Sex In Survival Mode

When journalist Maria Yagoda was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it fundamentally changed her relationship to sex.

Originally Published: 
Maria Yagoda, author of a nonfiction book about sex, 'Laid and Confused'
Sarah Crowder

Maria Yagoda has spent the majority of her professional life thinking about sex. As a journalist who’s ridden a $2,000 vibrating “sex machine” for work and chronicled her sexual escapades, she keeps returning to one undercovered aspect of it all: bad sex. “[There needs to be a] nuanced conversation about why many of us, who have great sexual vocabularies and great sexual politics, still feel so disenfranchised in their sex lives,” Yagoda, who’s 32, tells Bustle. This thorny territory became the basis of her debut book, Laid and Confused, a highly comedic call to arms that hit shelves in late May.

But right now, sex couldn’t feel further away from her lived experience. Yagoda was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is undergoing chemo in tandem with releasing her book. It’s stripped her of any sex drive. “Right now, it doesn’t even feel like a real thing to me that people have sex,” she says. “I’m in survival mode, and it’s really hard to experience pleasure when you’re in that mode.”

Instead, she’s focusing on what does bring her pleasure: Shark Tank, adult coloring books, and talking about sex. “Intellectually, because I’ve talked to so many experts, sex-havers, and done so much of that personal excavating, it is still endlessly fascinating for me to talk about,” she says. “I will always be unbelievably intellectually fascinated by sex and want to talk about it.”

Below, Yagoda reflects on Fleabag, the necessity of sex-positive content, and Raya.

How often do you tell someone the premise of your book, only to have them respond “I’ve had so much bad sex”?

It gives people permission to be like, “Oh, wow. I need to read that.” There aren’t a lot of venues where people feel comfortable being like, “A lot, if not most, of the sex I’ve had in my life has left me feeling bleh.” Maybe if there’s something comically bad or funny [that happened], we’ll gab about it to our girlfriends, or it’s played up for laughs on shows like Girls and Fleabag. But it was special explaining the premise and then creating this space where people could be like, “Wow, it’s not just me.”

Why do you think playing up bad sexual encounters for laughs is the defense mechanism so many of us adopt?

A lot of people, especially women, think the disappointment is more palatable when at least it can be funny. You see that a lot on TikTok, [where] Gen Z and younger people are translating their not-so-great dating or sex experiences into humorous posts. It feels easier to process those experiences that way than to really get in touch with how we actually feel about them and why they’re happening. And that’s totally OK. I’m not saying people can’t laugh at embarrassing sex. Even in my book, I couldn’t talk about these topics without incorporating humor — because that’s an entry point into more serious or uncomfortable areas.

You talk a lot in the book about the necessity of communication. But if you’re not having regular sex with a partner you’re comfortable communicating with — and instead having bad, casual sex — how should you navigate that dynamic?

The first thing I always say is to cut yourself some slack. Speaking up is hard because there are so many reasons why it can feel unsafe to speak up. Even in situations where you’re consenting, you’re into it, it can feel unsafe. We can have all the vocabulary in the world, but in our physical, survival bodies, it can feel super scary and intimidating.

One thing that I found writing the communication chapter is that you can build up a comfort level by communicating about sex outside of sex. Studies show that even talking to your friends more about sex translates into being more comfortable communicating during sex. It’s all about building a comfort level with verbalizing how you feel about it. When you work that muscle, whether through talking to your friends, listening to podcasts about sex, or reading about sex, it takes a lot of the pressure off having to muster up this random courage in the moment.

Especially since the type of sex we’re used to consuming on screen is porn, a scene played for laughs, or such over-the-top good sex it feels unattainable.

Nowhere is sexual communication being modeled to us. Because in the absence of good sex ed, which the majority of Americans aren’t getting, we look to TV and movies. More and more kids are getting their sex ed from porn. And if that’s where we’re learning about what sex looks like, and that’s not coupled with media literacy skills, that can be really harmful in our most formative years.

Your Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis has dramatically affected your day-to-day life. Has the diagnosis altered your views on sex?

It’s really hard to experience pleasure when you’re in survival mode. I talk about this a little bit in my book, in the context of PTSD and how that affects our ability to feel pleasure. I’m experiencing my brain’s misguided way to try to keep me safe in this situation. And that’s to take myself out of my body and disassociate and watch 10 hours of Shark Tank a day, which is amazing, but it makes feeling good during sex really hard.

Finding someone to have sex with is exhausting enough when you’re healthy. If you’re in survival mode, I imagine that’s the first thing you’re willing to sacrifice.

As a single person, it takes so much work to coordinate sex that’s appealing to you. Obviously, I could just go out in the street and find someone, but curating and filtering [on the apps] is just a huge amount of logistical effort. That was especially true in the pandemic, but now being in such extreme physical and emotional discomfort and pain, it feels impossible for me.

I passively look at Raya if I’m trying to kill time, but I can’t imagine grabbing coffee and flirting. I wouldn’t know how to go about it, because so much of that is performing your life and putting this rosy veneer on it. Whenever I go to the hospital for chemo, I look around [to see] if there’s someone my age, so I could do a Fault in Our Stars situation.

You took the words out of my mouth.

Right? I’m getting chemo every other week for six months. The first week I’m completely incapacitated, and then the second week, before the next treatment, I can walk the dog. I can sit outside a little bit. I would have to cram a date in that week and then disappear. But maybe that would be good? Maybe that would be attractive to men if I were really mysterious and disappeared for a week at a time?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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