What Sex Work Taught Me About the Nature of Desire: The Magic of the Third Side of the Coin

I will never forget the scent of rose vanilla soap as I washed the cum off my hands after giving my very first happy ending massage.

I leaned across the basin and looked straight into my own eyes in the vanity mirror, scouring for signs that I had somehow changed. Was this the big scary thing women were never meant to do?

“I am a prostitute*,” I said out loud, trying on the alien concept. Then I broke down in elated giggles. Was this really it? Was this the big forbidden fruit? But it was so easy!

All I had done was join my friend in her nondescript suburban home as a second pair of hands in a sensual massage. Both of us plus-sized, busty blondes in our thirties. A middle-aged man arrived, hat in hand, and endearingly awkward as he silently stripped down and lay naked on the massage table.

Emma expertly managed the whole affair, sweeping him along into the process without a hitch. Warm oil slithered all over his body and I mimicked whatever massage technique she was using so that both sides of him were having the same experience. Half an hour later, we turned him over and I gave him a hand job that lasted all of 2mins.

He grunted and grinned, genuinely grateful and the three of us shared a secret laugh.

I disappeared into the bathroom to wash my hands while Emma wiped him down, made friendly chit-chat as he dressed, and guided him straight out the door.

Was that really it? Is this the thing that supposedly taints a woman into being unlovable and shunned from polite society? Where was the harm and degradation I was told I should feel? All I felt was a rush and a high from the taboo-breaking moment, but at the same time, I was struck by how ordinary the whole thing was. And, I was now clutching more cash than I normally earned from a full day’s work in my respectable admin job at a university.

This notion that sex workers are all broken comes up again and again. And the truth is that I did come from a traumatic childhood just like the trope says.

Through no fault of my own, I was rejected by my own family and community by the age of 12, when my mother died. My very existence was an inconvenience to my father and his new wife. In order to appease their own consciences, they made me out to be the devil, punished me for it, and turned the whole community against me. They literally turned me into a scapegoat so they did not have to face the fact they were doing this to me as an excuse to access their own desires.

I later rebelled against my strict cult-like extremist Christian upbringing that had an epic list of “though shalt nots” based on the mistrust of everything to do with the human body.

I engaged in a tonne of casual sex, trying all the taboo things well before I even ended up in sex work.

But what if my so-called promiscuity was not a result of being broken, but instead a part of myself I was able to access because I was free from the constraints of family and community expectations?

I’m not claiming that I didn’t fall into many of the traps that they warn good girls about. I did! I made mistakes like trying to find love by giving my sexual partners the sex they wanted while allowing us both to ignore my own needs for pleasure, safety and connection. I did it as an attempt to get a substitute for the parental love I never received. I fucked for validation of my self-worth. Classic slut trope.

But I didn’t stay stuck in that loop. I moved through it and found something more and it was sex that showed me the way.

I often wonder if I would have ever been able to find this treasure had I been a well-loved good girl. Conforming to the good girl path leads to social rewards but it is also a prison. Not all the parts of ourselves that we suppress in order to fit cultural tradition and family expectations are bad. Many of those parts have a lot to offer us and are still part of us… just pushed down into the shadows.

It takes courage to stray from that well-worn path and befriend those parts of us again. It can feel dangerous, sometimes even like we are risking our lives, because we are programmed to fear being separated from our tribe. We feel as though we are being forced to choose between our own inner guiding voice and the path set out for us by community and social forces much bigger than us.

After all, social conformity is essential for our survival. Initially, this is because we are too young and weak to fend for ourselves so we rely on the goodwill and approval of our caregivers. This is important, normal and necessary.

However even as we become adults, we still rely on social networks for the things we need and we are pack creatures who need to feel a sense of belonging.

The cost of veering from the mainstream is high. Just ask those who have suffered greatly by trying to be open about their crossdressing kinks… or ask a classically masculine, heterosexual man how easy it is to be open during locker-room talk with “the boys” about his desire to be on the receiving end of strap-on play… or to sexually submit… or ask those who have been kicked out of their families for being gay… or fired for being trans… and ask any sex worker how difficult it is just to rent a home if you are honest about your occupation on your rental application…

The pressure to socially conform is huge and there are real-world consequences when we dare break the mold.

Would I have had the guts had I not been cast out of from the Garden of Eden from a young age? I’m really not sure of the answer, but I do know that the space that opened up for me once I had no tribe, was powerful.

The worst had already happened so now I was free to:

  • Hear and be guided by my own inner voice.
  • To hear my own wanting.
  • To get curious about exploring the urges my desire sent me.
  • And when I did, things came full circle and I found new tribe.

Interestingly, it is now my job to hold the hands and gently guide my clients, into a deeper relationship with their desire and turn-ons, many of whom are recovering good folk, who did all the right things society expected of them. Even the most advanced sex-positive folk still have more to unravel and more we can access within ourselves.

I walk them through this process of learning to hear and trust their own desire compass. I was cast out of the safe walls of the main town, and into the wildwood by myself so now I know the paths to a lot of the good places in the forest and beyond! I am a great guide to those wanting to venture out to see the wonders of the world beyond the wall, precisely because I was forced to dwell here from a young age, and because later I set up camp and became a whore. The very thing we women are taught to fear being the most.

In this role, I learned what happens when we trust our turn-ons and play with them on purpose and how it leads us to be in relationship with the parts of ourselves we suppressed, so we can be whole again.

This is a process and it goes in three stages.

First flip: Conformity to the world we were born into.

A coin is flipped when we are born, and it lands with one side facing up and at first we only see that side. That is, we are born into a family with certain perspectives on how life works and we adopt them ourselves.

The first flip view of the world is “this is just how the world is”.

This is how you are expected to behave if you are born with these genitals… This is your religion and it is truth… This is what manners are and how to be polite… This is your inherited political view… These kinds of interests are suitable for someone of your social status… You should wear these kinds of clothes to advertise your social rank and values to others… This is when and how you can have sex… These kinds of sex are acceptable and these other ones are not…

Conformity is not all bad. These traditions have been passed down for good reason. Our ancestors learned things the hard way and developed systems to stave off mistakes they made and get more of the good stuff in life. There is hard-won wisdom in tradition and I certainly don’t advocate throwing the baby out with the bathwater!

However, traditions are formed in response to how the world was in the past, not to how it is now. They also formed because they were the best approach for people who were different to you. People who were wired differently, with different personalities, goals, and needs, navigating different circumstances, but nevertheless our ancestors and even parents pass down their survival systems to us as though this is just the way things should be done.

Here on the first side of the coin, we are often taught that desire is a threat precisely because it threatens tradition. It requires us to listen to ourselves, and our own wanting, over external social pressures.

We are taught that desire is the devil on our shoulder whispering self-indulgent temptations that would cause ourselves and others harm if we did not resist them. In fact, perhaps all of civilization would crumble! I mean if we “gave in” to the “temptation” of desire, we’d only ever eat chocolate cake, murder anyone who annoys us, and have sex with anyone we found attractive with no consideration for the well-being of ourselves or our sexual partners, right?

So here in first flip phase, we cast our desire out of our metaphorical town walls, along with the parts of ourselves we suppressed in order to fit into whatever social system we were born into. Desire is seen as a dangerous force and as a result, it appears to us as monstrous, howling outside the city gates, clamouring to get in, getting louder the more we try to block it out.

But at some point we begin to realise there are other ways of viewing the world and we flip that coin over.

Second flip: Discovering other views exist as well as resisting, rebelling, defining ourselves by what we are not.

Here we discover that it is possible to enjoy activities we were told were only for other genders. Here we discover another religious or political lens to look at the world through. Maybe several… Teenagers are classical second flippers but the truth is, that we all second flip to varying degrees throughout our whole lives. Sometimes we are in all three flips in the same day!

Second flip stage is super important and we can’t skip it, but it is not yet fully free or whole. It is the stage when we are defining ourselves by what we are not.

For instance, in my early twenties, I expressed breaking free from my uber Christian upbringing by declaring that I was a witch. If they were going to accuse me of being one anyway, I may as well embrace it. I decided to do all the things they told me not to do.

The thing is, when I did that, I put all my attention, energy, and focus onto what I was fighting against, and let that define me. I am not a Christian therefore I am the thing you told me non-Christians are. By rebelling against something, we are still giving it a central focus in our lives and letting it define us.

When it comes to sex and our relationship with desire, second flip can look like:

Suddenly trying all the things desire seems to be urging us towards without having yet built a trusting relationship with desire, or understanding that desire speaks in symbols, and shouldn’t be taken literally.​

“Fuck you, you can’t tell me what to do! I’m going to do exactly what you told me not to! I am going to throw myself fully into sleeping with the whole football team and going to all the kink clubs, not because my personal desire wants this, but because I refuse to believe that sex is bad, like you told me it was!”

Or the person rebelling against monogamy by cutting off their emotions when having sex in order to make sure they can remain free.​

Or the tantrika who wants to access sex and be a sex worker but is still working through her own internal whorephobia, so is trying desperately to hold onto her good girl status while also accessing sexual pleasure. While she is rejecting the idea that sex is bad, she’s still struggling with it and therefore defined by it. She’s the type who needs sex to be spiritual in order to give herself permission to feel desire. She’s not like those other lowly whores. She’s superior. She’s the good girl slut.​ The “priestess.”

