’s magazines such as Playboy published pictures of nude women painted in a psychedelic style.

***

Mention the topic of sex and psychedelics and people think of the “free love” ethos of sexually liberated hippies in the Sixties. Yet the intersection of sex and psychedelics was already coming to the fore in the mid-1950s. This was for instance seen in the 38-minute film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome by American experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Released in 1954, the film depicts an orgiastic ritual. Its title was inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment, which the English poet supposedly wrote after waking up from an opium-influenced dream.

Anger took inspiration from English occultist Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy, and unsurprisingly the film became a much admired underground classic among occultists and art students. Some viewers, however, found it bizarre and incomprehensible, which is understandable since Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is completely devoid of dialogue. Instead, the audio consists of The Glagolitic Mass, written by Czech composer Leos Janacek in 1926. Dressed in eye-catching costumes, the characters gather in the “pleasure dome,” where they partake in a ritual and ingest a psychoactive potion. The content of the latter is not revealed to the viewer. Yet given the mind-expanding aesthetics as well as the ecstatic and erratic behaviour of some of the characters, the potion is presumably meant to be interpreted as a vision-inducing entheogen. Interestingly, the psychedelic content of the film was further emphasised in 1966, when Anger decided to call a re-edited version “The Sacred Mushroom Edition.”

Hallucinatory and surreal, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is beautifully filmed and characterised by intense colours and superimposed images. In addition to the visual overload, there is also a distinct erotic undertone throughout the film. The theme of sexuality is also discernible in Anger’s choice of characters. For instance, the cast includes diarist and erotica writer Anaïs Nin, who plays Astarte, goddess of war, fertility and sexual love. At the centre of attention is visual artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron, who is cast both as Scarlet Woman and Kali. The name “Scarlet Woman” refers to Babalon, a figure in Crowley’s Thelema. It can also stand for The Whore of Babylon, which is a figure in the Book of Revelation. Moreover, Scarlet Woman is an expression for a woman who has many casual sexual encounters. In her role as Kali, Cameron exposes one of her breasts. According to the artist’s biographer Spencer Kansa, who is the author of the book Wormwood Star, this was one of the very first times that female nudity was shown in American cinema.[4]

Visual artist Marjorie Cameron in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954).

In 1952, two years before appearing in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Cameron’s life took a very dramatic turn when her husband and fellow Thelemite Jack Parsons, a rocket engineer and occultist, died in an explosion at their home in Pasadena. Following this event, Cameron moved to Beaumont where she gathered a loose-knit clique of occultists that she named “The Children.” The short-lived, intentionally mixed-race group engaged in a series of sex magick rituals for the purpose of creating a new third race of “Moonchildren.” Cameron viewed Horus as the personification of all multiracial beings, and she therefore dedicated the rituals to the Egyptian deity.[5]

In the mid-1950s, Cameron decided to experiment with peyote. She acquired some peyote buttons via mail order, and was deeply affected by the experience.[6] So much so that it turned her into a fervent psychonaut, and over the years she would experiment with several other psychedelics. Moreover, peyote also had a great impact on her artistic work. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is her drawing Peyote Vision. Usually dated to 1955, the artwork is a classic among occultists. It is also a pioneering work when it comes to eroto-psychedelic art. Depicted in the drawing is a nude woman on all fours who is being penetrated from behind by a creature whose head resembles a peyote button. While Cameron never explained the meaning of the imagery in her drawing, in later years she identified the penetrating creature as a solar God.[7]

The drawing, with its explicit interspecies sex scene, rose to notoriety thanks to Cameron’s artist friend Wallace Berman. In 1955, Berman included Peyote Vision in the first issue of his journal Semina, and two years later he featured the drawing in an exhibition at Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. There it came to the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department. Although it is a small artwork, the LADP cited the drawing as “lewd,” and shut down the exhibition.[8] As is often seen, a society’s deep-seated fear of sex and nudity frequently results in repression. Today, this is shown in social media giant Facebook’s ludicrous ban on images featuring female-coded nipples. In his 1992 book Food of the Gods, psychedelic bard Terence McKenna wrote the following with regards to the aversion of sex among those in power:

