A few years ago, I was lucky to have heard Maggie Mayhem speak at the Arse Elektronika, a conference about the intersection of sex and technology. (Full disclosure - in my past life, I was a socially awkward pervert that was making some strange game where you fondled a cute vulva to climax). In Maggie's talk, her passion and commitment to sex workers' rights was obvious - and her thoughtfulness on so many different subjects stayed with me for a long time. Purely by chance, I found out later that she had a serious interest in tarot. I caught up with her about what her experiences with the cards were like, and how they intersect with her many other roles on her journey.
Can you give us a little bit of background on you, what you’re passionate about, and what you do?
My name is Maggie Mayhem. I’m probably most well known for my work in "feminist porn” and sex worker advocacy and activism. Right now I’m serving on the board of directors for the Sex Worker Outreach Project- USA. Since 2003, I’ve been involved in harm reduction and HIV prevention as well as overdose response. This fall I founded HarmRedux.Com to respond to the gentrification crisis in San Francisco that has displaced so many people onto the streets of San Francisco. We distribute health and hygiene supplies in San Francisco and I’ll be talking about our work at the upcoming Harm Reduction Conference in San Diego, CA this fall. I’m also a full spectrum doula and a home funeral guide in training. I’m very, very passionate about bodily sovereignty and supporting people through tremendous transitions in their lives, whether that is an acute overdose or addiction, their sexuality, birth, or death.
How did you first get into tarot? I never would have guessed that you would be using tarot, and I was so pleasantly surprised to run into you in the tarot world! What were your first experiences with it and what were your first impressions?
Tarot captivated my imagination as a child. I got my first deck when I was probably 9 or 10 years old and I pretty much ignored the booklet it came with and became obsessed with the art and developed my own system of interpretation. It was really easy to focus intensely on each individual card and let my creativity and intuition run wild, especially since I had fewer limitations as a child than I do as an adult. Children are natural storytellers who can draw fascinating connections between disparate objects, especially when you get out of their way. They have the ability to look at a cardboard box and experience a fully detailed pirate ship or mansion (to name two examples out of innumerable possibilities). Kids are also very sensitive to emotions and body language and due to their lack of experience in the world they’re in the habit of interpreting data with an open mind and without a pre-loaded set of biases about its worth. As a kid I didn’t have as many borders on the cards as I think I do now. My brain has a lot more information about Jungian archetypes, global mythology, and other esoterica but I don’t have that same limitless imagination and sensitivity.
What do you think are the links between the erotic and tarot? Do you find any overlap with tarot in both your roles as an activist, a sex educator and performer?
There are so many layers to the question it’s hard to know where to begin!
For one, the erotic is alive and well in the tarot in covert and overt ways in relationship to their given context. Sometimes there are symbols that are meant to signify the erotic, sometimes the erotic is used to signify something else. The Lovers certainly demonstrate this complexity. When they come up in a reading I don’t usually interpret them as literally meaning sex despite their name and overt imagery. The Ace of Wands and the Ace of Cups usually come off as being much more libidinous to me, actually, since both are full of life force power and vitality.
In general, the erotic and the tarot are highly driven by symbolism. What is the erotic but a set of signifiers, really? A stiletto heel is a form of foot covering and is not literally “sex” and yet it’s understood to be a signifier for sex in our culture, especially in combination with other erotic signifiers such as the color red, animal print, or just a few bars of certain music. Most of us probably wouldn’t confuse a shoe store from a sex store even though a high heeled shoe might be printed front and center on a sign for either business.
Activism is about facilitating empathy and identifying tangible ways for people act on that...tarot helps people examine the impacts of their actions or inactions, whether in the past, present, or future.
As for the overlap with activism, education, and performance I do think they’re all inextricably linked. Fundamentally, these three arenas are about the transference of information from one party to another and yet we also understand that to be successful you have to connection into the emotional core through the senses. Activism is about facilitating empathy and identifying tangible ways for people act on that. A good activist gets someone to feel a connection to something they might not have known or cared about before and then follows that feeling up with a set of actions they can take today that demonstrates their respect for that connection, it involves simultaneous output of education and performance. Unactionable empathy makes us feel powerless and the activist needs to empower people. I think it’s very cool how tarot helps people examine the impacts of their actions or inactions, whether in the past, present, or future.
What about your knowledge of gender? How does that figure into your readings? Does it shape the way that you intuit the cards?
