Recovering From Sex & Porn Addiction

Addiction takes many forms, both in its active state and in the ways we heal it, but at its core, we’re using something to distract ourselves from feelings, memories, thoughts, and beliefs we want no part of. Addiction perpetuates the lies we tell ourselves, and creates very real fears without giving us a chance not to believe them.

Earlier this year, Erica Garza detailed her journey to recovery from sex and porn addiction in her memoir, Getting Off, successfully debunking many common assumptions made about women living with sex and porn addiction—and the very popular belief that more men live with it than women.  We spoke to Garza about what sex and porn addiction looked like for her, what it can look like for others, how to mend a potentially unhealthy relationship with the two, and begin a journey to healing from addiction to living as a healthy, empowered, sexual woman.

How do I know if I’m living with sex and porn addiction?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for everyone, but start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Are you using porn to satisfy yourself, or to frequently escape dealing with troubling thoughts or feelings?
  • Are you compulsively masturbating instead of dealing with uncomfortable feelings, to the point where it no longer feels enjoyable?
  • What is the sex you’re actually having like, and how does it affect the way you feel about yourself before, during, and after?
  • Do you find yourself engaging when it’s easy or risky to get caught, but can’t help from doing so anyway?
  • Does it in any way affect the way you feel about yourself, your ability to function, or have healthy relationships both romantically and otherwise?

With any addiction, these are telltale signs—your motives, their consequences, the way your actions make you feel about yourself—that something is up. But, unlike alcohol or gambling, where absitanance is half the battle, you have to learn to have a healthy relationship with this part of your life.  

Someone may act out by cheating on their spouse, watching a lot of porn, or hooking up with prostitutes.  There are different ways you might use sex negatively,” Garza said. “People can do these things in a healthy way. I used sex and porn to deal with my problems or escape my problems, to numb myself. I sabotaged a lot of relationships and didn’t know how to have loving sex, or be in a healthy relationship. I needed to have shame and I needed to feel bad. That’s the only way I knew how to have pleasure. I was hooked on that combination.”

Nobody knows ourselves better than we do—being honest is half the battle, awareness is another component, and action is perhaps the most challenging step to take.

How does addiction begin?

While sexual abuse during childhood can lead to sex and porn addiction—and is most likely why so many therapists ask this question right out of the gate, according to Garza—there are plenty of other ways women can fall into a variety of self-destructive patterns.

For Garza, her trauma was becoming diagnosed with scoliosis, which required her to wear a back brace for years. Since that took place around the same time she began to find herself exposed to the sensations of masturbation and world of pornographic imagery, it became a soothing coping mechanism, something to quiet her worry and anxiety and lull her insecurity. It was something she would come to rely on more heavily and in varied ways as time went on.

“It was a release and an outlet for frustration, and I never stopped using it that way as time went on. New stresses came up and I didn’t know how to use [porn] in a healthy way. Technology became sophisticated, and every time i may have gotten over looking at porn, my needs were met with more initicing images to keep me hooked.”

What makes some women more vulnerable than others?

In her book, Garza sites a finding from an article in The Atlantic that said exposure to porn was a strong predictor of hypersexual behavior, more so than sexual abuse of a child.

She also footnotes a study from 2003 that showed women in college were twice as likely to develop or be at risk for a sex addiction than males were, and a 2011 article from The Guardian stating that one in three clients seeking help for sex addiction were women who felt guilty “because porn addiction is seen as a man’s problem, making it even more dirty or wrong for women.

“Shame is higher for women because they simply haven’t felt supported in coming forward with those stories, they felt like there was something different about them. With women, there are extra questions that come up, and there’s nothing that fuels addiction more than silence and shame—and feeling like you’re the only one.”

Beginning to heal

Garza’s personal journey took her to Bali where she began to find healing through meditation and yoga. Later, she entered into 12-step recovery through Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which still remains the most popular—and free—path to recovery. You can find local meetings online or by calling to find out meeting times and locations in your area. Garza and many other women have found that it is a safe and supportive space, and if you’re unsure, a good place to start to determine whether you do indeed have an addiction.

Being able to talk to other people about things I’d kept secret for so long really helped. That had been a huge wall until then. I thought, ‘If people find out things about me, they’ll run away, nobody wants to deal with someone as disgusting as me who does all these bad things,’ but  there are people going through similar struggles,” Garza said. “We can build connections instead of a wall.”

Finding support

It’s also important, as with any mental health issue, to find more than just social support in meetings. Consider supplementing recovery with a professional therapist or psychiatrist who can help you work through the underlying issues that led to certain behavior in the first place.

There are no approved drugs to treat sex addiction, and for that reason, sometimes it’s not seen as a ‘real disease’ because the pharmatucial companies can’t prescribe medication and can’t make money off of it,” Garza said. “You have to deal with things by talking through them, which is harder and longer to do. It’s a process.”

She continued to say that it’s important to try a lot of things when it comes to recovery: just as there isn’t one way to become a sex addict, there isn’t one way to deal with it when you find yourself grappling with that struggle.

Keep coming forward, stand in your truth and be brave enough to tell your story. So many women are doing that now; we’re in a powerful cultural shift where women are coming forward after being silenced about their sexuality for so long,” Garza said. “We need female sex-positive stories to counterbalance what’s been going on. There are so many misconceptions about sex addiction, body shaming, and guilt that still plague young women exploring their sexuality.”

The flip side

After meeting her now-husband, Garza was able to reveal things about her past sexual behavior that she’d been too ashamed to share with anyone before. That was the beginning of embracing, rather than hiding, her sexuality.

“Do not be afraid of your desire, or to admit to what turns you on and to feel worthy of pleasure. Get rid of that shame aspect of it. I don’t have to be ashamed by liking what I like or while looking back over my path,” she said. “I’ve made messy choices and mistakes, but the most harmful part of it was feeling bad about my choices instead of empowered by them. I could have prevented a lot of hardship myself if they just felt worthy.”

It is possible to turn a tricky relationship with sex and pornography into a healthy, empowering one. Sex and exploration are a natural part of a woman’s life, and we want to be just as in-tune with these choices and why we’re making them as we are with any other decisions we make.

“Women are turned on by a variety of things, and desire is complex and diverse. We need to be more aware of that instead of categorizing women by what we think they desire.”

Featured image by Anete Lusina
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