Erica Garza and I first met online in a group for new moms. It was only later that we discovered we had gone to the same MFA program, albeit several years apart. We talked about what we were working on—typical stuff of MFAers—and she told me about her memoir. I was instantly intrigued.
A few months later, I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, which chronicles much of Garza’s life—from childhood through her early thirties, with a focus on her relationships to masturbation, porn, and sex.
What the memoir is not is titillating or full of shock value. In this day and age, that might be surprising, given the content. What it is, in the end, is a story about connection: to oneself, and to others.
Recently, Garza graciously found the time to speak with me over email about her work.
The Rumpus: Tell me about what led you to write about this aspect of your life?
Erica Garza: I had never written about sex addiction before my essay “Tales of a Female Sex Addict,” which I published at Salon.com in 2014. I was a newlywed and had recently completed this intense seven-day retreat called The Hoffman Process, which is all about taking a hard look at our negative patterns and learning how to dismantle them. It was becoming unavoidably clear to me that my sexual behavior had been causing me great unhappiness for a long time and I desperately wanted to change. I usually use writing to figure things out, and I really wanted to figure out why I had this relationship to sex, how it all started, how it got worse, and how I might find a way out so that I would no longer stay stuck in unhappiness or destroy yet another relationship. After I published that essay, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. So much of my sexual history made me feel ashamed and I lived a very lonely, secretive life for a long time in fear of called a pervert, a loser, or a slut. But there was something really empowering about being honest and open about this part of myself. Somehow, writing helped lessen the shame. Also, the response I received from readers who had similarly battled with sex and porn addiction made me feel less alone.
Rumpus: Though the subject has to do with sex, I felt like relationships—friendship, romantic, platonic—were woven through the narrative of your book, building a sort of scaffolding that the story rested on. The relationships you had with Leslie and Anna were so fascinating to me. Leslie, because it’s that childhood infatuation kind of relationship, and Anna, because she was so different. They seemed to play a significant role for you, too.
Garza: It was important to me to include my challenges with other types of relationships besides romantic. The subject has to do with sex, but it mainly has to do with intimacy. I didn’t know how to nurture relationships with people if I wasn’t having sex with them—what else did I have to offer? I thought so little of myself and thought people only wanted to hang out with me because they pitied me and it was so uncomfortable feeling like an object of pity. It was easier to stay cut off from other people, but it was also incredibly lonely and unfulfilling. It became clear to me that if I started to think more highly of myself and embrace my own worth as a friend, a sister, a daughter, a person, then I would feel more worthy of intimacy beyond the sexual kind—something I desperately wanted.
Rumpus: The subject of the book—sex and porn addiction—is one that has often been more of a “man’s” topic than women’s.
Garza: I think our culture is finally starting to warm up to the idea that women can like sex and porn as much as men do, and that we can even develop compulsive sexual behaviors. It’s an old and outdated idea that men are the only sex addicts, but sadly most of the data that exists on sexual addiction says the same thing. I think what’s more true is that women might still feel too ashamed to come forward about sex addiction out of fear of being slut-shamed or seen as weird or different. I hope that my small contribution in sharing my story might help other female addicts come forward about their own struggles so we might change the conversation to be more inclusive of women.
Rumpus: Piggybacking off of that, early on in the book, you draw the correlation between sexual pleasure and shame. How has that played into the writing of this, and the “outing,” so to speak, of your experiences?
Garza: Shame is a knee-jerk reaction for me. I have such a thick history of feeling ashamed that sometimes it’s the first thing I feel when I think about other people reading this deeply personal account. However, the shame never lasts long. I have put a tremendous amount of work into allowing myself to accept the shame or humiliation or guilt I feel at times and move forward to healthy acceptance instead. Simply writing and talking about shame has really helped reduce its power over me.
Rumpus: I found it fascinating when you talked about Tim Fountain and how he viewed his relationship to sex. Do you think there are marked gender differences in how addiction and recovery are framed and how they play out, especially with sex and porn?
Garza: In the letters I receive from sex and porn addicts, I don’t see much difference between men and women. Whether they’re married or single, old or young, male or female, sex and porn addicts typically feel ashamed, isolated and out of control. However, when I went to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, I did notice a difference between the men and women. First, there were more men than women at most of the meetings. Second, many of the women talked about being sexually anorexic, which means they compulsively avoid sex, while men talked about frequent casual sex encounters. What was interesting, though, was that in both scenarios, men and women felt like they were lacking true intimacy with another person. Even though that was my experience in the meetings, I still don’t think it’s an accurate representation of women and compulsive sexual behavior. Like the data (or lack of data) that exists, I just think women feel uncomfortable sharing those aspects, even in a relatively safe place like a twelve-step meeting.
Rumpus: Would you say that you’re “recovered,” to use addiction parlance?
Garza: I think one of the reasons the concept of sex addiction is a controversial one for doctors and scientists is because “recovery” and “treatment” are difficult to define. In most addictive behaviors (like drugs and alcohol), recovery has to do with abstinence, but recovery in sex addiction is more about balance and eliminating harmful behaviors, which are manifested differently in every addict. My harmful behaviors were mainly porn bingeing, compulsive masturbation, secrecy, and needing to feel an element of shame in my sexual experiences. When I first started to face my addiction and desire change, I stopped watching porn altogether and committed myself to an intimate, monogamous relationship. A few years on, I now watch porn occasionally and my husband and I are open to sexual experimentation. I feel more connected, more present, and more at peace with my past, but I’m not sure I would’ve gotten here if I hadn’t taken a break from porn, stopped sabotaging relationships and chosen honesty and vulnerability over secrecy. These choices were imperative to interrupting my patterns and starting to do things differently. I do not consider myself a sex addict anymore, but I do know that falling back into harmful behaviors is a possibility that comes with being a sexually open person with a history of addiction. The best I can do is to remain honest, respectful of myself and the people around me, and resistant to the urge to shut down and escape when stressors and triggers come up.
Rumpus: What are your top five books? What are you reading now?
Garza: Hard question! Top five books are: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.
Rumpus: What are you working on next?
Garza: Sleep! Just kidding. I have an eighteen-month-old and I can’t help but want to write something about motherhood. I don’t want to give specifics because I’m still working it out, but it seems to be a logical next step.
Author photograph © Rachael Lee Stroud.