“The generally hostile attitude of dominator society toward sexual expression can be traced to the terror that the dominator ego feels in any situation in which boundaries are dissolved, even the most pleasurable and natural of situations. The French notion of orgasm as petit[e] mort perfectly encapsulates the fear and fascination that boundary-dissolving orgasm holds for dominator cultures.”[9]

Despite the police intervention at the Ferus Gallery, Cameron continued to explore sex and psychedelics. According to the American writer John Gilmore, Cameron was regularly attending sex parties at the home of a Hollywood set designer. Besides alcohol, the participants were offered cannabis, peyote and mescaline, and the gatherings would frequently turn into full-blown orgies.[10] Quoted in Spencer Kansa’s Wormwood Star, Gilmore says of Cameron that: “She was a very sexual woman, and her creativity was tied in with her dark sexual energy.”[11]

Given the topic of this article, it is also worth mentioning the short-lived gender project that Cameron pursued with Kenneth Anger. At one point in the early 1960s, the artist and the filmmaker were living together in an apartment building in Los Angeles, where they began experimenting with hormone tablets. In an attempt to “become each other,” Cameron ingested male hormones while Anger ingested female ones.[12] However, since they only lived together for a short time, the project came to nothing. Interestingly, their gender experiment has some similarities with a much more thorough attempt at gender transformation that was undertaken by two other artists in the 1990s, namely Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye’s Pandrogeny project.

Besides Marjorie Cameron and a few other occultists in her proximity, there was another group of people in the 1950s who were instrumental in combining sex and psychedelics: the Beat writers. Rather than art and film, their mode of expression was literature. Their output contained many references to sexual activity—typically non-marital—and different kinds of drugs, many of which were of the psychedelic variety. This was seen in Allen Ginsberg’s classic 1956 poem Howl, which, in addition to themes such as madness, politics and religion, deals with sexuality and drugs.

As for the theme of sexuality, Howl features references to oral and anal sex, and when it comes to drugs, the poem mentions peyote, which clearly was the hallucinogen of choice among intellectuals and artistic people during that decade. Today, this type of content might seem like no big deal. Yet in the mid-1950s it was perceived very differently, and due to the poem’s references to sex and drugs, the book in which the poem was featured—Howl and Other Poems—was deemed obscene. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published it via City Lights Books, got arrested, which led to the 1957 obscenity trial over the poem. In a victory for freedom of speech, the case, which was widely publicised, was won by Ferlinghetti.

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg photographed by the Sea of Japan in 1963.

The bohemian lifestyle of the Beats was famously portrayed in Jack Kerouac’s largely autobiographical and widely popular novel On the Road (1957). The characters in the book were based on Kerouac’s friends and family. Ginsberg is named Carlo Marx, William S. Burroughs appears as Old Bull Lee, and Kerouac himself is the narrator Sal Paradise. Perhaps the most central figure, however, is Sal’s friend and hero Dean Moriarty, who was based on Beat Generation figure Neal Cassady. On the Road describes—in Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness prose—their travels across America, where the characters get inebriated by a mix of jazz, poetry and drugs. Sex is also a driving force. At one point in the book, Sal writes the following of Dean: “[T]o him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life.”[13]

Although he never published anything himself, Cassady became a major figure not only of the Beat Generation, but also of the LSD counterculture that blossomed during the 1960s. The latter development was due to his involvement with the infamous Merry Pranksters; in 1964, the group, led by charismatic author Ken Kesey, travelled from San Francisco to New York in a wildly-painted school bus named Furthur, which was driven by Cassady.

