This guy I kind of know named Clay, who has a neck tattoo and sells arty photographs to tourists, is on top of me and he’s not wearing a condom. I don’t care. I’m completely sober. He’s not. I’m not sure what time it is. It is so dark outside that I can barely see Clay’s tattoo or his mouth full of crooked teeth. I hear him grunting; I feel his body’s weight — his six-foot-eight frame on my five-foot-two — and I know he’s almost finished. I’m too tired to have an orgasm, so I wait for the inevitable end. He turns me over, which is his favorite way to come. My eyes, fully adjusted to the darkness now, focus on the dent forming between my headboard and the wall. It’s not that I don’t enjoy this; enjoy is not nearly big enough a word. I have come to crave these nights with Clay.
Afterward, we lie there, our elbows touching. I am less sleepy than I was when I opened the door, so the awkwardness sets in fast. He asks how my day was, and then I wait in desperate anticipation for the “call you tomorrow” or “see you in a few days,” which may or may not be true. I don’t care. Finally he feeds me his lines and gets dressed and goes, and I give myself two orgasms in the wet spot of the bed. Once, to a three-minute clip of a teenage cheerleader having sex with her stepdad on the kitchen counter while her mom showers upstairs, and then again to the thought of what a miserable slut I am to allow a guy like Clay to use me for sex.
There’s nothing unique about this singular moment. I can reach into my arsenal of memories and easily pick out another story just like it, sometimes not even including a man. Because what I got from Clay was more than just his penis inside of me. What I got was an elaborate mix of shame and sexual excitement I had come to depend on since I was 12 years old. And my methods of getting this only became darker and more intense, wreaking havoc on all aspects of my life until I became a shell of a person, isolated, on a path to certain destruction.
With Clay gone and my two orgasms over, I steep in the afterglow of having gotten what I needed. And, by now, I’m too exhausted to consider answering the overwhelming question echoing inside of me. Why am I doing this? What I block out of my mind, because it doesn’t fit the sad story I’m devising in my head, is that I’m using Clay too. He’s probably caught up in the same emptiness I am, desperately filling it with any warm body available. For what little conversation we have, Clay and I are actually quite similar, and we could probably have a genuine connection if we talked about these things. But we don’t talk about these things because — well, it isn’t sexy. I’d rather stick with the one thing that always manages to get me off — I’m bad, bad, bad.
My favorite porn scene of all time involves two sweaty women, 50 horny men, a warehouse, a harness, a hair dryer, and a taxicab. You can put it all together in a dozen different ways and I bet you still can’t imagine just how revolting the scene actually is.
Revolting. I’ve been using this word and many adjectives like it to describe the things that have brought me to orgasm for more than two decades. I’m not just referring to porn scenes either. I’m also referring to those scenes from my own life, co-starring semi-conscious men in dark bedrooms and sex workers in cheaply rented rooms, where I prioritized the satisfaction of sexual release over everything else screaming inside of me, Please stop.
Revolting: that summer after college when, after downing too many shots of tequila at a party, I stripped naked and took a bubble bath in front of a group of men.
Disgusting: slipping a few $20 bills to a woman who called me “baby” on the other side of a semen-stained pane of glass at a Times Square peep show.
Sickening: letting daylight dissipate and with it all my plans and obligations for the day because I’d rather stay in bed with high-definition clips of naughty secretaries, busty nurses, incestuous cheerleaders, drunk frat party girls, and sad Thai hookers.
I was 30 years old when I watched Steve McQueen’s provocative film Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a New Yorker whose sex addiction leads him to reject intimacy and seek fulfillment through sex with prostitutes and extensive porn-watching.
In 2008, three years before Shame was released, I was living in New York City with a man a decade older than me. We were engaged. He was a recovering alcoholic and went to meetings daily, sometimes twice a day, and I began to suspect that the primary reason for this frequency was to get away from me. And why wouldn’t he want to get away? At that time in life I was racked with insecurity and relentlessly jealous. On top of that I was out of work and intimidated by his successful career as a filmmaker. He paid for everything, which seemed to make both of us increasingly uncomfortable over time. When I began to question his whereabouts and raid his journals for evidence of his presumed infidelity he began to resent me. Eventually we fell apart. But one of the things I remember most vividly about our breakdown was his accusation that I was a sex addict. “You’re just saying that because you don’t fuck me enough!” was all I could say, though I knew then, and I had known for a long time, that I did have a problem with sex.
I just didn’t know what to do about it. He suggested I go to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meetings, but I ended our relationship instead. It was easier. I wouldn’t go to SLAA for another five years, and when I did, I still wasn’t sure that I belonged there. When people talked about the emptiness that came when they watched porn and how isolated they felt, I shifted in my seat and held my breath, feeling that same sense of recognition I had watching Shame. Maybe these are my people, I thought. But when an attractive and uneasy woman admitted to picking up a “few new STDs” at her latest orgy, I thought, Well, I’m not that bad. And I judged her and judged them and went home and masturbated.
At 30 years old, at 24, even at 12, it was impossible for me to think about sexual pleasure without immediately feeling shame. I felt bad about the type of porn I watched. I felt bad sleeping with people I didn’t like. I felt bad because of the thoughts I feasted on when I was having sex with people I genuinely loved.
