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NOAH RICHLER (Host): Hello and welcome to the Walrus podcast Pivot. I’m Noah Richler.
Here’s a piece of listening that’s not for Doug Ford, newly elected premier of the province of Ontario, nor is it for Lisa Thompson, the Minister of Education so enlightened she’s junked Ontario’s only recently developed school curriculum for the 1998 edition hallowed by social conservatives, a curriculum, I should point out, that predates gay marriage, any of the advances Canada has made vis-a-vis LGBTQ+ inclusivity and, this the most astounding of all, a curriculum that predates social media and our easy access to the Internet. Yes, in Ontario, a pivot we never expected, we have elected dinosaurs, or maybe ostriches—at any rate, creatures with small brains and long necks who have stuck their heads in the sand rather than engage in any kind of progressive action.
So, there’s today’s trigger warning: if you think marriage is the union solely of a man and a woman; if you think “man” and “woman” are the only two gender categories; and if you think you have nothing to learn from the young, that your job is to instruct them in arcane views about their sexuality or not speak of it at all, or if you actually believe they’ll get their instruction only from you and not the Internet, then don’t listen. This episode of Pivot will upset and hopefully infuriate you, anodyne as its subject actually is, because we’re about to discuss addiction—not to drugs, drink, work, or the purchase of shoes, but to porn, which is to the Internet as gasoline is to cars. Porn is with us; it has been for ages. Those millennia-old Cycladic figurines the English archaeological establishment decided were evidence of early matriarchy are as likely to have been sex toys and the marvel technology of the day. What with porn’s prevalence ever augmenting, it struck the team here at Pivot that it would be illuminating to consider our obsession with porn. Our fear of the subject, too. So that’s what we’re doing in this program for people who believe discussion is the way forwards. Folk brave enough to put the spotlight on their own behaviour, even when it suggests the socially unacceptable, and who may now find themselves mentors because of their courage. One of these is Dan Savage, the highly engaging American author and now wildly successful sex advice columnist from whom we’ll be hearing later on; and another is Erica Garza, a young and acclaimed writer who published a memoir, Getting Off, One Woman’s Journey through Sex and Porn Addiction, a book that, as its title suggests, a candid and thoughtful exploration of behaviour that started when the middle class Mexican-American was in fifth grade, and not yet a teen.
Here’s a taste of it.
READING FROM ERICA’S BOOK:
My favourite porn scene of all time involves two sweaty women, fifty 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, costarring 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 twenty-dollar 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 thirty 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.
There was something familiar in his story. But that wouldn’t be a turning point for me. Not yet. It was more like an aura or a premonition, because over the next few years I would make many of the same mistakes I had made before, and I would some new and more painful mistakes too, but right beside those mistakes there would be a hint of a growing awareness that could only come when you are in the midst of great change.
ERICA GARZA: My name is Erica Garza, I am the author of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction. Sexual addiction is a compulsive need to have sex or watch pornography or use sexual pleasure in any form that you use it, to a point where you may be using it destructively and you feel out of control and powerless over your sexuality. At least that’s the way I define it. I actually think that a lot of people will define it in different ways, because… all addicts will act out in different ways. So it isn’t necessarily the same for each person.
NOAH RICHLER: And how would you, or a specialist or doctor analyzing the condition, distinguish between a porn addiction and simply to sex?
ERICA GARZA: I think doctors would be much more qualified to answer something like that. I’ve always referred to porn addiction under the umbrella of sex addiction, and then I think sex addiction can cover a lot of different ways that people act out. But I think that, you know, when it comes to porn, or sex, it’s really less about how you act out and more about your relationship to that aspect of sexual pleasure.
NOAH RICHLER: Looking back, do you see patterns of addictive behaviour in things outside of your sexual appetite?
ERICA GARZA: I do. I see the same sort of impulses, I guess, to reach for porn, or to masturbate compulsively. I felt that early on with watching TV, that was one thing I used as an escape route. I also used video games as an escape route, you know. And it’s funny, because there’s been a lot of research done on the link between porn addiction and gaming addiction, and it’s, you know, the surprise factor of the content, the endless novelty, and I felt those things when I was playing video games as well as a young child, not knowing, you know, what that feeling was, this need to play and the need to advance to the next level. I also felt that with hair removal. There were many periods of my life where I would obsessively groom my body, and that’s with plucking with tweezers, or waxing… just obsessing about my follicles in the same way that I think that I obsessed about porn. And I think a lot of the things were similar there as well, I would shut myself away in an isolated space, it would take up hours of my time, and I would feel ashamed doing both things, so yeah, I see a lot of patterns at play that were pretty similar.
NOAH RICHLER: I wonder, what was the pivot moment for you? I mean, what was the moment at which suddenly, what you were doing struck you as so distressing that you felt you had to act?
