Getting Off author Erica Garza talks to DAME about struggling with sex addiction, the powerful men who claim it to try and excuse their egregious behavior, and why many women suffer from it in silence.
In a culture that thrives on pointing out imperfections and where Twitter threads publically debate the minutiae of others’ romantic lives, it’s a refreshing turn when a woman dares to admit that—haters be damned—yeah, she’s had issues with sex and you know what? So do so many other women who probably aren’t ready to admit it.
In her new memoir, Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, Los Angeles writer Erica Garza offers an unflinching look at how her isolated adolescence coupled with insatiable adrenaline cravings made her a masturbation-junkie before she’d even gotten her first period, and then catapulted her into what essentially amounts to a sex-ed teacher’s adaptation of Reefer Madness: Unprotected sex with strangers, late-night porn binges and a subconscious desire to tank any potentially meaningful relationship.
Garza didn’t write this book for the internet trolls hoping for some steamy tell-all about three-ways, or for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world who may or may not be actual sex addicts, but who very clearly use that claim to excuse their repugnant actions. She wrote Getting Off for women like her: Those who want to take control of their bodies and minds after spiraling out, but who may be afraid to seek help.
Now in recovery, and happily married with a small child, Garza talks to DAME about her journey and how she hopes things will improve for sex addicts of all genders.
How would you define a sex addict?
I am not in a position where I would want to define that because I’m not a doctor; I’m not a therapist. I think sex addiction manifests differently in every person … If you’re using sex to escape and using sex to deal with problems, then maybe you have a problem. If day turns to night and you’re binging on porn and you feel so empty afterward that you can’t handle any sort of emotional difficulty that comes to you, then yes maybe you have a problem with it. It’s not my intention to judge or diagnose or to say that anybody’s expression of sexuality is a bad thing.
I can only speak to how I experienced it and the way I experienced it was that it was all-pervasive in my life. It became a major obsession for me. I spent a lot of time pursuing sexual relationships—really unhealthy sexual relationships and, in some cases, dangerous ones. I really felt this sense of powerlessness and loss of control and a deep, deep sense of shame … So I know that that’s not a medical definition, but that’s the best I can do.
It’s different from being an alcoholic or a drug addict. Those people who are in recovery abstain from their vices and that’s not often realistic for sex addicts.
You don’t want to tell people to stop having sex. That becomes a whole different disorder. Sexual anorexia is when people are unable to have sex with another person or they’re afraid to and they stop having sex for years. And that’s not living either. I didn’t want to abstain completely.
In the early stages of my recovery, I decided that I had to stop having casual sex or I had to stop looking at a lot of porn. It’s not about cutting off your sexuality. It’s more about finding balance and understanding that you were using it to create unhappiness and hurt yourself and learning how to build a new relationship with sex that can serve you better.
Your book comes out just as people like Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein are saying that sex addiction is to blame for their horrible behavior toward women. How do you feel when you hear people like him claim to be sex addicts?
I find it very suspicious like everybody else. I don’t know Harvey Weinstein, so I can’t say he’s not a sex addict and he’s using it as an excuse. He very well may be a sex addict. But, I do find it very suspicious that he would come forward and face his demons just because he’s under the spotlight. Whenever somebody comes forward about sex addiction and checks themselves into a rehab—and all he did was check himself into rehab for a week or two weeks, which seems like an impossibly short amount of time to deal with this stuff—it is very suspicious.
And, also it kind of gives a bad name to sex addicts. Not all of us are rapists. Not all of us do horrible things to other people. More often, we do horrible things to ourselves. To think of the sex addict as this all-powerful forceful person who takes advantage of other people just isn’t necessarily true and I would hope that people don’t think he’s the representative person of sex addicts …
I do feel like we’re in a cultural moment when women are coming forward with their stories. And it’s a lot more acceptable to come forward now with your story and I’m just glad to be part of that in an indirect way.
Does the feminist sometimes-fixation on sex positivity also distort the idea of addiction?
I was a bit scared about my book being cast in a way that wasn’t sex positive. I don’t want to say that if you masturbate three times a day then that’s OK, but if you go to four times, it’s an addiction. It wasn’t my intention to judge anybody’s idea of sex addiction or to say that there’s such a thing as too much sex or that pornography is inherently bad. I want to make it very clear that I watch pornography from time to time. It’s because I have a new relationship with my sexuality. I didn’t want to necessarily cut off my sexuality or to stop being experimental or stop watching porn. I just wanted to stop feeling bad about it.
