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Being a woman with sex addiction

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‘The best way to put it is just feeling a lack of a powerlessness and a lack of control when it comes to expressing your sexuality’

Having a string of partners and watching hours of porn is not necessarily the way to achieve sexual liberation. While many people feel empowered by owning their own sexuality in this way, for some, it can mean the exact opposite. Rather than enjoyment and affection, sex can be intertwined with shame and used as a weapon on the path to self-destruction.

For Erica Garza, life was about pursuing romantic partners, watching porn and putting herself in potentially dangerous situations, all for the sexual release that helped her forget about everything else she was trying to ignore.

“The best way to put it is just feeling a lack of a powerlessness and a lack of control when it comes to expressing your sexuality,” she told Business Insider.

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In her book Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, Ms Garza, 35, tells her story of how she would continually cancel plans to stay in a dark room and masturbate and have strings of partners who she did not use protection with.

Sex and shame were so fused together, she would seek out situations that she thought were “revolting” and other adjectives like it, just to be able to orgasm. Unprotected sex, for example, gave her an extra charge of adrenaline.

“I felt like I needed to have a combination of shame and pleasure in order to feel satisfied with a sexual experience,” Ms Garza said. “And so if I didn’t use protection, it was something I felt really bad about because I knew I should be treating my body better. I knew that something could happen, and I couldn’t believe I was putting myself in those destructive situations – but it felt too good not to.”

Women are nearly just as likely to be sex addicts as men
Ms Garza’s book has received a lot of publicity since it was released, largely because it provides a side of sex addiction many people have not previously been made aware of. Women in particular are thought to be under-represented in seeking help for sex addiction because of the stigma and shame they may feel about it. In fact, a third of all sex addicts are women – but this figure is thought to be lower than reality.

Also, in the media it is almost always a man who claims to be going to rehab for a sex problem, like Harvey Weinstein did last year.

After all, going to a Times Square peep show and slipping a woman $20 (£15) notes is not something people often associate with women – but that was one of the many ways Ms Garza escaped from life.

She said women probably have an extra layer of shame if they are addicted to sex or even in relation to sex in general. It is still something of a taboo to be a woman who needs or even just likes, sex.

“Because of that idea that men want sex more, when women don’t fit that narrative, they feel bad about it,” Ms Garza said. “We know the language that we have associated in our culture with women who have a lot of sex. We use terms like ‘sluts’ and ‘whores,’ while with men we just shrug it off and say that’s normal. It’s just ‘boys being boys,’ that sort of mentality. And I’m really hoping my story is going to open that up a bit more.”

Another common misconception about sex addiction is that you have to have gone through some sort of trauma early on in your life. For Ms Garza at least, that was not the case at all. She grew up in a Catholic Latino household, which meant sex was very much off the table as a conversation topic, leading her to associate it with more shameful feelings. But all in all, Ms Garza was raised in a safe, supportive home and she felt loved and cared for.

“When your story doesn’t sit into that narrative of trauma or sexual abuse, you feel this extra layer of shame because you feel like you can’t talk about it,” she said. “Like your pain isn’t justified. And I don’t think anything diffuses shame more than being able to talk about it.”

Like all teenagers, Ms Garza did face her own struggles with self-esteem. For example, she was diagnosed with scoliosis and had to wear a back brace for two years, which made her feel really insecure and self-conscious. She found that if she watched more porn and masturbated, she could get a break from those feelings. After that she continued using sex as a crutch, until she was truly ready to face everything.

Sex addiction has its sceptics because it is hard to define
“I think a lot of people who go into a 12-step program are so scared they’ll go back into their old patterns of behaviour, they cut themselves off completely,” Ms Garza said. “That’s not living either. That’s not happiness either. And that becomes a whole other problem. It’s a lot more about finding balance and forging a new pathway with your sexuality rather than giving up sex completely.”

Finding this balance was one of the most challenging parts of Garza’s recovery, particularly when it came to setting her own boundaries and stepping over them occasionally. But over time, she began to realise it wasn’t her sexuality that was the issue. It was the shame, the lies and putting herself in unnecessary danger.

Because sex addiction is so completely personal and different for everyone who suffers with it, it is a hard thing to define. Garza said this is probably why there is doubt in the psychological community that it exists at all. But, she said, this is not really the point.

“I think that’s unfortunate, because it’s a hard thing for a person to admit that they have a problem with sex,” she said. “Saying it doesn’t exist just makes people feel like they should just stop talking about it, and they don’t have a problem, and they don’t know how to change. They can’t take any actions to change because there’s no context for helping them.”

Once someone can admit to the problem, there are resources available. By taking that off the table and saying it does not exist, people do not know what to do for help.

As certified sex addiction treatment specialist Robert Weiss said previously, when a person comes into treatment, that individual is in crisis. As a therapist, it is his duty to do what he can to help, regardless of definitions or how they have gotten to that point.

“Is the client coming to treatment in an attempt to appear sympathetic or does he really want help? I say who cares,” he said. “Whatever it is that motivates the client to enter treatment, once [they are] there, we can perform a clinical assessment to see and understand what we’re really dealing with and we can implement a treatment plan to help the individual based on that.”

Research has shown that the part of the brain associated with reward is activated in the same way whether you are addicted to anything; cocaine, food, gambling or sex.

“It’s just the way of using a normal human behaviour in a destructive way,” Ms Garza said. “And fine, if they want to say sex addiction doesn’t exist, then I think we need to call it something else. I think there needs to be a larger conversation to explain how people feel powerlessness with their sexuality in some ways and they engage in destructive behaviours in a compulsive way.”

Recovery is an ongoing process
Ms Garza is now happily married with a young daughter. She said she plans to be incredibly open with her daughter about sex in the future, so she can always come to her with questions when she’s making the same discoveries Ms Garza felt she had to hide away from and feel ashamed of.

“I don’t want to be a source of shame for her. I don’t want to be a source of silence. She’s going to get that from the world around her and I don’t want to be that place for her,” Ms Garza said. “I’m certainly going to be as honest and open as I can be with her and just be real.”

Hopefully this means she will grow up knowing she is worthy of pleasure and desire is not a bad thing, she said. Unfortunately, a sex-positive upbringing is something people in even the most progressive societies can struggle with. It may take a while for parents to openly discuss the existence of porn with their adolescent children.

Nonetheless, the conversation is broadening and Ms Garza is playing her own part in that. She is grateful for how her recovery has gone, but it is an ongoing process and there have been stumbles along the way.

“I do feel like I’m in a much better place, because when I feel triggered, I don’t feel the need to just destroy my life again,” she said. “I don’t need to just close the shades and binge on porn.

“I’d rather talk about my feelings and talk about what’s triggering me and what I’m feeling … I keep taking steps in that direction of revealing and being vulnerable and that’s being the biggest help, rather than closing off and shutting down – which I used to do.”

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