ERICA GARZA: It was more of a feeling of being stuck for too long, and being unhappy. And I’d sabotaged another relationship, and I realized, this is a pattern. I actually really liked that person, I felt like I could almost… I could love that person, you know, and there wasn’t any good reason to sabotage a relationship other than telling myself this is what I do and I don’t really feel worthy of having this good relationship, and so I sabotaged it. And I just… I saw that my thirtieth birthday was coming up, and that if I kept going down this path, then that decade was probably going to be worse than the last decade, and then it’s just going to get worse from there, so I saw just this road that I was going down, and it became quite clear to me that something had to change, and that it had to do with sex and it had to do with porn, because those were the constants in my life. And they were things that often made me feel ashamed, and I was tired of feeling ashamed, and I was tired of feeling alone, and I knew that I needed a change.
NOAH RICHLER: Is the addiction also about just wanting to live really intensely? There’s a way in which right from the time you were twelve, getting in on the chat rooms, taking on a different persona, even at that age, is a greedy kind of living, isn’t it?
ERICA GARZA: Yeah, I would agree with that, you know. And I think when I was growing up, I felt like I lived in this very boring suburban life that felt too small for me, and I wanted something greater than that. So I would often look to these, you know, foreign movies, my mom used to love watching foreign movies so I would dream of these far away lands I’d see when I grew up one day, and I would imagine all the different boyfriends I’d have—I was constantly thinking about boys when I was a young girl. So I would imagine that, and I would imagine all the different things, I could never settle on a career I wanted to do, I wanted to do it all. So yeah, there was this sense of greediness. And even in looking back at, you know, my twenties, even though a lot of the time was spent obsessing about somebody, or feeling really bad about myself, and feeling stuck a lot of the times, I had a lot of awesome experiences as well, you know. I did a lot of travelling, so I felt like there was a lot of adventure, and I never knew what was coming next, and there was a thrill that was part of it and I was constantly trying to, you know, top that thrill in the next experience, to destructive points.
NOAH RICHLER: And you’re of Mexican-American heritage, your parents were actually very happily living in the suburb of Montebella. How much of this is to do with a second generation immigrant experience? I’m not saying that second generation immigrants should be sex addicts, that’s not what I mean, but was it in any way a protest against your circumstance?
ERICA GARZA: Yeah, I mean, I was protesting against everything that I knew and had grown bored with. And I also felt caught between two places, absolutely. You know, I didn’t know which side I belonged on more—Mexican side? I didn’t really feel Mexican, I didn’t speak Spanish, but you know, my dad was born in Mexico, and I felt like my light skin… often kids would call me a Nazi at school because I had light skin, and that’s so ridiculous, but I remember at the time feeling, well I’m not like then, I’m not Mexican. But then I would watch TV and they were all white families, so then I thought, well I’m not really white… so then, what am I? You know. I don’t like this feeling of being caught between two places. How can I escape this feeling? So absolutely, you know, I think the cultural ambivalence was a huge part of it, and trying to escape that.
NOAH RICHLER: Speaking to you as someone who has known his own addictive behaviour, I’m interested that you speak of a sort of desperate appetite for something knew. I wonder if in your mind that’s an intrinsic part of the whole idea of addiction or the fact of addiction.
ERICA GARZA: Yeah, novelty is a big part of it. But also shame was a huge part of my addiction. I think the driving force of my addiction is this need to feel ashamed. And I think that’s because the first time that I masturbated, you know, I had never heard anybody talk about masturbation or sex before, so I assumed that the feeling of pleasure and the thrill of it was something bad, something I shouldn’t have access to. And so immediately after that pleasure, I felt shame, and I didn’t know how to separate those two feelings from each other. So that later on, when I started watching porn, I started off with the mild stuff, of course, because that’s all I had access to, but that no longer got me off. I needed a shame aspect to it, because the mere act of watching it wasn’t shameful enough anymore, because I guess I got desensitized to it. So then I started to seek out clips that would produce that same feeling in me. Almost a feeling of disgust or shock, like I needed to be turned off in order to be turned on, so I would start to seek harder clips, more explicit, more degrading, misogynistic scenes, things like that. So not only the novelty, but also that feeling, that intense feeling of guilt and remorse over it had to be present in order to feel the pleasure as well.
NOAH RICHLER: So it’s a form of punishment, really. A punishment of yourself.
ERICA GARZA: Yeah, you know, that was all part of the process of being aroused, was also feeling bad, and feeling like if anybody knew this about me, they would think I was disgusting, and also the fear of being caught was part of the thrill as well, it gave me the adrenaline rush.