One of the great things about the cards is the way they create an opportunity for people to identity the ways in which they embody masculine or feminine qualities within themselves even if they’ve never consciously thought to question gender themselves, because you have to consider how each card relates to something inside yourself. If I’m reading for someone who identifies as male, I don’t throw out cards like The Empress or High Priestess, but in so many ways that’s what our society asks us to do by strictly gendering our lives starting in childhood. Telling boys or girls that they’re using the “wrong toy” for their gender is an example of that. It’s a rare opportunity for someone to sit with these ideas and begin to examine the ways we’re all on a fluid spectrum of masculinity and femininity that shifts and changes constantly.
One of the great things about the cards is the way they create an opportunity for people to identity the ways in which they embody masculine or feminine qualities within themselves even if they’ve never consciously thought to question gender
In what ways has tarot helped you build relationships with your clients and others? How do you think it affects intimacy?
Tarot is a great tool to facilitate intimacy between people in all kinds of ways. Nothing can strengthen the bonds of friendship like a tarot card deck at a slumber party, for example. In general it facilitates really meaningful conversations and helps disarm a lot of emotional defenses. We have to guard our hearts but when we put those walls up we not only separate others from our desires, we distance ourselves from them too. The cards are a way to help undo the alienation we feel from our own needs and wants and from there we can begin to undo the alienation we feel from other people.
The cards are a way to help undo the alienation we feel from our own needs and wants and from there we can begin to undo the alienation we feel from other people.
When it comes to sex, a lot of people are extremely vague with their partners and that makes satisfaction a nearly impossible goal. Whether I’m using a specifically erotic deck (like something by Lo Scarabeo) or Rider Waite, I can start talking about power which is a cornerstone of sex and sexuality. I’m also beginning to find readings to be helpful with my birth clients once I explain that the purpose of the reading is not to predict anything medically about any possible potential outcome of pregnancy but rather to identify how someone is feeling about their pregnancy, relationships, or future as a parent. Those conversations are really relevant. In fact, some scientific studies are revealing that environmental and interpersonal stress can have a bigger impact on the health of a pregnancy than smoking cigarettes. (The book “Psychosocial Adaptation To Pregnancy: Seven Dimensions of Maternal Role Development” by Regina Lederman and Karen Weis has been hugely influential in the way that I function as a doula.) Tarot can really help someone unpack and identify some of that which can lead to really positive outcomes but without the right kind of training and experience it can also be extremely unhelpful. The consequences of screwing up an erotic reading aren’t anywhere near as severe as screwing up a reading with someone who is pregnant.
What have you learned about yourself through the tarot?
I’ve learned that without deliberate work, I can easily overwrite my own perspective with those of others. To a certain extent, we all do. We all function in so many different roles and we’re not judged on static and immutable criteria but by the way others perceive us. It’s often a strategic necessity to forfeit our own first person experience and take on the perspective others have about me and the role I play in their life. To be able to do this and retain a strong core identity is very, very powerful (that’s the superpower of the trickster) but if we aren’t very careful and very deliberate in maintaining self-awareness we can also easily overwrite our core identities with the perspective of others. I’ve certainly felt this as a performer when suddenly I forget where I begin and my character ends and vice-versa. We can also be traumatized into forgetting our first person experience. Oppression really does everything in its power to force marginalized people to see themselves the way their oppressors do. This is a survival mechanism of hierarchy. Tarot often helps me regain my perspective when I’m beginning to see myself and my world through the eyes of others, especially since sex workers are really reviled at this time in history.
Is there a certain principle you stick to when giving readings? What are your goals when you are giving a reading?
When I first started administering HIV tests in 2003, I learned very quickly that a test can detect the presence of HIV but it won’t tell you what that information means in the context of someone’s life. It was therefore very important to follow someone’s lead and identify what that result meant to them and go from there. This was really influential in my life and it’s something that still comes up for me when I read for someone else. I can describe what’s happening on a card and the archetypes it may represent but I always have to go back to what’s going on with that individual to help them integrate the information in a way that’s helpful for their context. A medical test is actually diagnostic in a way that the cards can never be and there is much more objective information I can provide in that kind of setting but the biggest principle I retained is that someone’s experience of the information is the center of everything.
You said in an earlier conversation that magic and sex are similar in nature. What similarities do you see between the world of magic and the world of sex?
Both sex and magic give us access to our subconscious in both beautiful and terrible ways. We have the ability to bless and curse others around us, especially those we are most bonded to, with the tremendous gifts of our sensory organs and minds. To impose your will upon someone without their consent is an abuse, a key factor to consider when engaging in sex or magic. We set the stage for sex and magic in a lot of similar ways to activate sensory arousal, such as darkening the room and lighting a candle, burning incense, taking a bath together, music, starting a cozy fire, sharing wine, focusing on the breath, and engaging in ritual activities. Sex and magic both really benefit when you take the time to set the mood and engage. Magic requires intention but when it comes to sex you can’t simply tell your partner/s that you intend to have sex with them but mutual consent allows people to come together and create a set of agreed upon intentions.
