Erica Garza first masturbated when she was 12 after tuning into an episode of late-night sex and relationship talk show, Loveline. The preteen listened as a female caller talked about the mind-blowing orgasms she was having in her bathtub by turning on the faucet and opening her legs.
“I had never heard of an orgasm and I didn’t know what masturbation was,” Garza, now 35, says. “But it sounded easy enough, so I tried it. I was hooked from the start.”
Shortly after she discovered the pleasures of water pressure, Garza was regularly watching softcore porn on TV. The Los Angeles-native says her sexual habits were healthy until she was diagnosed with scoliosis in grade seven. “That’s when I really started to feel insecure and self-conscious,” she says. “I found that if I watched more porn and if I masturbated more, I could get away from those feelings. I started to use sex as an escape route.”
Soon, things got out of control. As a teen, Garza’s interest in porn and masturbation grew, and she started having cyber sex with strangers. She lost her virginity when she was in high school to a man a decade older. Then, at 23, Garza moved to Maui to work as a waitress and was sleeping with different people more frequently than she had before. She was drinking and smoking pot to escape, bingeing on porn and masturbating until she was sore. By the time she was in her late twenties, she had a hard time remaining faithful to partners, and her obsession with sex found her in dangerous situations, both at home and when travelling abroad. Although she felt shame around her behaviour, Garza says she couldn’t stop.
“Instead of talking about things, I would often shut down and turn to sex or turn on the porn,” she says. “It got out of control.”
Then, at age 30, Garza attended her first Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting.
When sex becomes something more
Garza, who writes about her journey through sex and porn addiction in her new memoir Getting Off (Simon & Schuster, $32), says it took time before she called herself an addict—even after an ex-boyfriend called her one. “I wasn’t ready to admit I was a sex addict to a group of strangers,” Garza writes of attending her first SLAA meeting. “But nobody questioned me. They went through the 12 steps and 12 traditions I would come to know so well… I listened and nodded, thinking, Yes, that sounds like me.”
From time spent at SLAA meetings and researching her addiction, Garza says she’s learned how sex addiction takes different forms. “One person may binge on porn, the other person might like having sex with lots of prostitutes,” she says. “It’s going to be different for every person, and I think it’s up to each person to look at their decisions and ask, ‘Am I using sex in a healthy way? Do I feel empty after I have sex or do I feel out of control?’”
“It comes down to using sexual pleasure—however you derive that pleasure—as an escape or in an unhealthy and destructive way.”
In Getting Off, Garza details many of the destructive ways she used sex. In one chapter, she reveals how she made her boyfriend hire her a 19-year-old sex worker while they were together in Thailand after they had yet another drunken fight. In another, she recounts how she went home with a French waiter who “f-cked [her] so hard [she] bled on his bed as if [she] were a virgin,” and the time she blacked out and stripped naked in a bathtub in front of a group of men.
“I felt very lonely in relationships for a long time,” she says. “I had to put up a barrier between me and other people.”
Garza’s experience isn’t really reflected in pop culture depictions of sex addiction, which usually focus on men. We’ve all seen it: in the aftermath of a public sex scandal, many rich, powerful guys use sex addiction to explain their behaviour (think, former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner, who cited sex addiction after his sexting scandal and retreated to a rehab centre in 2016, or Tiger Woods, who sought treatment for sex addiction after he was caught having an extramarital affair in 2009).
But Dr. Alexandra Katehakis, certified sex addiction therapist and clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in L.A., says the reality is there’s not a typical sex addict. Her clinic offers services for sex, love and porn addiction, among other sex therapies.
“Around here, what we consider an addiction is if you have a strong predilection for something to the extent that you cannot stop doing it,” she says. “It’s when a person starts to have anything that creates what they call ‘unmanageability’ or behaviours that have them constantly keeping secrets, lying about their behaviour, or being emotional or physically abusive to themselves or another person.”
Katehakis explains that there isn’t one reason a person may start to use sex compulsively or as a coping strategy, but says that sexually problematic behaviour can start in childhood due to trauma, neglect or abuse. Other times, she says, people use sex as a way to secure love or attention, and develop an unhealthy relationship with their sexuality in turn.
“Maybe in their teen years it was experimental, but then they get to college and start having sex with one person after another, and then maybe they start using pornography excessively and masturbating to mask their sadness and pain,” she says. “Before they know it, sex is the major event in their lives.”
“They have no social life, they lose friends; sex is the only thing they are consumed with.”
But is sex addiction a real diagnosis?