You talk in your book of mentally demeaning the women you see on screen in porn. Is the idea of control also part of sex addiction?
I don’t know how other people feel about it. I know that … I need to have that higher sense of shame and shock. Also, the milder clips just weren’t getting me off anymore. It carried over into my real life so that I could put myself in these situations that didn’t necessarily make me feel good and, in some cases, were quite dangerous and unsafe. But I did that because it produced that same feeling of shame and shock in me. I really didn’t want to continue going down that path because I wanted to feel what it was like to be in a safe and intimate and loving relationship. I wanted to see what that felt like too.
It’s interesting because Pornhub released this data [in 2017] that said women are -percent more likely [than men] to look at hardcore porn. That doesn’t speak to the narrative that we often say about women. I found that really interesting. I thought that was something that had manifested because of my addiction. I think that there’s a larger story there that needs to be talked about and explored so that we can understand it better and how women view their sexuality and express their sexuality … I think there’s a lot of silence around it [for women] and because other women aren’t talking about it, they feel like they can’t come forward about it.
During this interview and reading your book, I kept thinking of the Rihanna song S&M. I wonder how much the mainstreaming of fetishes also played into our problems with sex addiction.
If you watch a certain kind of porn, that might distort your active sex life and how you behave in the bedroom. It may be influenced by what you see and you may seek out those things because you actually like them. It’s not my place to say that if you’re into bondage or you’re into being walked around on the leash—that’s a certain fetish that they have on porn sites; women being walked around on leashes—then it might make you feel horrible because you just saw it on the screen or you might enjoy that. Sexuality is a really complex thing and I think that people will bring different reasons into it and why they’re attracted to a certain fetish or not. It’s really complex and I think that the more that we speak about these things then … or maybe we don’t and maybe sexuality will just remain this huge mystery. But I think it’s worth talking about.
Were you concerned that revealing all of this would lead people to think you were a slut?
Of course. I think that comes with the territory of being a woman who enjoys sex. Of course, that crossed my mind and I think that’s one of the big reasons why women aren’t coming forward and speaking about this. They don’t want to be called those names to the extent that those names exist for women. And I don’t think that they exist for men in the same way.
A lot of articles are coming out about my book are sure to mention that I’m a mom. It’s like, if I were a dad I don’t think that they would care to mention that. Or like, dads watching porn? “Who cares. It’s not a big deal.” But moms watching porn? “I couldn’t believe it!”
It’s this level of shock that makes women feel like they must be doing something wrong. And that leads women to not speak up about it.
You’ve also talked about the fact that we need to have more conversations with girls about masturbation. Is that something you hope will also come from this?
Certainly. But I feel like things are changing a bit. In the media, I feel like stories about women masturbating are not as shocking or taboo as they used to be. I do feel like younger girls will have access to that normalcy … I don’t remember any girls talking about masturbation growing up. I’ve tried to think—there had to be a conversation, there had to be somebody mentioning it—but I just can’t recall any instances. And that just contributes to me feeling isolated–and isolation is a huge part of addiction. I feel like, if I hadn’t felt so alone from the beginning, then maybe my path would have changed and shame wouldn’t have been such an integral factor in my sexuality.
Is there something that you hope this book will do for women specifically?
I really just hope to get people to talk more. That was my main goal, to make people feel that they’re not alone and much of addiction is fueled by shame and isolation. A first step in healing is just being able to talk about it and be supported and accepted. Too often, we laugh about sex addiction and porn addiction. And that’s such a disservice to people—men and women alike who feel like they just have to keep it to themselves. I don’t think secrecy is helpful to anybody.
What is your advice for people who are struggling with sex addiction?
The good thing about Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings is you can do them online. They’ll have forums and chat rooms. Even though I do have some criticisms about 12-step programs, I do find them incredibly supportive as far as having a community. I think what’s most important for someone who is suffering from an addiction like this is they often feel very alone. To find someone going through something similar is incredibly helpful. Whether you choose to stick to a 12-step program or not, I do think that you need other people … Just reaching out and seeing if you can get in contact with somebody is so important. And, more often than not, revealing these dark things about yourself [makes them say] “oh, you’re going through that too?”
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