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This is what sex addiction is like – by a woman who has it

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Emily Reynolds
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As sex addiction is officially classified as a mental health disorder by the World Health Organisation, author Erica Garza discusses sex, shame and recovery with stylist.co.uk

When you think about sex addiction, chances are the image you have in your mind is of a man. 

But it’s certainly not just men who experience sex and porn addiction, something writer Erica Garza knows better than anyone. 

Garza has just released her first book, Getting Off a raw, compelling exploration of the reality of living with sex and porn addiction. The book spans Garza’s entire life – from the first time she masturbated aged twelve, via years of often damaging and self-destructive behaviour, to Garza’s current, more stable life. 

“From the first time I explored my body, I thought I was doing something wrong,” Garza tells Stylist.co.uk. Tied up in pleasure, she says, was a “sense of shame”. 

“I came to rely on the combination,” Garza explains – a sensation that led her to “secret, compulsive” behaviours around masturbation and porn, and eventually to encounters with men that left her feeling “used and pathetic”. 

Indeed, shame – alongside compulsion, desire and disgust – is a theme that runs throughout Getting Off. Garza certainly doesn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable aspects of her addiction – if you’re looking for an easy, salacious or titillating read, then Getting Off isn’t for you. Instead, Garza’s prose takes a measured, steely and clear-eyed approach to sex addiction. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Many of the book’s stories are so compelling precisely because they’re so familiar, too; though most of us won’t have experienced sexual compulsions to the same extent as Garza, many women will recognise elements of our own lives in the book. Men losing respect for you after you sleep with them; performing sex acts you’re not really comfortable with because you feel you have to; feeling embarrassed, ashamed or guilty for sexual behaviour that isn’t considered acceptable for women to engage in. 

Erica Garza, whose struggles with sex addiction were documented in a new book, Getting Off

Getting Off is particularly good on the cultural narratives around women and sex. Women are frequently shamed for pursuing casual sex, Garza points out – and for her, this fed into compulsive behaviour. 

“If someone called me a slut I felt bad, but feeling bad was part of feeling good,” she says. “If I slept with a stranger without a condom, I knew I was doing something risky and destructive. But those feelings of risk and destruction got my adrenaline racing and eventually got me off.”

It was only years later – “after many years of being hooked on the combination” – did she realise that the feelings of shame that ruled her sex life were also impacting other parts of her life. “I didn’t know what real intimacy or love felt like,” she said. (Garza is now happily married and the mother of a child). 

Women  can also end up engaging in “performative sex”, Garza says, taking part in sex acts they may not even enjoy simply because they “think they should do it”. “They might have seen it in porn, or read somewhere that this is what sex should look like,” she explains. 

Garza’s recovery – much of which is detailed in raw and candid detail in Getting Off – hasn’t been easy, either. In a review of the book for the New York Times, writer Cat Marnell quotes 2012 film Thanks for Sharing, which also details recovery from sex addiction. ‘This disease is a bitch,” one character says. “It’s like trying to quit crack while the pipe is attached to your body”. It raises an interesting point – how do you recover from sex addiction when sex is such a ubiquitous and unavoidable part of everyday life, and when triggers are everywhere around you?

“When I was in the early stages of my recovery, I thought I had to give up porn completely and never do anything outside the bounds of a strictly monogamous relationship or I might start making destructive choices again,” Garza explains. “But after awhile I felt like I was cutting off a part of myself and not living authentically.”

Abstention, in cases like this, is unlikely to work; unlike recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, in which users are often urged to totally refrain from taking or even being around their chosen substance, those recovering from sex addiction are encouraged to “forge a new, healthier relationship with it” instead.

“I realised I still wanted to be an open-minded, experimental sexual being, I just didn’t want to feel ashamed or to lie and destroy relationships that I value,” Garza says. “It became clear that my addiction was less about the porn and the sex and more about not using porn and sex to escape or hurt myself.”

“Once I started to face my issues, feel my feelings, and start loving myself, I started to figure out what a healthy sexuality would look like to me, free of shame and free of secrets.”

What is sex addiction?

“Every sex and love addict acts out in a different way,” Garza says. “If you feel that you are making destructive choices around sex and you’ve tried to stop, but feel powerless and out of control, you may want to investigate a little more.”

Sex and relationship charity Relate agree, describing sex addiction as any sexual activity that feels “out of control”. 

For many people, having multiple sexual partners, engaging in casual sex, masturbating or watching pornography is completely fine, and doing any of these things doesn’t make you a sex addict. 

But if your behaviour is causing you distress, feels uncontrollable or is having a severe impact on your life and relationships, you may be experiencing sexual addiction. 

You may be addicted to sex if you experience any of the following:

  • Feeling that the behaviour is out of control.
  • Believing that there may be severe consequences if you continue but carry on any way.
  • Persistently pursuing destructive high risk sexual activities, want to stop but are unable to do so.
  • Needing more and more of the sexual activity in order to experience the same level of high followed by feelings of shame and depression.
  • Experiencing intense mood swings around repeated sexual activity.
  • Spending more and more time planning, engaging in or regretting and recovering from sexual activities.
  • Neglecting social or work commitments in favour of the sexual activity.
  • Repeatedly trying to stop and perhaps stay stopped for a while, only to start up again.

“Sex and love addiction cannot be measured, so it’s less about how many partners you’ve had sex with or how many hours of porn you watch and much more about how you feel about those things,” Garza also advises.  She recommends looking into Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) – even for those “who don’t believe in a higher power or have no interest in doing the 12 steps”. 

“These meetings offer a community of support where you can meet like-minded individuals who will listen to your struggles without judgement,” she continues. “They may even offer a nod of recognition, and I don’t think there’s anything more healing than connecting with another person who understands or is willing to try to understand.”

“SLAA meetings are practically everywhere around the world, but if you can’t find one in your neighbourhood, you can certainly attend meetings online.”

Images: Getty Images / Rachael Lee-Stroud / Josh Peterson / Anna Sastres / Unsplash