Before moving on to the 1960s, let us take a moment to discuss what is probably the most controversial—and arguably the most inaccessible—work to come out of the Beat generation. The book I am referring to is of course Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Published in 1959, Naked Lunch could be described as a surreal and dreamlike work centred around drug addiction. It is also a satirical and darkly humorous book, and, regrettably, all too often poorly understood by many of its readers. Clearly an experimental work, Naked Lunch contains a series of vignettes—or “routines” as Burroughs liked to call them—which, according to the author, one can read in any order.

Burroughs was addicted to opiates, and often wrote about this in his books. Typically, the author used the word “junk” when referring to substances such as heroin or morphine. Moreover, when referring to opiate withdrawal, he used the expression “junk sickness.” Although Burroughs is closely associated with opiates, the bizarre and often intense content of Naked Lunch was not a portrayal of the drowsy, lethargic and typically sexually suppressed state of being on heroin. Instead, it is much more likely that the inspiration came from the gruesome experience of going through opiate withdrawal. Indeed, when he wrote the book in Tangiers in north-western Morocco—high on the cannabis confection majoun—he had just broken his morphine addiction.[14]

Burroughs’ experiences of taking yagé—another term for ayahuasca—no doubt also deeply affected the author. In fact, Burroughs once wrote that yagé was the most powerful drug he had ever experienced.[15] Naked Lunch features a brief section—”Notes from Yagé State”—where he describes some of his ayahuasca visions. As regards any sexual content, at one point in these notes, Burroughs talks about “convulsions of lust,” which indicates an element of eroticism during his experiences.[16]

American writer William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) with his Hermes Baby typewriter in Paris, 1959.

In a 1956 article titled “Letter From a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,” published in The British Journal of Addiction, Burroughs wrote that during withdrawal, “Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination (…) The addict is subject to a barrage of sensations external and visceral.” He also described how doctors and nurses appear as “monsters of evil.” Interestingly, Burroughs saw affinity between opiate withdrawal and the effects of Hashish, ayahuasca and peyote. “The similarity between withdrawal phenomena and certain states of drug intoxication, is striking,” he wrote.[17] With this is mind, one may conclude that despite its strong links to opiate addiction, Naked Lunch is to a large extent a psychedelic work, or perhaps one should say eroto-psychedelic, because the book also features a great deal of sex.

The characters in Naked Lunch—which, by the way, originally went under the working title “Naked Lust”—engage in a wide range of sexual activity. Anal sex is especially recurrent in the book, but it also includes fellatio, anilingus and sex with a dildo. These sexual acts were taboo in the mid-20th century. Moreover, the sex in Naked Lunch often involves people of the same gender, and recurring sexual imagery includes erect penises and ejaculation (which Burroughs called “jissom”). Due to its graphic sexual content, Naked Lunch was banned in Boston, USA, in 1962. However, four years later, in 1966, the decision was reversed by the Massachusetts Supreme court.

Burroughs became an expert at juxtaposing sex with drugs in his books. It was as if he thought of the two themes as somehow magnetically connected, or wired together. Already in his largely autobiographical book Junky, published in 1953, he juxtaposes one with the other. This is seen when Burroughs follows a discussion on peyote with a paragraph on the sex life of “the young hipsters,” whom he felt “seemed less interested in sex” than his own generation.[18]


In some instances, Burroughs’ writing resembles that of a psychedelic Marquis de Sade.


In Naked Lunch, Burroughs’ preoccupation with sex went into overdrive. The sexual content of the book was perceived as shocking, and some of the sex scenes in the book are deliberately extreme. In some instances, Burroughs’ writing resembles that of a psychedelic Marquis de Sade. In fact, the vignette titled “Hassan’s Rumpus Room” reads like a science fiction version of 120 Days of Sodom. This vignette features a surreal sex scene where a Mugwump (an alien-like creature) tortures, anally rapes and finally kills a young male at a bar.

