“I feel like we’re in this beautiful moment where women are coming forward with their stories, being vulnerable and more accepted,” Erica Garza tells me. “I’m glad to be part of that, because so much of addiction is isolation, feeling all alone and feeling ashamed, like you’re more broken than anybody else.”
Garza’s own addiction was sex addiction, which led her to binge-watch porn and purposely seek out sexual relationships that made her feel shame. In her first book, a memoir entitled Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, Garza frankly and unflinchingly chronicles these experiences. In pursuit of sex, she writes, she often found herself destroying relationships with those who cared about her—not just romantic partners who actually treated her well, but friends, family, and even herself.
Since she was 12, she writes, she sought solace in masturbation as a coping mechanism, which made her feel shame. But that shame became addictive, a refuge first from the awkwardness of adolescence, then the uncertainty of young adulthood and the difficulty of life on her own. This lasted for nearly two decades before she initiated her recovery in hopes of becoming what she felt was a functional sexual person. She ultimately took steps to remove the self-imposed shame from her sexual experiences, to learn to accept herself as she was, and to cope with negativity without relying on sex or porn through therapy, yoga, treatment centers, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, and more. That process, she says, is still ongoing.
Garza’s memoir is the rare sex addiction narrative from a female perspective, and a profoundly genuine, gripping story that any reader can appreciate. VICE spoke with Garza about the process behind writing Getting Off, sex addiction’s place in American culture, the path to recovery, and more.
It seems our culture’s discussion of sex addiction still lags behind that of other forms of addiction, especially since there’s still debate among experts as to whether or not it actually exists. Why do you think that is?
I think one of the main reasons is that, and I actually agree with this to a certain extent, sex is a normal human behavior. When addiction comes into play, it’s like, ‘Well, no, this is normal, people should be having sex,’ and they don’t know what to do with it as far as treatment. It’s not like drugs and alcohol, where you can tell people to abstain completely. You don’t tell people to stop having sex as a form of treatment. I think that makes it a bit confusing, as far as treatment facilities and the medical community not knowing how to go about treatment. It’s different for every person. Where one might be acting out sexually, having lots of promiscuous sexual experiences, another may be addicted to porn and not have that problem with sex specifically. You would give those two different people separate treatments. And you have lots of people who bring up sex addiction as an excuse for other behavior, like maybe Harvey Weinstein or somebody like that. I think there’s fear that people use sex addiction to justify bad behavior when it might not actually be a real problem for them.
How do you think a book like Getting Off can change the state of sex addiction discourse?
I just wanted to talk about my own experience. One of my main reasons for writing the book was to understand my relationship to sex, to trace how I’d gotten to this point in my addiction, because I had been partaking in a lot of self-destructive behavior and I wanted to stop. And then when I started writing my first essays [for Salon], I received a lot of messages from people who had been going through this same thing: “I’m so glad you’re writing about this because I felt all alone in this,” or “I thought I was the only person experiencing these things,” and for so long that’s how I felt, too. I felt it was so necessary to put out my own stories so others felt less alone.
I don’t feel like there’s enough written about sex addiction, so I felt like it was really necessary to write about it. I’m human, so of course things come up like, oh, my parents are gonna read this, what will my husband think? What will my friends and my old colleagues think? But what’s more important and what comes up more often is that I’m contributing something to the conversation that didn’t exist before, at least not as much as other sorts of addiction memoirs. If I can offer something that will make another person who’s struggling feel peace of mind and less alone, then I’m doing something worthwhile and important.
Was there ever a point when writing the book felt especially difficult or even triggering?
It was more helpful than triggering, but it was a bit painful. Writing some of these things was not easy and a lot of it was admitting my own fault and participation in some of these negative experiences. It was a good way for me to see how often I had sabotaged myself and hurt other people along the way. I think it was a good way for me to have an easy-to-follow path that I could trace clearly on paper. That was a way to feel proud of myself, that I had come so far and made good choices along the way as well, even though they didn’t feel so good at the time.
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What stage would you say you are in your addiction recovery?
I’m definitely more accepting of myself. I don’t binge on porn anymore, and that’s huge for me, because that was such a huge part of acting out, but I’m also not against looking at porn from time to time. When I first started writing about all this [in those early essays], I really wanted to get to a place where I just didn’t look at porn at all. I thought that’s what people in recovery did; I thought if I looked at porn then I was gonna go down this terrible path and be self-destructive all over again and lose control. I took a big break from [porn]. I think that’ll be different for every person who’s recovering, but for me having that break interrupted my patterns of wanting it so badly. When I turned back to it, I wasn’t susceptible to just falling back into it again and bingeing all over again and leaving my relationship. Being in a supportive relationship helped me to want to stay on a healthier path and a more loving path. Now we have a daughter and life looks very different for me than it used to.
It’s all about moderation, you know? That’s what I always wanted and I was unsure of how to get that. I don’t think that you have to cut off your sexuality completely. I like being a sexual person. I like being open-minded about my sexuality and being experimental. I just wanted to cut off the shame aspect of it. I think that was the most harmful and the most destructive part about my addiction, that I needed to feel bad. If I can continue looking at porn now from time to time and if my husband and I want to experiment sexually, that’s okay, but I don’t have to feel bad about it. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s not perfect even now—my brain has gone through wanting shame for such a long part of my life that of course it’s gonna come up from time to time—but what I have now that I didn’t have before was this ability to stop and think and make a choice for something else.
What do you think will help end the stigma that surrounds sex addiction, especially for women?
The more that people come forward about their stories, I feel like things will just naturally change. We do have a little bit of that happening. Jennifer Lewis from Black-ish came forward recently about her sex addiction. I saw it in a lot of different places because it takes people off guard when they hear a woman talking about sex addiction. It’s when women come forward with their stories and say it’s not so rare or taboo to experience this that things can change; so often what women write to me about their sex addiction is the same as what men are saying. Isolation is an incredibly damaging thing.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.