In the Cards is a monthly advice column by Carly Boyce, a queer and genderqueer femme witch based in Toronto. With a background in community-based sexual health, grief work, and suicide intervention, in addition to several years of tarot reading, she brings gentle advice and the wisdom of the cards to your questions about life, love, and feelings of all sorts. To submit a question, send an email to email@example.com with the subject line: Ask a Feelings-Witch. Questions will remain anonymous, and may be edited for length.
Hey feelings witch
My question is: what do the cards have to say about navigating sexual shame? I’m a queer bisexual femme on the slutty side of things and I am a survivor of a vast amount of sexual trauma. It is so hard for me to lay claim to my sexual power and desire and when I do I often come across shaming whether that’s biphobia, queerphobia, misogyny, or slut shaming. It doesn’t help that I’m severely traumatized. How can I move through this shame that’s been imposed on me and claim my desire and power?
Thank you, dear reader, for this juicy question. I think this is a question that lots of people wrestle with, especially those of us who move through the world as femme or feminine or feminized. I want to tell you that your sexual power is real and magical and transformative, and that the trauma and shame you experience is not your fault.
I was in a workshop recently with Hannah Harris-Sutro, a femme in my life, who taught me some things about shame that I have been thinking about a lot. She told us that our bodies don’t distinguish between different kinds of shame; shame related to childhood trauma, embarrassing moments, mistakes we have made, shame associated with privilege we hold (whiteness, cisness, able-bodiedness, class privilege, etcetera), shame that other people have put on us that we’ve internalized. So when something happens that activates our shame, we are activated in *all* our shame, not just the parts directly related to what’s going on. So we all have work to do, excavating and processing our shame, however we acquired it, so that we can show up more fully in our own lives. One of the things that I think is so powerful about queers and sluts is our ability to eroticize things that aren’t “acceptable” to eroticize. Is there a way for you to work out some of your shame stuff in your fun and varied sex life? Do you have some safe and sturdy partners that you can invite into your tender places and see you, hold you, desire you, and/or worship you there? It is my opinion that sluts are a beautiful gift to the universe.
You, gentle querent, are a beautiful gift to the universe, and so is your question. Let’s see what the cards have to say about sexual power, trauma, and navigating shame.
Heart of the matter: Accountability/Justice
Barbara Blaine is one of the people depicted on this card, and I want to spend a minute telling you about her life and legacy. I hadn’t heard of her before I got this deck and read a little bit about her work calling out sexual violence in the church in the late 1980s in the description of this card. She was in the news recently because she died this fall. People hated Barbara Blaine for speaking the truth about the abuse she suffered in the church at the hands of religious leaders. They were angry that she was disrupting their illusion of safety inside religious institutions. She was able to hold sturdily to the truth of who was responsible for the violence against her. She was not willing to claim the shame that was thrust on her. Women who refuse to be silenced are the patron saints of the Accountability card, which tunes us into noticing, feeling, and naming injustices that we experience and see others experiencing, especially injustices related to abuse of power.
People are angry at survivors of all kinds of sexual trauma for naming their experiences and demanding change because we remind them that their world is not as safe as they would like to believe. Even many survivors of abuse hold victim-blaming myths because they allow us the illusion that we can prevent further harm to ourselves. And, if we blame people for their own sexual trauma, we can avoid thinking about our own complicity in rape culture. The ways you navigate the shame in your sex life, alone and with others, are radical, transformative, disruptive, and brave. They will also continue to be met with resistance, judgement, and even anger. You did not create the shame that you feel, nor the circumstances that make it “acceptable” for other folks to project their shame onto you. You have to find ways through this situation, even though you did not create it. This is not your fault. Your trauma is not your fault. Your shame is not your fault. The violence of rape culture, and all of the big and small ways you notice, name, and resist it, is at the heart of your question about processing and moving through shame.
There are two projects here: develop ways to survive the world we currently live in, and work towards transforming it. This card wants you to speak bravely, speak often, about your trauma,your choices, your power, and your desire—and it wants you to know that this will not be easy.
What to do: Ten of Feathers/Ten of Swords
The Ten of Feathers refers to a fall. It is about times of external or internal crisis. It’s a hurricane or a really brutal mental health day (or week, or month, or year). In the What to do position of your reading, dear one, I think that the Ten is here to tell you to plan for the hard stuff. The old shame welling up in you and the new shame being projected onto you are not done with you yet. This is going to be a long fight, and you will need to call on your skills and resilience and community to get through. Queerphobia, biphobia, misogyny, and slut shaming are not going anywhere fast and you will have to find even more ways to survive their impacts.
This depiction of the Ten of Feathers references Icarus from ancient Greek myth; the boy who flew too close to the sun with his wax wings, and fell hard to the earth. This card comes up when shit is rough, and also it comes with a reminder about the incredible resilience of people who deal with repeated, chronic, and systemic falling (physical, spiritual, metaphorical). The Icarus Project is a mostly USA based organization by and for mad people and this is an excerpt from their mission statement:
The Icarus Project helps us overcome alienation and tap into the true potential that lies between brilliance and madness. We are members of a group that has been misunderstood and persecuted throughout history, but has also been responsible for some of the world’s most extraordinary creations. Sensitivities, visions, and inspirations are not necessarily symptoms of illness, they are gifts needing cultivation and care. When honored and nurtured, these gifts can lay the foundation for a wiser and more compassionate society. As a mutual aid community, we intertwine threads of madness and creativity to inspire hope and transformation in an oppressive and damaged world.
