In her debut memoir, Getting Off, Erica Garza confronts her experience of overcoming sex and porn addiction, and the shame that still surrounds it
Erica Garza is telling me about the first time she masturbated and the people at the table next to us are doing a very subpar job of pretending not to eavesdrop.
I’m sitting at a hotel bar in midtown Manhattan drinking coffee with the 35-year-old debut author, whose memoir, Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, was published last Tuesday. This is Garza’s second interview of the day; earlier that morning she was on NBC talking to Megyn Kelly. She has had no trouble drumming up interest for her book and, if the intrigued glances from the women next to us are anything to go by, it seems likely to amass an immediate audience.
It’s not surprising that there’s an appetite for Garza’s memoir. It may be 2018, but there remains a lot of secrecy and shame around female sexuality. While a good proportion of popular culture seems to center around men jerking off, female masturbation remains a relatively taboo subject. There are, Garza notes, “shows like Broad City and Insecure which depict women watching porn or masturbating, so things are changing for the better” but they are few and far between. Even the current #MeToo movement, which has ignited a debate about sexual mores, hasn’t really focused on women as sexual agents; rather hypersexuality has been equated with toxic masculinity.
Meanwhile, women are watching more porn than ever: according to Pornhub’s 2017 Year in Review, “Porn for Women” was the top trending search of the year, increasing by over 1,400%.
There certainly weren’t any frank discussions about such topics when Garza was growing up. Garza was born into a middle-class Mexican family and grew up in the well-to-do suburbs of LA. As a young girl at Catholic school, Garza says, it was made very clear to her “that sex was for procreation and anything outside of that was sinful or dirty or bad”. This made it difficult for her to separate shame from pleasure. “The first time I masturbated I felt immense pleasure and immense shame at the same time. So, I think I continued to seek out situations that would produce the same feelings in me because I didn’t know how to separate the two.”
As she grew older, her shame spiraled into what she describes as an all-consuming sex addiction. She’d spend whole days in bed masturbating to porn; have unprotected sex with a string of guys she’d just met; ruin promising relationships because she couldn’t stop herself having sex with other people. “In some moments, with some partners, ‘sexually liberated’ was exactly what I felt,” she writes in her book. “But those moments were rare.” Being sexually liberated is empowering; her sex addiction was just the opposite.
But what exactly is a sex addiction? The term was popularized in the early 1980s but isn’t currently listed in the standard diagnostic manuals of mental disorders –and not everyone is sure it is an actual illness. So many disgraced male celebrities, the latest being Harvey Weinstein, have claimed to be sex addicts, potentially giving them a free pass for despicable acts.
Garza acknowledges that’s “there’s a real danger with using sex addiction to justify bad behavior, especially right now with everything that’s happening in Hollywood.” However, she says, it’s “important to know that not all sex addicts are in positions of power and not all sex addicts want to take advantage of and hurt other people.”
In some moments, ‘sexually liberated’ was exactly what I felt. But those moments were rare
Further, says Garza, there is no easy definition of sex addiction. “I’m often asked how many hours of porn I watch and how many partners I’ve had. Understandably people want to measure an addiction because then it’s easier to cure. But sex addiction doesn’t work that way. I can’t just say ‘two hours of porn a day is OK but three is a problem’, because everyone expresses their sexuality in different ways.”
When it comes to her own experience, Garza says, she knew she had a dysfunctional relationship with sex and porn “because it was getting in the way of my intimacy with other people; it was getting in the way of my productivity. I just felt bad about it all the time.” Garza says would cancel plans so she wouldn’t miss out on opportunities to have sex and sabotaged relationship after relationship because, she says, she “felt really unworthy of love”.
Just as there is no straightforward diagnosis of sex addiction, says Garza, there’s no simple way of curing it. Garza herself tried various remedies, from going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings (which, she says, were overwhelmingly male) to meditation to therapy.
Then, just as she was about to turn 30, she took a trip to Bali “partly inspired by Eat, Pray, Love”. There, she started doing a lot of yoga and taking care of herself. “When I was in that clear-headed space I met my husband – he was on his own journey recovering from drug addiction,” she says. It was the first time she was able to be in an honest, healthy relationship, and, from there, she started to develop a healthier relationship with sex.
Garza hopes her memoir will educate people about the nature and prevalence of sex addiction. “I think the common narrative with sex addictions and most addictions is that it’s preceded by abuse and trauma and so I really wanted to open up that narrative and show that it could really happen to anyone, even if you had a safe, loving childhood as I had,” she explains.
Her intention with the book, she stresses, isn’t to “promote censorship or demonize the porn industry. I think that people can use porn in a healthy way.” Rather she wants to help break down the shame that still shrouds female sexuality.
But while Garza may intend for her memoir to promote a more complex view of female sexuality and desire, I wonder if might end up doing just the opposite.
The tabloids have seized upon Garza’s memoir with obvious relish, and much of the coverage appears to have turned her story into a modern morality tale: a nice Catholic schoolgirl develops a shameful addiction to sex and internet porn. Just when she hits rock bottom, she meets her husband. The love of a good man saved her, turning her into a loving wife and mother.
Garza always knew her story risked getting sensationalized and simplified. Still, she says, she has been disappointed by how reductive some of the coverage has been.
Some outlets, she feels, have “minimized my story by saying that I was saved by a man, and that my husband was the main reason I changed. Yes, he played a very important role but that’s not the whole story.” In addition, says Garza, “a few articles really made a point of saying I was a mom – I think if I were a dad they wouldn’t have mentioned that. It felt like they were trying to shame me or make me into some kind of freak show.”
But while she feels like some of the coverage has been trying to shame her, “I also feel like nobody is going to be able to shame me more than I’ve already shamed myself. They can certainly try. But that’s on them. I’m past that.”