In the closing paragraphs of Junky, Burroughs writes that he will travel to Colombia and search for yagé: “I am ready to move on south and look for the uncut kick that opens out instead of narrowing down like junk.”[19] Burroughs desperately wanted to get rid of his opiate addiction.[20] If he could kick his habit once and for all, his libido would most likely be greatly affected, because, as he himself writes in Junky, “Junk short-circuits sex.”[21] Although Burroughs continued to use opiates throughout his life, his experiences on yagé in the 1950s took him in a more erotic direction. This is seen in the highly sexual content featured in Naked Lunch. It is also discernible in The Yage Letters, co-written with Allen Ginsberg, where Burroughs noted that extracted yagé produces “aphrodisiac effects.”[22]

***

Of course, Burroughs was not the only person during this period who felt psychedelics might have vastly beneficial effects. In the early-1960s, American actress (and later psychologist) Thelma Moss underwent Freudian LSD psychotherapy with the intent of overcoming her frigidity. The treatment was successful, and resulted in the autobiographical 1962 book My Self and I, written under the name Constance A. Newland. In her book, Moss claimed that she “achieved transcendent sexual fullfilment.”[23]

With the release of My Self and I, and other such books, the general population started to connect LSD with sexuality. In fact, as the decade went on, there was an increasing tendency to view LSD as a tool for solving sexual problems. As was acknowledged in the 1960s, LSD can certainly be a valuable therapeutic aid when it comes to dealing with difficulties relating to sex. However, since LSD had become deeply intertwined with the sexual liberation movement, some individuals and groups seemed to believe that the drug itself had aphrodisiacal features. As Terence McKenna observed: “Every drug, during the process of its introduction into a new cultural milieu, is hailed as a ‘love drug.'”[24]

Psychedelics have been used to treat sexual dysfunction problems. Thelma Moss, author of My Self and I (1962), underwent LSD psychotherapy with the intent of overcoming her frigidity.

In a lengthy and much quoted 1966 interview for Playboy, former Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary made several exaggerated and wildly inaccurate claims about LSD’s effect on sexuality. For instance, in the article he claimed that, “In a carefully prepared, loving LSD session, a woman will inevitably have several hundred orgasms.”[25] Also, at another point in the interview, he made the following dubious comment: “[I]t’s almost inevitable that a woman will fall in love with the man who shares her LSD experience.”[26] One cannot help but wonder if the readers of the popular men’s magazine really took the article seriously. Due to the content of the interview, the publication of the article has been identified as the point when Leary made a final break with the scientific method.[27]

While most psychedelic scholars, researchers and chemists seem to agree that LSD is a non-specific amplifier, it is also fair to say that the drug has certain features that are potentially useful in an erotic context. For instance, LSD intoxication leads to heightened sensitivity and increased wakefulness, and unlike several other psychedelics, one can be on the drug and at the same time be physically active, which means that, provided the dose is not too hefty, having sex is actually possible. Moreover, users may also feel more uninhibited, start to express themselves in a more open way, and experience euphoria. These feelings can trigger erotic emotions, which in turn may lead to a desire for sexual contact. American author Robert Anton Wilson seemed to have a more balanced view of the way psychedelics affect sexuality than his peer Timothy Leary. In Sex, Drugs & Magick, Wilson wrote that, “Although none of these drugs are, contrary to Dr. Leary, real aphrodisiacs, many users find quite stimulating sexual effects in them.”[28]

The appearance of closed- and open-eye visuals might make a lot of people refrain from having sex during the first few hours of the experience. However, later on during the trip when the visual content is starting to subside, one may feel more comfortable in engaging in sexual activity. Also, some people may be inspired to have sex after the trip has ended, especially if the journey contained a lot of erotic imagery. As for combining psilocybin mushrooms and sex, Robert Anton Wilson gave the following advice: “Any sexual experimentation should be postponed until the sixth hour, after the more dramatic visions have passed.”[29]