The Ten of Feathers is also about acknowledging the superpowers that being traumatized has given you. Does the ability to dissociate allow you to take breaks from circumstances that you can’t tolerate (and shouldn’t have to)? Does hypervigilance alert you to some kinds of dangers so you can get out of a bad situation or prepare for whatever risk is present? The Ten of Feathers wants you to be in touch with all your skills, especially the ones that “society” would have you believe are something more like symptoms.
I think that this card is asking you to expand your toolbox, in breadth and depth, for dealing with the situations and feelings that arise regarding sexuality and shame.
What to think: Ace of Bottles/Ace of Cups
Aces are all about beginnings and possibility, and Bottles, the water suit, relates to our internal emotional landscape as well as our connections with other humans. The Ace of Bottles in the position of What to think is here to tell you that there is hope.
The fight is worth it because your sexuality is a gift. Your sluttiness is a gift. For some, the word “slut” feels powerful, subversive, and sexy. For others, I offer this reframe: try on the idea of *sexual generosity* and see if that shifts anything for you. Pleasure is good, and it doesn’t need to serve any other purpose, but also it does! Sexual exploration can teach about your skills, your resilience, your identity, your healing process, your capacity for communication, and about your boundaries and how you hold them. Every sexual partner, every sexual encounter with a recurring partner, is a new adventure. In sex you are constantly starting over, constantly changing, constantly learning.
The Ace of Bottles wants you to think about the riches you have been offered through sexual interactions and experimentation. Think about why and how you continue being your glorious slutty self despite the challenges you face. Locate your hopefulness, and remind yourself often what is beautiful, what is possible, what is new, and what is waiting for you in your sexual life.
What to avoid: The Fool
This depiction of the Fool is so charming to me—Pippi Longstocking hitchhiking, ready for adventure. She has a spare pair of underwear and a snack in her bag, but she has no map, and no attachment to a particular destination. This sounds like a dreamy place to approach sexual exploration from, doesn’t it? Well, gentle reader, this is not the place you get to come from. This card is coming up as a warning, because we live in a biphobic, queerphobic, misogynist, patriarchal, rape cultured, racist, ableist, capitalist, slut shaming world, because you have trauma that lives in your psyche and your body, because relating with other people in intimate ways is inherently risky, you can’t approach your sexual life with this kind of optimistic abandon. Or you totally can, but the cards advise that you do it inside a set of parameters that you create to keep yourself safe.
I’ll tell you that sex is where I learned boundaries, and the first realm where my boundaries were (not always, not by everyone, not by a long shot) appreciated, respected, and held with care. We could talk for a long time about how difficult boundaries can be to find, have, discuss, and hold. These things are all true. Also, boundaries create possibility, connection, and trust. Boundaries are meant to support and inspire best case scenarios. A firm no makes it so much more possible to receive and believe a yes.
We often think about boundaries as stop signs, things that are intense and rife with rejection, and with big consequences when they are crossed. I’d like to invite you, generous reader, to think of them more as the borders of a baseball diamond. There are places on the field that are more exciting to be, but the whole thing is safe. When you think about what your sexual boundaries are, start by defining what some of your desires are. What do you want to experience? What do you want to feel? What scares you? What makes you feel desired, seen, met, sexy? How do you signal enjoyment? How do(es) your partner(s) express their pleasure? When you think about those things together, what is the shape of the sandbox they sketch for you? Explicit and extensive negotiation can take sexuality from a battleground to a playground. If you’re looking for a place to start these conversations with someone, there are a lot of resources to look at! I like this one, and this one, and this one.
People somehow get this idea that sexual negotiation is not sexy. In my experience, this could not be less true!! Figuring out what you want and how to ask for it, and hearing about someone else’s desires can be very hot activities. There is so much more freedom and possibility when you can carve out a bit of safety. Also the process of negotiating will tell you a *lot* about your partners and prospective partners’ skills and capacity for listening, clear communication, compassion, excitement, and mutual desire.
Femmes are taught to set our boundaries at the maximum we can tolerate, to offer up as much as we can, as freely as we can. You do not have to do this. Give yourself some breathing room, and set some boundaries with lower stakes. You don’t need to be the direct opposite of the Fool to have clear idea of exactly where you are headed in any sexual encounter or relationship. You can keep the openness and curiosity. But where the Fool is ready without being prepared, you might need to be both.
These cards want you to live your sexual life joyfully and earnestly, and also offer yourself a lot of care and self protection. They also want to (and want you to) acknowledge the challenges, the violence, the trauma, and the other flavours of ouch that come along with this project. You are fighting for your own liberation, reader, and it’s resplendent.