We spoke to Erica Garza about her recovery, and how sex addiction isn't about enjoying sex too much, but being unable to separate pleasure and shame.
- Erica Garza is a recovering sex addict.
- In her new book, she details many of the experiences that led up to her realising she had a problem.
- She used to prioritise staying at home watching porn over leaving the house, and sought out a string of partners for unprotected sex.
- Ultimately, she struggled to separate pleasure and shame.
- She told Business Insider there are many misconceptions about sex addiction, particularly when it comes to women who have it.
Having a string of partners and watching hours of porn isn't necessarily the way to achieve sexual liberation. While many people are empowered by owning their own sexuality in this way, for some, it can mean the exact opposite. Rather than enjoyment and affection, sex can be intertwined with shame and used as a weapon on the path to self destruction.
For Erica Garza, life was about pursuing romantic partners, watching porn, and putting herself in potentially dangerous situations, all for the sexual release that helped her forget about everything else she was trying to ignore.
"The best way to put it is just feeling a lack of a powerlessness and a lack of control when it comes to expressing your sexuality," she told Business Insider.
In her book "Getting Off: One Woman's Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction," Garza, 35, tells her story of how she would continually cancel plans to stay in a dark room and masturbate, and have strings of partners who she didn't use protection with.
Sex and shame were so fused together, she would seek out situations that she thought were "revolting," and other adjectives like it, just to be able to orgasm. Unprotected sex, for example, gave her an extra charge of adrenaline.
"I felt like I needed to have a combination of shame and pleasure in order to feel satisfied with a sexual experience," Garza said. "And so if I didn't use protection, it was something I felt really bad about because I knew I should be treating my body better. I knew that something could happen, and I couldn't believe I was putting myself in those destructive situations — but it felt too good not to."
Women are just as likely to be sex addicts as men
Garza's book has received a lot of publicity since it was released, largely because it provides a side of sex addiction many people haven't previously been made aware of. Women in particular are thought to be under-represented in seeking help for sex addiction because of the stigma and shame they may feel about it. Also, in the media it's almost always a man who claims to be going to rehab for a sex problem, like Harvey Weinstein did last year.
After all, going to a Times Square peep show and slipping a woman $20 notes isn't something people often associate with women — but that was one of the many ways Garza escaped from life.
She said women probably have an extra layer of shame if they are addicted to sex, or even in relation to sex in general. It's still something of a taboo to be a woman who needs, or even just likes, sex.
"Because of that idea that men want sex more, when women don't fit that narrative, they feel bad about it," Garza said. "We know the language that we have associated in our culture with women who have a lot of sex. We use terms like 'sluts' and 'whores,' while with men we just shrug it off and say that's normal. It's just 'boys being boys,' that sort of mentality. And I'm really hoping my story is going to open that up a bit more."
Another common misconception about sex addiction is that you have to have gone through some sort of trauma early on in your life. For Garza at least, that wasn't the case at all. She grew up in a Catholic Latino household, which meant sex was very much off the table as a conversation topic, leading her to associate it with more shameful feelings. But all in all, Garza was raised in a safe, supportive home and she felt loved and cared for.
"When your story doesn't sit into that narrative of trauma or sexual abuse, you feel this extra layer of shame because you feel like you can't talk about it," she said. "Like your pain isn't justified. And I don't think anything diffuses shame more than being able to talk about it."
Like all teenagers, Garza did face her own struggles with self-esteem. For example, she was diagnosed with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace for two years, which made her feel really insecure and self-conscious. She found that if she watched more porn and masturbated, she could get a break from those feelings. After that she continued using sex as a crutch, until she was truly ready to face everything.
Sex addiction has its skeptics because it's hard to define
Unlike other addictions, like heroin or alcohol, you don't have to go cold turkey to recover from a sex addiction. You don't have to stop having sex or even watching porn. It's more about developing a healthier relationship with sex, and learning not to use it in destructive ways.
"I think a lot of people who go into a 12-step program are so scared they'll go back into their old patterns of behaviour, they cut themselves off completely," Garza said. "That's not living either. That's not happiness either. And that becomes a whole other problem. It's a lot more about finding balance and forging a new pathway with your sexuality rather than giving up sex completely."
Finding this balance was one of the most challenging parts of Garza's recovery, particularly when it came to setting her own boundaries and stepping over them occasionally. But over time, she began to realise it wasn't her sexuality that was the issue. It was the shame, the lies, and putting herself in unnecessary danger.
Because sex addiction is so completely personal and different for everyone who suffers with it, it is a hard thing to define. Garza said this is probably why there is doubt in the psychological community that it exists at all. But, she said, this isn't really the point.
"I think that's unfortunate, because its a hard thing for a person to admit that they have a problem with sex," she said. "Saying it doesn't exist just makes people feel like they should just stop talking about it, and they don't have a problem, and they don't know how to change. They cant take any actions to change because there's no context for helping them."
Once someone can admit to the problem, there are resources available. By taking that off the table and saying it doesn't exist, people don't know what to do for help.
As certified sex addiction treatment specialist Robert Weiss told me in a previous article, when a person comes into treatment, that individual is in crisis. As a therapist, it is his duty to do what he can to help, regardless of definitions or how they have gotten to that point.
"Is the client coming to treatment in an attempt to appear sympathetic, or does he really want help? I say who cares," he said. "Whatever it is that motivates the client to enter treatment, once [they are] there, we can perform a clinical assessment to see and understand what we're really dealing with, and we can implement a treatment plan to help the individual based on that."
Research has shown that the part of the brain associated with reward is activated in the same way whether you are addicted to anything; cocaine, food, gambling, or sex.
"It's just the way of using a normal human behaviour in a destructive way," Garza said. "And fine, if they want to say sex addiction doesn't exist, then I think we need to call it something else. I think there needs to be a larger conversation to explain how people feel powerlessness with their sexuality in some ways and they engage in destructive behaviours in a compulsive way."
Recovery is an ongoing process
Garza is now happily married with a young daughter. She said she plans to be incredibly open with her daughter about sex in the future, so she can always come to her with questions when she's making the same discoveries Garza felt she had to hide away from and feel ashamed of.
"I don't want to be a source of shame for her. I don't want to be a source of silence. She's going to get that from the world around her and I don't want to be that place for her," Garza said. "I'm certainly going to be as honest and open as I can be with her, and just be real."
Hopefully this means she will grow up knowing she is worthy of pleasure and desire isn't a bad thing, she said. Unfortunately, a sex-positive upbringing is something people in even the most progressive societies can struggle with. It may take a while for parents to openly discuss the existence of porn with their adolescent children.
Nonetheless, the conversation is broadening, and Garza is playing her own part in that. She's grateful for how her recovery has gone, but it's an ongoing process, and there have been stumbles along the way.
"I do feel like I'm in a much better place, because when I feel triggered, I don't feel the need to just destroy my life again," she said. "I don't need to just close the shades and binge on porn.
"I'd rather talk about my feelings and talk about whats triggering me and what I'm feeling… I keep taking steps in that direction of revealing and being vulnerable, and that's being the biggest help, rather than closing off and shutting down — which I used to do."