Second flip is really about sneaking over the city walls, or even loudly making a scene as you stomp on out of the restrictive safety of traditional views. It is about meeting our monstrous desire without yet having formed a trusting two-way relationship with it. Second flip can look like barreling into the forest and getting terribly lost without a map to all the paths and great spots to sleep, eat, play, discover. Or it can look like standing outside the city walls yelling with protest banners.

Many turn back after spending a terrifying misty night huddled under a tree, imagining the eyes of ostracized parts of themselves, glowing eerily from the shadows. From this vantage point, it seems as though our traditions were right, it IS dangerous out here and we should head back on into the safety of the city walls.

This was me, in my slut phase back when I was fucking for validation. I still didn’t trust or have a real relationship with my own desire. My sex was motivated by “don’t tell me what to do!” and “please give me the love I was denied”. I wasn’t accessing the wisdom of my own sexual wellspring but giving others what I thought they wanted by simultaneously rebelling against the restrictions of the city and trying desperately to be allowed back in.

It was also me when I first started sex work, not yet knowing how to navigate safe boundaries or the complexities of being intimate with thousands of humans. At first, I was just elated at the taboo-breaking and I got myself into all sorts of fixes that appeared to make the anti-sex work feminists seem right. (They weren’t right BTW, just a saying).

But not everyone turns back to the city walls. Some of us can’t, or realise that there is more to the story and press on forward.

Third Flip: The best of both worlds, forming a new world.

At some point, we pick up that coin and take a closer look and start flipping it in the air, or spinning it like a top. Did you ever notice what happens when it spins? You can see both sides of the coin at the same time! Furthermore, it no longer appears flat but seems to have become a three-dimensional sphere. The merging of the two sides comes together to form a new thing, just like a thaumatrope, only with third flip we don’t end up in a cage… unless we want to…

Famous thaumatrope of bird in a cage

The third side of the coin is where wholeness lives.

This is the person who has met their monstrous desire and seen its innocent eyes, put down their sword and learned its language to create ongoing conversations with it. What was monstrous now transforms into a powerful ally that aids them in going into the wildwood to find and re-connect with the parts of themselves that they cut off in order to fit into social expectations. Furthermore, now, they can wander in and out of the city gates as needed.

They’ve learned to be in relationship with their desire’s symbolism, enjoy its pleasure and trust its guidance while also making sound choices that put desire’s urges on hold when they are inappropriate for that moment. Never disregarding or suppressing those desires but only acting in ways that both tap into desire’s wisdom navigate the well-being and needs of self, and others, throughout all life’s changing circumstances.

After all, the part of ourselves that sends the messages of “wanting” is there for a reason and that reason can only be discerned by listening to it and being in relationship with it.

Third flip can hear the wisdom of parents, social conventions and traditions while also hearing the wisdom of their inner voice and create a third, new way of being.

When I was still a sex worker, and I learned to work from a place of third flip, my specialty and area of expertise was to hear the voice of my client’s sexual desire and make friends with it. Remember that desires can’t speak in words. They speak in symbols through the body.​

  • Through feelings, urges and wanting
  • Through body signals and sensations
  • Through fantasies and flashes of images in the mind’s eye

​I would hear and celebrate their desire and create a two-way conversation with it by designing play dates and sexual encounters that symbolically tapped into those themes on an embodied level.

Treating sexual desire in this third flip way is where the magic lives. That’s when something deep inside would process through and feel in alignment in a way that can only be described in metaphor and poetry because it takes place in the part of us that doesn’t speak in words, but is nonetheless the part of us that is yearning to be seen, heard and valued. Yearning to be in relationship with our everyday consciousness.

This process of trusting people’s turn-ons and playing with the hidden undercurrents in their erotic psyche, within a safe container of mutual respect and consent, became a way to go into the wildwood and find the parts of themselves they had cut off.

When we are in a healthy, aware, dynamic relationship with desire, it becomes the part of us that connects us to our life-force, creativity, pleasure, motivation, and vitality. It is the part of us that knows we are inherently worthy.

Unlike the tantrika who was caught in the trap of trying to make sex fit the good-girl box, third flip sexual play doesn’t need the excuse of spirituality. It recognizes the value of our turn-ons, sexual desires, and of pleasure. It knows sex was always leading us home to whole selves and is a celebration of the miracle of being alive! It trusts all the many and varied ways that our sexual desire expresses itself symbolically and enjoys the hell out of creating adult play to explore them. It is not caught in excuses to give permission to enjoy sex, or life. It is just living the glorious adventure of it. Spirituality (or whatever you prefer to call it) then blossoms from there by itself. ​

This is what I mean when I invite you to form an intentional relationship with your own unique erotic psyche and learn the art form of creating purposeful adult play dates that tap into it on purpose. And in the process, use sexuality as a lens to explore all of life and the complexities of being human.​

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Retired sex worker and pro dominatrix turned desire, erotic psyche and purposeful play specialist. Writer, coach and online course creator. artemisiadevine.com