March 30, 2022

SXSW: Sex, psychedelics, and craving community

Anna Wilhelm

Strategy Director

At a conference known for connecting people, there was minimal connection at the outset. I’ve never heard thousands of people stand in line so silently. But this was the scene for registration at the iconic annual event in Austin, South By Southwest – better known as SXSW. 

After back-to-back years held fully virtual thanks to COVID safety concerns, SXSW returned IRL, and it seemed everyone returned to it a bit apprehensive. And that made sense. For most attendees, it was their first global event in-person since spring 2020. But observing these shifts in human interaction are half of the reason I attended the event at all.

I wanted to learn from niche communities tackling things often considered a bit taboo. What events would people show up to and – expecting no one else to turn up – say to themselves, “Thank God I’m not the only one who cares about this”? I wanted to talk to strangers, overhear conversations, and people-watch – the simple social pleasures we learned to treasure in our pandemic lockdowns. This goal brought me to communities assembled around the topics of psychedelics and the future of sex (some of the smallest of SXSW). Observing general attendee engagement brought me to the core keynote and featured sessions (the largest of SXSW) to get a sense of macro themes vs. the microlens of niche communities.

The future of psychedelics

Psychedelics like LSD (acid), DMT, and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) have long been known as party drugs and associated with the flower children of the 1960s-70s. However, their roots run deep in ancient and indigenous religious ceremonies worldwide. This is why it comes as no surprise that the surge of psychedelic interest is accelerated by the New Age and spiritual movements of our post-religious society.

That being said, religion still has a place in this conversation. In a session titled “Judaism and Psychedelics,” journalist and self-proclaimed HinJew Madison Margolin observed that psychedelics unite people of secular and religious backgrounds who yearn to find their own path.

The psychedelics and pseudo-spirituality communities reveal a craving for transcendent experiences — often preferring the experiences in a group setting rather than solo. One woman I met at a SXSW bar said she and her friends do psychedelics together regularly while saving infrequent solo usage for deep therapeutic work. (This woman and her friend group are all young Brooklyn boomers, by the way.) Spirituality is now separate from organized religion. Atheists and Anglicans alike are craving spiritual, mystical experiences, and many see psychedelics as the way in — whether for mental health, better relationships, or a sense of oneness with the universe and others.

One thing Margolin noted: you can have a psychedelic experience without taking acid. You can also take acid without having a psychedelic experience. The goal, she says, is to dampen the ego so your soul and spirit can shine, but this is possible with or without drugs. Regardless of how you reach a psychedelic state, you have a sense of connection to something outside yourself. This is the core of mysticism (and where the belonging comes in): we must relinquish control to belong.

When we feel a lack of control, we can choose to control or accept. Control means knowing the answers; acceptance means embracing the mystery. The trends toward spirituality and psychedelics signal a cultural shift toward an acceptance mentality which has been developing over time due to the integration of zen Buddhism into western spirituality and accelerated by the out-of-control environment brought on by COVID. Psychedelics hold the universal invitation to discover just how much you belong to yourself, others, and the universe by releasing control.

The future of sex

I attended three sessions on the topic of sex and romance: “You Put What, Where?! Introducing New Sex Products,” “The Future of Sex: As Told By Women,” and “Optimized Romance: Is Tech Killing the Mood?” While the content of all three was fascinating, what stood out was the consistency of the crowd. It was clear a specific handful of individuals were craving this content. 

In a Q&A, one guest expressed frustration with SXSW for not having more sessions on the critical topics of sexual expression and agency. She hosted a SXSW-sanctioned sex-positive meetup to supplement the lacking schedule, and I attended to see who else would show up. The event — barely promoted and held in a room designed for 15-20 people — hosted over 50 attendees. Discovering a shared desire to explore something often regarded as taboo was touching for everyone in the room.

This need to belong extends far beyond topical environments. In the Optimized Romance session, the moderator asked panelists whether seeking “the one” is something people are disillusioned by or something they’re more hungry for than ever. Psychotherapist and relationship coach Bibita Spinelli summarized our current moment, romantically speaking, as hunger + disillusionment. She asserted that the yearning for the one is rooted in the desire to feel deeply understood, but that our definition of “the one” is becoming more expansive and de-emphasizing till-death-do-us-part monogamy. Once again, this shift aims to expand and include.

The topics of sex positivity and sex tech are fundamentally rooted in identity, agency, embodiment, and freedom from shame. These are all critical to human thriving. Attendance and engagement affirmed that people are tired of asking permission to talk about pleasure and preference. Simply creating a space dedicated to a topic empowered people to lean in and express their yearning for liberation and belonging.

The future of belonging

While sex and psychedelics are fairly niche events designed for smaller audiences, the largest keynotes and featured sessions affirmed the craving for expansive belonging. 

Jonathan Van Ness and ALOK affirmed queer joy and their approach to beauty/style as their form of defiance, but also as an invitation to all. Lizzo talked about how hard it’s been to find women who look like her to audition as backup dancers for her concerts, her journey to self-love, and writing life-affirming music. And regardless of capacity or topic, nearly every session addressed the need to elevate, honor, and include indigenous American voices and the fact that they’ve been doing much of this long before us (gender nonconformity, psychedelics, shamanic practice, integrated community formation, etc.).

In reflecting on the exercises we did together at the sex-positive meetup, an attendee said, “I have seen 300+ people at SXSW so far. But I haven’t felt deeply seen, until now.” This was the beauty of the conference in action. It peeled back shame and otherness from marginalized or taboo groups by honoring them with a platform and space to gather. This is what made way for that overarching sense of belonging. While that feeling can only last so long after a session, it is emboldening to know you aren’t alone.

In our Trend Curious practice at Curiosity, we continue to forecast trends around these topics, from the future of religion and belief to the future of sex and romance. If you are interested in how specific communities of belonging are shifting, don’t hesitate to reach out — we’d love to partner with you to gain more insight.

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