Undoubtedly, sex during or after a psychedelic trip may be regarded as a particularly meaningful, even paramount, event. This has been confirmed by Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. In his classic 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious, Grof, referring to LSD therapy, wrote that, “Sexual intercourse on the session day can become the most powerful experience of this sort in the subject’s life.”[30] As a psychiatrist, Grof conducted thousands of LSD therapy sessions. He noted that when it comes to sexuality, the presence of erotic emotions varies among patients. Sometimes “nothing seems more alien than sex,” while at other times, a patient’s sexuality is “considerably enhanced,” so that extended parts of the sessions are dominated by “intense sexual feelings and imagery.”[31]

The Sexual Paradise of LSD (1967) was based on a study where 54 subjects were interviewed about their experiences of having sex on lysergic acid diethylamide.

There are several notable similarities between having sex and tripping on a psychedelic drug. For instance, both activities are often associated with the breaking of cultural and moral taboos. Sex and psychedelics also lead to various more or less intense altered states of consciousness. In some instances, they even bring about ecstasy. And let’s not forget the symbolic death associated with both sex and the psychedelic experience. The French expression la petite mort, meaning “the little death,” is used to describe the brief loss (or weakening) of consciousness during sexual orgasm. The psychedelic counterpart is the equally brief boundary dissolving “ego death,” also known as ego loss, which occurs when the trip is at its most intense.

Marsha Alexander’s 1967 book The Sexual Paradise of LSD gives some insight into what it actually means to have sex during a psychedelic experience.[32] For instance, a 30-year-old woman had the following vision while having sex with her husband on LSD:

I was inside a violent storm. Wind ravaged my hair, making me shiver and finally cry. Every movement sent me tingling back inside the storm. Nature, at its wildest, was my lover. I felt I’d explode from this rape by the elements. Then I did explode. Discovering the explosion was sexual was shocking, as was that orgasm” (…) I was involved in the act of love and the act of survival, all at the same time.[33]

Given that the visual content during a psychedelically induced altered state can sometimes be ugly and disturbing, having sex at the same time can therefore be psychologically challenging. Alexander’s book features an interesting quote from a man who had a Freudian vision of being castrated while having sex with his girlfriend during an LSD trip: “Although I was actually erect and willing to make love, I saw my penis melting, liquefying, dripping, detaching itself from the rest of my body, until it finally fell off completely.”[34]

The interviewees in Alexander’s book have very different views on the value of having sex while on LSD. Some oppose the idea. Others regard their experiences as exceptionally important, extending beyond the purely sexual: “I learned about love by having sex on acid. Love for my girl, sure, but love for every creature on this earth also. They want me to go kill the Vietnamese—hell, he’s my brother, and I am his,” says an interviewee.[35]


The book shows how incredibly intertwined sex and psychedelics had become in the late 1960s.


The Sexual Paradise of LSD is clearly a product of a completely different era, and today’s psychonauts may find difficulty in relating to its content. The book has become an interesting historical document that shows how incredibly intertwined sex and psychedelics had become in the late 1960s.

As the decade drew to a close, visual and literary depictions of sex were becoming increasingly graphic and explicit. This was evident in a slim 1969 volume of less than 200 pages titled Acid Temple Ball. Written by Sharon Rudahl under the pseudonym Mary Sativa, the novel clearly belongs to the erotica genre due to its graphic descriptions of sex. Given that it contains numerous references to psychedelics, it is also a work of psychedelic literature.

The female narrator of Acid Temple Ball is a 21-year-old art student in New York City’s East Village. Over the course of the story, she recounts her sexual explorations with various partners while on psychedelics and other kinds of drugs. As suggested by the book title, LSD is the drug that is most consistently used by the characters. Besides LSD, which is referred to as “acid” throughout the book, the narrator also experiments with psychedelics such as mescaline and DMT. The characters are clearly poly-drug users, though, and several non-psychedelic drugs, including methedrine and heroin, are also woven into the story.