Even though people call themselves sex and love addicts—and many therapists treat them—not everyone believes it’s a legitimate condition.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Prause, the founder of sex research lab Liberos, there’s no such thing as a sex addiction because it isn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. “Currently, no behaviour constitutes sex addiction because sex addiction has been excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [of Mental Disorders] due to lack of evidence,” she says. “This means that it doesn’t exist; sex addiction is not a recognized diagnosis.”
Prause, who is also a licensed psychologist, says the public uses the term “addiction” more loosely than scientists do, which has helped fuelled society’s misconceptions. “To classify something as an addiction, it has to meet a bunch of different criteria,” she explains. “It can’t just be a problem in your life because lots of things can be problems and not addictions.”
But even if sex addiction isn’t an officially recognized addiction, research shows sexually-compulsive behaviour is a problem. A study conducted by the University of Cambridge found that brain activity between patients who have compulsive sexual behaviour—characterized as an obsession with sexual thoughts, feelings or behaviour which they are unable to control—mirrored those of drug addicts. And, at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, there are treatment programs that deal with excessive masturbation and pornography use.
That’s why therapist Katehakis says sex addiction isn’t black and white, and argues that people really do need help for this problem.
“There’s a disconnect between researchers and therapists, because they are in the lab and we are seeing people every day,” says Katehakis. She explains that because therapists treat people all the time and see the same problems “over and over again,” they outpace researchers. “By the time researchers research something, they’ve got to get a sample—and it’s always a small sample—and they can only study one tiny bit of the thing that they’re studying,” she says. “Whereas clinically, we just see people all day long and we see what we see.”
How do you treat sex addiction?
In Canada, there are SLAA meetings in nearly every major city, which follow the 12-step format of Alcoholics Anonymous. The treatment centre where Katehakis works in Los Angeles offers an 11-day out-patient sex addiction program. It also hosts a weekly group just for women, who make up about 30 percent of her clients.
While some may choose to abstain from sex or romance for periods of time while in recovery, Katehakis says her centre’s approach is sex-positive and its goal is to help people find healthy ways to have sexual relationships. “We come from a collaborative model where we’re working with people to help them [learn] what is sexually true or pleasurable for them over time,” she explains.
Journalist and former xoJane editor Mandy Stadtmiller agrees that sex addiction is a controversial subject, but she also thinks people can have legitimate issues around sex and love. In her new memoir Unwifeable (Simon & Schuster, $36), Stadtmiller details how she overcame her own destructive addictions—including sex, drugs and alcohol—and sought comfort from SLAA meetings and other therapeutic programs.
“I only started going [to SLAA meetings] because of a couple different experiences that really lodged in my brain,” she says. The 42-year-old points to one experience where she was talking to a woman about being her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and found herself telling “tale after tale of unhinged and self-sabotaging” sexual behaviour.
“She was like, ‘Have you ever thought about [SLAA meetings]?’” Stadtmiller recalls. “The joke I made [in response] was ‘OK I can deal with being an addict or an alcoholic, but saying I’m a sex and love addict is like going to tall blondes anonymous.’ That shit hit so close to home.”
Stadtmiller acknowledges that SLAA. isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and she also realizes that many people will argue that sex addiction isn’t real because it’s not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. “I certainly don’t know enough about the scientific research one way or the other to support the validity of sex and love addiction…I just don’t,” she explains.
“But having worked in tabloids where the most important thing is whose side are we on, who’s the villain, who’s the hero, well, life is not like that. Life is in the messy shades of grey,” she says. “And that’s how I approached going to [SLAA] meetings and just literally asking myself, ‘Is this beneficial? Is this valuable?’ If you look at it as being more beneficial and valuable than potentially derailing or hurtful, then it’s like, keep going. Just ask yourself those questions.”
For Garza, attending SLAA meetings was part of her recovery process (she also credits therapy, yoga and meditation). She notes that unlike drug or alcohol addiction, a sex addict doesn’t necessarily need to give up sex completely—the focus is finding a way to engage in behaviour that isn’t destructive.
“In the early stages of my recovery, I thought, ‘OK I have to stop watching porn completely; I am going to be in this very strict monogamous relationship,’ and I held myself to a lot of guidelines so that I wouldn’t go back down that path,” she says. “But then it started to feel inauthentic to me, like I was cutting off a part of myself. I wanted to continue being an open-minded experimental sexual person, I just didn’t want to lie to people or sabotage relationships or put myself in unsafe situations.”
“I tried lots of different things, and it was really important for me to show in my book that there isn’t just one way to become an addict and there isn’t one way to step outside of it.”
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