We set the stage for sex and magic in a lot of similar ways to activate sensory arousal, such as darkening the room and lighting a candle, burning incense, taking a bath together, music, starting a cozy fire, sharing wine, focusing on the breath, and engaging in ritual activities.
Both sex and magic have a strong relationship to the night. I think it’s relevant to mention that there is a statistical uptick in both births and deaths (as well as the strange activities of nocturnal and otherworldly creatures) between the hours of midnight and 5AM. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. The cloak of night provides privacy for the undertakings of sex and magic. Two collective unconscious as well as physiology.
“Sex Magic” is a particular type of practice that is a topic unto its very own that has a lot of ins and a lot of outs to it. I’ve always felt saddened by some strong currents of sexism present in writings about sexism (looking at you, Crowley) which seem to value total passivity from women to serve the needs of men. It was really wonderful to find voices like Starhawk which offer more balance.
Tell me about what your favorite experience when getting a reading?
My favorite experience was a recent one in New Orleans. I was out wandering in the summer air and came upon a park full of tarot readers. There was so much energy and it was a lot of fun to walk around and take in all of the personalities together in one place. I was also aware that each of the cards represents an archetype and they were being read by individuals who were also playing to various archetypes. Ultimately, I sat down with a flirtatious young man simply because of the way our eyes found each other every time I made a loop. We’d been developing a bond before I even sat down from that process and when I finally did come over to put my money on the table and see what he had to say. The build up made it strong and sweet and we’d already announced our intentions to be playful and a little sexy with each other. Then on top of that the setting was really to die for because it was New Orleans! Despite the commercialism and the awful tourist industry, there’s a lot of magic in that town.
How do you determine what makes a reading successful?
Having someone walk away feeling empowered to take action in their own life no matter how small it may seem is a sign of a successful reading to me. I take this from my work in harm reduction which I believe to be signified by any positive change, whether that is merely taking time to consider doing something different for the first time or beginning to take those first steps.
What aspects of a tarot deck draw you? How do you determine whether a deck is a good fit for you?
If I don’t find a deck appetizing, I don’t use it and I think a lot are genuinely tacky and produced without any heart or soul. I’ve found that decks don’t usually grow on me and if I’m not drawn in by their illustrations I’m really not going to be able to weave a narrative together. It has to be pleasing for me to look at or I don’t really invest as much into my gaze. That said, I have a lot of decks that fit my mood. Even though I have a few favorite outfits in my wardrobe I certainly would never be content wearing the same thing every day. I have well over two dozen decks in my collection from various traditions and I’m always on the look out for a new and enticing deck.
What do you do in your life to spark magic every day?
This question reminds me more about how bland my days are when I don’t do something intentional to spark magic! To spark magic, I do something that connects me into the here and now and that’s usually something connected to my senses. It might be about sitting down to meditate or it might be peeling an orange and getting lost in the way the citrus hits my nose and tongue. On my most magical days I refrain from getting on social media at least until I’ve taken care of my morning hygiene and beauty rituals, had my breakfast and coffee, and set my intentions for the day and ideally after getting in some basic movement, meditation, and a morning tarot spread.
What card in the deck do you identify with the most?
At this time, I’m really feeling connected to The Star because of her frankness and transformative powers. I feel this card a lot in all that I do whether I’m working with sexual energy, holding space at a birth or death, and definitely when I’m doing harm reduction work. The star is able to keep her feet on the ground and is connected to the heavens which is a lot of what I would describe my work as doing. Spirituality is a component of everything but I also have to be of practical support as well. The Star reminds me of my ideal role and purpose when I’m with someone through a transition.
Who are your biggest influencers when it comes to your tarot practice?
I really enjoyed “The Holistic Tarot” by Benebell Wen for being really pragmatic. Carnivale on HBO rekindled my love of tarot when my decks had become dusty and nearly forgotten. That opening sequence is one of the best pop culture uses of tarot cards that I’ve seen and plus I've had a huge crush on Clea Duvall since I was about 17 so there’s that, too. Jungian Psychology has always been helpful to my practice as has a study of many different mythologies.
Inspired by this random encounter with Maggie, I'm starting a series on this blog talking with tarot readers from all walks of life - how does tarot intersect with different disciplines? How does it make its way into the lives of those with vastly different backgrounds? And what does it have to offer to all of them? The idea of what a tarot reader looks like and how they approach the craft is something is evolving - more now than ever.
If you have someone you'd like to nominate for this post, please reach out! You can reach us at the contact form here.