Like Marsha Alexander’s book released the previous year, Acid Temple Ball shows how psychedelics were increasingly taken in conjunction with sexual activity. Fans of the book include comics writer Alan Moore, who thinks Acid Temple Ball is “a remarkable novel.”[36] Moreover, in their excellent work Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience, Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz call Rudahl’s book “a tour de force of psychedelic erotica.”[37] However, despite these accolades, Acid Temple Ball continues to be out of print. The book was originally published via Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Companion series, which also includes works by Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs. Rudahl’s novel, which one may assume is partly (if not largely) autobiographical, was one of the last books in the series.

Born in Arlington, Virginia in 1947, Rudahl studied at Cooper Union in East Village, New York City, where she wrote Acid Temple Ball while in her early 20s. However, she did not pursue a career as a writer, but instead became an underground cartoonist, focusing on themes relating to feminism.

The LSD counterculture of the late 1960s birthed a psychedelic style that came to be expressed in many different artistic and creative fields, one being the field of pornographic film. The so-called “Golden Age of Porn”—or “porno chic,” as it also came to be known—started in 1969 with Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie. This was the first erotic film featuring explicit sex to gain wide release in America. The early 1970s saw the release of the widely popular and much talked about Deep Throat. Another successful film was Behind the Green Door. This feature-length film differs from other pornographic movies of the era, in that it actually features psychedelic imagery and other references to psychedelia.

Directed by the two young entrepreneurs Jim and Artie Mitchell, aka the Mitchell Brothers, Behind the Green Door is characterised by an aesthetic and style not typically associated with the genre.[38] Although its content is clearly pornographic, the visual expression and unusual soundtrack of mostly funk and acoustic rock revealed a certain degree of artistic ambition. This is evident in an extended psychedelic scene, where semen from an ejaculation is seen flying through the air in slow-motion for several minutes.

Poster for the 1972 film Behind the Green Door.

Like other films of the “Golden Age of Porn,” Behind the Green Door reached parts of mainstream society, and the movie was even reviewed by American film critic Roger Ebert. Although it was made nearly fifty years ago, it still has its fans. For instance, the pioneering Swedish feminist porn director Erika Lust regards it as one of the best movies to come out of porn’s golden age. In her 2010 book Good Porn, Lust calls Behind the Green Door a “true artistic experiment,” and refers to the film as “hippie porn” due to its psychedelic images and soundtrack. According to the director, the Mitchell Brothers’ fondness for psychedelia, aesthetics and LSD “had a strong influence on how they handled imagery in the film.”[39]

Behind the Green Door follows a character named Gloria (Marilyn Chambers) who gets kidnapped and taken to a private sex club. After being given a massage and brought into a meditative state by a woman, Gloria is led onto the stage by a group of women dressed in black. She then engages in sex with the women while being watched by a sitting audience. Many of the audience members wear masks, and a few of the men are dressed in women’s clothes. In an echo of secret rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries, the audience members are sworn to silence, and told if they break this rule, they will be “dealt with severely.” A black man with facial paint walks onto the stage. Soon he and Gloria have sex while the women continue to fondle her. (Incidentally, the film is believed to be the first porn film to include an interracial sex scene.) After a while, several other men appear. They each mount a trapeze and Gloria proceeds to have sex with them too. The interracial audience get increasingly aroused by the activities they witness, and, unsurprisingly, they start to have sex with each other, which develops into an orgy.

The concept of the orgy is deeply rooted in human history. According to sex historian David Allyn, it is one of the oldest human rituals. Moreover, Allyn describes the orgy as “the ultimate expression of the ecstatic.”[40] The term may also be used metaphorically. For instance, English physician and sexologist Havelock Ellis famously described his seminal 1897 peyote experience as “an orgy of vision.”[41]

During the era of sexual liberation in the 1960s, the human need to experience ecstasy was reawakened, and people increasingly started to connect to each other sexually as well as spiritually. Sex, and psychedelics such as LSD, became effective tools for getting in touch with the ecstatic. Some would probably say that the collective libido of the era was simply too strong, and that the counterculture’s interest in sexuality took away focus from other important matters. Yet the era undoubtedly led to greater sexual freedom, something which can never be taken for granted in any society. Despite its flaws, the sexual revolution was clearly a unique, albeit transient, event in the history of human sexuality. It was, to quote Allyn, “an era of erotic possibility.”[42]

By Henrik Dahl

This is article was originally published in  Psychedelic Press XXX (2020).

Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.

Featured image: Members of the counterculture caught in a moment of ecstasy. Year and photographer unknown. The image has been edited.

Notes

1. Lundborg, Patrick, Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life (Stockholm: Lysergia, 2012) p. 30.
2. Allyn, David, Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000) p. 210.
3. Dahl, Henrik, “An Introduction to Eroto-Psychedelic Art”, The Oak Tree Review, 2018, http://www.oaktreereview.com/an-introduction-to-eroto-psychedelic-art/
4. Kansa, Spencer, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron (Oxford: Mandrake, 2014) pp. 118–119.
5. Ibid., pp. 92–94.
6. Ibid., pp. 96–97.
7. Ibid., p. 265.
8. Duncan, Michael, “Cameron”, http://cameron-parsons.org/cameron.html
9. McKenna, Terence, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), p. 68.
10. Kansa, Spencer, op.cit., p. 172.
11. Ibid., p. 172.
12. Ibid., p. 203.
13. Kerouac, Jack, On the Road (London: Penguin Books, 1991) p. 4.
14. Allyn, David, op.cit., p. 69.
15. Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters Redux (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006) p. 96.
16. Burroughs, William S., Naked Lunch: The Restored Text (London: Penguin Classics, 2015) p. 92.
17. Ibid., p. 216. pp. 216–217.
18. Burroughs, William S., Junky (London: Penguin Books, 1977) p. 147.
19. Ibid., p. 152.
20. Ibid., p. 125.
21. Ibid., p. 124.
22. Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg, op.cit., p. 33.
23. Newland, Constance A., My Self and I (London: Four Square, 1965) p. 20.
24. McKenna, Terence, op.cit. p. 198.
25. “Playboy Interview: Timothy Leary”, Playboy, September 1966
26. Ibid.
27. Miller, Greg, “Timothy Leary’s Transformation From Scientist to Psychedelic Celebrity”, Wired, 2013, https://www.wired.com/2013/10/timothy-leary-archives/
28. Wilson, Robert Anton, Sex, Drugs & Magick: A Journey Beyond Limits (Las Vegas, Nevada: New Falcon Publications, 1987) p. 53.
29. Ibid., p. 268.
30. Grof, Stanislav, Realms of the Human Unconscious (London: Souvenir Press, 2010) p. 13.
31. Ibid., p. 13.
32. The Sexual Paradise of LSD was based on a study where 54 subjects aged 14 to 50 were interviewed about their experiences of having sex while on LSD.
33. Alexander, Marsha, The Sexual Paradise of LSD, Kindle ed. (Olympia Press, 2009) Chapter Twelve
34. Ibid., Chapter Twelve
35. Ibid., Chapter Three
36. Moore, Alan, 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom (New York: Abrams, 2009) p. 57.
37. Palmer, Cynthia and Michael Horowitz, Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2000) p. 211.
38. The Mitchell Brothers were active in the porn and striptease business for more than two decades. In 1969 they founded the O’Farrell Theatre, an adult cinema and later strip club in San Francisco, and after their debut film Behind the Green Door, the brothers—surfing the “porno chic” wave—made several other adult films. However, their partnership came to a tragic end in 1991 when Jim was convicted of killing his younger brother Artie, who was 45 at the time.
39. Lust, Erika, Good Porn: A Woman’s Guide (Berkeley, California: Seal Press, 2010) p. 214–215.
40. Allyn, David, op.cit., p. 210.
41. Jay, Mike, Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) p. 92.
42. Allyn, David, op.cit., p. 294.