From the first time she masturbated in the bathtub at age 12 and felt the wave of shame that accompanied her first orgasm, Erica Garza, 35, knew her relationship with sex was different from other people’s. She also knew it wasn’t something she could talk about with anyone else. And so throughout the rest of her childhood, teenage years and 20s, Garza quietly struggled with what she later realised was an addiction to sex and porn.
Garza’s first book, Getting Off, is a memoir of a lifelong addiction to sex, written both as an exploration of Garza’s own past and as a way to relate to readers who are dealing with something similar. Her story has no tidy beginning or ending because it’s still happening. But in publishing her experience for others to read, Garza hopes to create space for more addicts – particularly women – to talk about their own unhealthy relationships with sex and porn.
I used writing the book as a tool to understand my addiction and my sexuality. I went back into my memories with curiosity, to see if maybe I could find a reason why it started. The common narrative with addiction memoirs, especially with sex addiction, is that there has to be some kind of trauma or sexual abuse, and I knew that wasn’t my case. But I still wanted to figure out where it stemmed from. There were a lot of contributing factors — ways where I felt inadequate and different from other people. My little sister being born was one of my first memories of feeling cast out or not listened to. Then when I was diagnosed with scoliosis [in elementary school] and got a back brace, I started feeling socially rejected. All of those things were really important to me. I could piece them together and say, ‘Okay, there were a lot of reasons why I got into this, there’s not just one way’.
There was so much silence around sex [when I was growing up]. My upbringing is Catholic and my parents are Latino. When I’ve asked the Latino people who I know if their parents talked to them about sex, they say ‘No, of course not.’ I don’t know if it’s a Latino thing or a Catholic thing. I was in Catholic school from preschool through high school. In school they talked about the birds and the bees and procreation, and just really basic stuff. They didn’t get into the intricacies of sexuality and all of the different ways it can manifest in a person’s life.
The shame really started to set in when I had my first orgasm [at age 12]. It wasn’t until I actually masturbated and felt the pleasure that I started thinking, ‘Okay, what was that?’ It’s mind-blowing; I didn’t know what it was and I wasn’t sure if I should be doing it. That was the beginning of my expression of sexuality. But I remember years before that, when I was maybe 10 or something, being attracted to all the boys and girls in class. Really being excited by them, being excited by the teachers, staring at men’s crotches and women’s breasts with fascination. It’s hard to say, ‘Okay, well that’s where it began.’ I don’t think sexuality works that way. It’s a growing, evolving thing.
I remember a nun [in high school] wrote the word ‘masturbation’ on the board and just feeling like the spotlight was on me. That people were going to find out [I was masturbating] and my heart was racing. It was a really big moment of shame for me, just wishing she would stop talking about it. I knew I couldn’t bring up [masturbating or watching porn] with anyone who knew me because I felt so embarrassed and so ashamed. I thought, ‘If people find this out about me, they’re going to think I’m disgusting.’
I started off with viewing soft-core porn here and there, whenever I could sneak downstairs while my parents were asleep to watch it. Technology really coincided with my addiction. The more that it became available, the more I reached for it. Also, my problems kept getting bigger and more complex, so I felt the need to keep reaching for it. And it was always available to me as soon as streaming porn became available.
[As I got older] I started engaging in some destructive behaviour: isolating myself, binging on porn, having unprotected sex with people who I didn’t care about and who didn’t care about me. I’m not trying to demonise casual sex, I think it can be a really positive thing, but the way I was using it was really just to numb these emotional difficulties that I didn’t know how to deal with properly. When I found myself after a break-up I would reach for more porn. I certainly used the porn as a coping mechanism. Physically, it felt good or I wouldn’t have kept doing it as much. But a lot of times I felt really unworthy of that pleasure. I had associated pleasure with shame for so long.
I knew I had a problem with sex, but I didn’t want to have the label of sex addict. I would take those check lists online, like ‘Are you a sex addict?’ and always scare myself to see that I was.
Before I started really looking at myself as a sex addict, I saw a therapist who diagnosed me with OCD. I was living in New York, in my late 20s, and engaged to someone who was the first person to say ‘I think you’re a sex addict.‘ I was still resistant to getting help. Around that time, I started to take antidepressants. I was really disassociated from [my boyfriend] and myself. We broke up a month or two later; we gradually moved apart.
I thought, ‘I don’t want to keep doing this.’ I wanted to believe I was worthy of love even if I didn’t know how to get there yet.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s, nearing my 30s, that I realised I needed to change. I was dating someone new, in one of the healthiest relationships I’ve been in, but I didn’t feel I deserved something like that. I had sabotaged so many of my relationships because I was so scared of intimacy and people seeing who I really was. But I told him I was leaving because I wanted to travel. There was really no good reason to sabotage that relationship other than the fact that I just didn’t feel worthy of it. I thought, ‘I don’t want to keep doing this.’ I wanted to believe I was worthy of love even if I didn’t know how to get there yet.
When my 30th birthday was coming up, I went to Bali (partly inspired by Eat, Pray, Love) and just started taking care of myself. I started doing a lot of yoga, started cutting down the amount of porn I watched, and started meditating. Just really getting in tune with my thoughts in a different way and taking time to take care of myself. It was only in that space that I met my now-husband and was able to reveal to him these things that I kept secret for so long. That was huge for me, just feeling supported by another person. I thought, ‘I can keep doing this, I can keep telling people who I am and they won’t run away.’ We want to keep things light and pretty because that’ll make people like us, but that just kept me disconnected from people all the time.
It took me a while to end the book. When I was writing the end, I thought, well, I don’t want people to think I’m contradicting my message. I still watch porn from time to time, I still have an open-minded marriage with my husband. I wanted my story to be taken seriously, but then I realised that’s part of my healing process. I can still be myself, I can still be sexual, I just didn’t want to feel bad about it any more. I wanted to portray an accurate picture of what sex addiction looks like and I thought it was important to be as vulnerable as possible. It’s really difficult to have a clean, tidy ending when it comes to sex addiction because unlike something like heroin addiction, you can’t just tell a person to stop having sex. That becomes its own disorder and that’s not really living or enjoying life either. I really wanted to show that there’s not one way out. The main goal was not to stop watching porn. It wasn’t to stop having threesomes and close off a part of my sexuality, because that wouldn’t have felt authentic either. It was really about finding balance, and that’s going to look different to every addict.
This article was originally published on Cosmopolitan US.
Read more sex and relationships