For as far back as I can remember this is just the way it was. My sexual habits were sick and shameful. My thoughts were sick and shameful. I was sick and shameful. But nothing would stop me from getting off. Even though I had a suspicion for a long time that this combination of pleasure and shame probably wasn’t good for me, the satisfaction I felt in acting out was worth it. That’s why I was willing to do things like stick it out for six months with an alcoholic bartender even when he’d repeatedly piss the bed and forget to hide other women’s clothes in his apartment. I didn’t want to lose the easy, consistent access to sex and affection that being in a relationship guaranteed.
I would break plans with people who needed me — family members, friends — or not make plans at all, because I didn’t want to miss out on any potential opportunity to have sex. In Barcelona, suffering from what felt like the worst bout of strep throat I’ve ever had (which turned out to be mono), I chose to go home with the fifth guy in the space of a few weeks. It was the only thing I could do to stop thinking about the fact that I’d just lost a three-year relationship with a man I dated after the filmmaker — someone I truly loved and felt loved by — over a hand job I gave a Colombian man on vacation.
Instead of attempting to repair the damage, I slept with a French waiter who fucked me so hard I bled on his bed as if I were a virgin. And then another French waiter, who took me to his friend’s house instead of his own because his wife was there. And then a Spanish guy, a German guy, and another Spanish guy. And I did it with the last one without a condom because who really cared at that point? Not him. Not me. I couldn’t even moan or speak to him my throat was so flared up.
In those few weeks, it didn’t matter who approached me. All that mattered was that I was approached. I didn’t need an aphrodisiac-infused dinner, a long conversation spent bonding over our favorite writers of the 20th century, or a glimmer of a potential future. All I needed was an invitation.
Don’t get me wrong: judging someone based on the number of people they’ve slept with is absurd, and I know there are plenty of healthy, intelligent, and honorable men and women with strong sexual appetites. In some moments, with some partners, “sexually liberated” was exactly what I felt. But those moments were rare. I’m much more familiar with the sad, anxious mess of a girl alone in her dark bedroom, hot laptop balanced on her chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming. I’m far too familiar with the girl who can’t keep her hands from shaking or her throat from clenching, the girl who is just waiting for an invitation. Waiting for someone to show her some interest so she can put the loneliness away for a few hours and find some release.
Sometimes I wonder, if there had been more research and more discussion about sexual addiction in women, would I have changed my behavior? Had there been more available examples of vulnerable, open, honest women sharing their journeys, would I have been more willing to embrace the possibility that I wasn’t alone and unfixable? It’s hard to know for sure. What I do know is that isolation is damaging. Silence is damaging. And when you are isolated and silenced, all sorts of ideas, however twisted they may seem, can begin to seem real because they aren’t ever dealt with properly.
I’ll also admit that, while my misery was very real to me for a long time, I was willing to suffer the repercussions because the gratification of acting out was too good and I was hooked on a culture of chaos.
My adolescent years were convoluted with ideas that chaos was good, that depression meant you were a creative person. My heroes were Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Nancy Spungen. Sylvia Plath. Little seemed cooler than Van Gogh cutting off his ear, than Virginia Woolf drowning herself. I romanticized brokenness as a means of resisting change, isolating myself, drinking too much, throwing tantrums, and playing Russian roulette with various dicks to make a point that I just didn’t care.
I filled journals with my depressed thoughts about my behavior, my loneliness, the hole I felt growing bigger inside myself, but I made no efforts to stop. If anything, all the brooding I did only intensified my habits, entrenched them. I would do everything I could to tear a relationship apart if the flip side meant having to deal with any real problem.
What began with harmless masturbation at 12 quickly became something more sinister. I wonder now if my parents suspected what I was up to all those hours behind closed doors with my computer. If they could tell by my exhaustion and dazed look that I had just binged for hours. But they never hinted at knowing. Do any parents confront their children about this? When I was living at home I’d take my laptop to my closet because I was afraid someone would bust through the lock on the door and catch me, or see me through the window that faced the street, even though I had blackout curtains and knew that was impossible.
Porn made me paranoid, but it was free and accessible and always effective. From watching soft-core on cable TV at 12, to downloading photos at a snail’s pace on AOL at 14, to tuning in to streaming sites with broadband forever after, my habit became more immediate, more intense, and harder to escape.
But what was I trying to escape? I had lived a pretty normal life, I thought. I had good parents who loved me the best they could, and I’d suffered no sexually traumatic events. Was I fundamentally flawed? This question led me, over the years, to a frantic investigation of my childhood journals, desperately trying to uncover some repressed sexual trauma that I could not find. I threw my money at hypnotherapy, past-life regression, and other alternative treatments to find the missing link, eyeing my brother, my cousins, my uncles, my father, thinking, Which one of you did it? Which one of you made me this way? But when no such traumatic event could be found, the only thing left was that same unanswered emptiness and the conviction that I was inherently bad.
It wasn’t until my early 30s when I finally started to realize that this problem wasn’t just ruining my romantic relationships but all of my relationships — most notably, my relationship with myself. Because I had failed to examine all the reasons I had wanted to escape in the first place — the roots of my shame — I never developed the basic skill we all need to handle life’s twists and turns: how to cope.
Whenever I finished having sex with Clay or men like him, I would often retreat to the bathroom for a few moments, allowing him the opportunity to make up an excuse for leaving. There was always a part of me that wanted him to stay, to make me feel desired, even loved. But the other part of me desperately wanted him to leave, not just so he wouldn’t find out that I was poor company, or because feeling unwanted was part of my sexual thrill, but because solitude can be a safety net when most of your choices make you feel so ashamed.
Adapted from the book GETTING OFF: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction by Erica Garza. Copyright © 2018 by Erica Garza. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved.