Professional athletes and men’s wellness gurus are turning to psychedelics to explore their inner selves. What's going on with psychedelic masculinity?
What is American masculinity in 2022? A look at men’s role models is instructive. We’ve got a Canadian, Kermit-the-frog-voiced father figure in Jordan Peterson who mixes advice to clean your room with suggestions to eat only meat, revisit debunked phrenology, and sound dire warnings about chaos dragons. And we’ve got our stand-in big brother Joe Rogan, who talks about the performance-enhancing powers of both lifting weights and doing ayahuasca. What is going on with this new psychedelic masculinity?
These days it feels like everywhere I turn a professional bro is describing their life-changing psychedelic experiences. These include Joe Rogan, former NHL enforcer Riley Cote, Daniel Carcillo, Mike Tyson, and Aaron Rodgers. And it’s making me wonder: Why are all these rough-and-tumble dudes suddenly tripping balls? And what does it say about modern masculinity?
I first became aware of fitness influencer and supplement slinger Aubrey Marcus at the first wellness startup I wrote for in 2018. Marcus is, well, very masculine. He’s got an undeniably-handsome face made only sexier for its rugged, beaten-up look. Of course his body was ripped. And the deep voice didn’t hurt. He was also, at least for a time, openly polyamorous and talked very candidly and in detail about his experiences with psychedelics.
Cote’s job as an NHL enforcer wasn’t doing his mental or physical health any favors. His role was so hard on his brain and body that it’s now basically disallowed from the sport. As if taking punches to the face and suffering four diagnosed concussions weren’t enough, he was also drinking to excess and using painkillers.
While his first forays into psychedelics were recreational, things changed when Cote started using them intentionally. Today, you’re more likely to see Cote sitting on a pillow, cross-legged, wearing a beaded necklace and using words like “safe container” and “plant medicine” than in a fistfight.
When Cote talks about psychedelics, it’s clear he’s a changed man. Psychedelics help give people “a little jump start to help get us on the path,” he said.
“Psychedelics have a way of softening the heart,” Cote said. Our hearts have become rigid, perhaps due to the structure of the system that we live in. “We're maybe not very compassionate at times in our relationships. I think a lot of men's relationships towards women, it's toxic. It's just all about sex. It's not really about understanding sexual energy as creative energy. So it [psychedelics] brings awareness to all these things that you might not uncover in this lifetime if you don't have a catalyst like a psychedelic to kind of get you on the path.”
Plant medicines have helped Cote tap into compassion for himself and others. They’ve also helped him let go of feeling “that I had to uphold this physical presence just to be worthy enough and be this tough guy,” Cote said.
“Here I am talking about a flower,” Cote recently told Rolling Stone, laughing. “It’s been an incredible journey. And really, I just want to take as many people with me as possible.”
To that end, Cote has introduced former NFL lineman Justin Renfrow and Steve Downie to psilocybin to similar effects. Downie teared up and shared about his father’s death. Renfrow let go of the idea that he had an obligation to play through his injuries.
Marcus described his first experience with MDMA as “a heart-opening experience,” and says it helped him realize, “I love people.”
Psychedelics have helped these men show emotions other than anger and talk openly about love, interconnectedness, and compassion. In each case, these manly men found themselves still wanting more, even after tremendous success in everything culture tells us men should want. They had impressive careers, girls, and nice things.
At the same time, their success was pretty narrowly dependent on their physical strength, skill, and endurance. In a way, the professional athlete goes through the same thing a lot of American men do, but much more intensely and in a shorter time span. There comes a time when you’re not physically and/or mentally able to leave it all out on the field anymore. And where do you find your meaning, purpose, and self-worth when you can’t rely on your job anymore?
For a lot of these athletes, psychedelics have helped them feel worthy of love and acceptance outside of their work or performance.
I asked Cote whether psychedelics had any impact on his conception of masculinity. “Hundred percent,” he said. “I checked every box as far as toxic masculinity.”
Cote said he was lucky to grow up in a positive household and didn’t learn toxic masculinity there. “I think it was the culture of being a male in this society,” Cote said. “And then moving away from home at a young age and playing junior hockey. Then you're on a team with a group of extremely masculine males. The energy is like a subconscious program. It's parties and it's girls.”
And this conception of masculinity extends far beyond professional hockey. “It's society,” Cote said. “It's not just sports. I think it's a microcosm of the macro. There’s a lack of self-love. It's not taught. It's like telling an ultra-masculine dude, ‘Love yourself.’ Self care? No, we don't take care of ourselves. We just bury ourselves every weekend. We don't need to sleep. We’ll sleep when we're dead. With the amount of suicides and mental health issues, that way of thinking doesn't promote life. It promotes death and decay.”
But Cote says psychedelics, yoga, and other lifestyle changes have helped him achieve a healthier balance between a more masculine and a more feminine energy.
Could psychedelics offer an alternative path to a narrow, rigid masculinity in which a man’s self-worth is defined by his career, anger is the only acceptable emotion, women are for sex, and aggression and dominance are the default modes of relating? Perhaps in some cases. But looking at a wider picture, it becomes clear psychedelics are hardly a panacea for toxic masculinity.
Like Cote in a previous interview, Tyson said his athletic performance would have likely been better if he’d started these drugs sooner. But based on Tyson’s recent statements and tweets, it doesn’t appear psychedelics have awakened any feminine energy within him. Nor does it seem like Joe Rogan’s attitude has increased exponentially in love, interconnectedness, and/or compassion as a result of using psychedelics. And it was after coming out about having done psychedelics that Will Smith bitch-slapped Chris Rock on national television, an explosive expression of toxic masculinity broadcast to the entire world.
It could as easily be the case that at least for some, psychedelics are better understood as a relatively “safe” way to keep up your reputation as the edgy bad boy even after you’re not physically able to fight it out in the ring anymore.
Then, there’s the capitalism aspect. Scratch just beneath the surface of a masculine influencer gabbing about the life-changing power of psychedelics and you’ll find a partnership with a company seeking to make money on the growing shroom boom.
Letting yourself cry about your dad’s death may be incredibly useful to a whole and integrated life, but it’s not likely to sell many supplements. For now, the power to help balance feminine and masculine energy is still a subtext of male psychedelia. The text is still focused on performance enhancement. It’s hard to sell a better version of masculinity to an audience who’s still trying desperately to buy the toxic variety. The ultimate irony is that psychedelic influencer bros are selling other bros performance enhancing mushrooms to help these bros discover for themselves that they can’t perform their way to worthiness. To quote Rogan, “Wow man. That's crazy.”
The professional US athlete’s career trajectory has certain parallels with the typical US male, just much faster and more intense. Both leverage their physical and mental health to win in a highly competitive, sink-or-swim environment for as long as they’re physically and mentally able. Then, when they can’t give any more to the game, they have a choice to make.
Every man who lives long enough must answer a question: Can I reorient my life to be about something bigger, broader, and more meaningful than winning at all costs? Or do I keep reaching for the next drug or supplement to try to wring out a bit more performance? Psychedelic masculinity taps into both of these desires.
Which way, Western man? Do you tap into psychedelics to try to keep your edge in a rat race, or do you use them to help you see over the edge of the maze?