NOAH RICHLER: And it was also, as you explain it, or as you suggested in Getting Off, something about rebellion against the fact of your having been the weird girl. You had a severe curvature of the spine, and you needed to wear a brace, which I suppose was embarrassing to you, or at least a condition to overcome. Is that right?
ERICA GARZA: Yeah, so I would feel really worthless and afraid of social rejection, and I didn’t know who to talk to about those things, and so I would think I was unworthy of other people’s attention and I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself, because I didn’t want to be bullied or made fun of, so I would lock myself away and isolate myself where it felt safe and comfortable, and in that space I was able to, you know, watch porn and pleasure myself just to get a break from those big scary feelings that I didn’t know how to deal with properly.
NOAH RICHLER: So one of the things that’s so interesting about Erica Garza’s memoire is that despite its title, you understand, no matter the behaviour, the addiction to be a symptom, reflection, and a consequence of all the rest that was going on in the author’s life. Maybe the term “sex addition” says more about those who decide it’s what they’re seeing in others. I’m no authority, but I can think of someone who is.
DAN SAVAGE: I’m Dan Savage, and I write Savage Love, which is a widely syndicated sex advice column, and I host the Savage Love Cast, which is a sex and relationships advice show.
NOAH RICHLER: In the Savage view, is there such a thing as porn addiction?
DAN SAVAGE: There’s such a thing as too much of a thing. I think there’s such a thing as a psychological compulsion. I certainly think OCD is a thing, and people can be immoderate in their consumption of just about anything. But the whole sex addiction model, the whole theory, is grounded in a lot of baloney science that others who are more qualified to slice and dice the science have thoroughly debunked. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who aren’t having a difficult time pushing away from the laptop, or putting their phone away, or getting off tumblr.
NR: Is an aspect of addiction that we do more and more of the thing with less and less satisfaction? I mean—
DS: When it comes to chemical addiction, yes, but sex addiction is such a amorphous moving target. It seems to be entirely subjective, you know. You know when someone has overdosed on heroin. And the overdose is pretty consistent person to person, the amount. It is really impossible to overdose on internet pornography. You’re not going to die from it. And so one person’s sex addiction is another person’s healthy compartmentalized consumption. And most people who describe themselves as having a sex addiction and regard their pornography consumption as problematic are people were raised in religious faiths that shamed or stigmatized sexual desire or expression. Most people who are not religious don’t regard their porn habits, even if they’re on a bit of a binge, as an addiction, or a failing.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you ever compare human and animal behaviour? Does the animal world provide you a foil through which you might think about our own human situations and ideas?
DAN SAVAGE: Absolutely. We are animals. We are primates. We’re monkeys in shoes, as Tim Minchin sings.
NR: So, do you know about the bonobo? The bonobo that has sex for pleasure, that has sex as a prelude and a substitute for conflict…?
DS: And sex to create social bonds and social harmony. And I think it’s—you know, we are not bonobos, but we’re very very close, and we see a different model for sexual expression for—as fellow primates. That’s divorced from religious hangups and prescriptions for how sex is supposed to work. When we look to the animal kingdom—it’s interesting, you look to the animal kingdom and you don’t see squirrels or bonobos engaged in latex fetish play, or staging elaborate kink scenarios to get them off, but—
NOAH RICHLER: There’s a lot of strutting, though.
DAN SAVAGE: There’s display behaviour, absolutely, that we engage in. You just have to pull up an old episode of Jersey shore to see human beings engaged in bonobo, baboon-like [laughs] display behaviours.
NOAH RICHLER: I’m not sure if this is a question about North American behaviour, or about sex, or about addiction, or about a kind of trend in many areas, but I often imagine that our sexual activity is going to become another athletic pursuit, at a certain point.
DAN SAVAGE: That’s an interesting dystopian view [laughs].
NOAH RICHLER: Because we do like to count. Doesn’t the transmogrification of something into sport also have to do with our being able to compare and count and measure?
DAN SAVAGE: Yes, and that’s why sports with very objective measures, like how many goals, how many baskets, how many touchdowns. But sex is so subjective and sex is so personal – what’s the score? What’s the number? The number of people? The number of orgasms? And it’s so subjective from person to person that I don’t think – in the same way that not everybody follows basketball or plays basketball, despite how popular and ubiquitous it is here in the States, I don’t think that even if there was a kind of a sporting exploitation, commercial exploitation of sex that turned it into a competitive sport, I think most people wouldn’t play in the same way most people don’t play basketball. And many people don’t enjoy watching basketball. I don’t enjoy watching basketball. I think the same thing would happen if sex became commercialized as a sport. But I don’t think it can be, because it’s just so personal, and so subjective, from individual to individual. What’s a turn on? And then how do you measure it?
NOAH RICHLER: I know your written work better than I know the details of your life. Did you have a coming out moment? Was that at fifteen, or?
DAN SAVAGE: Oh, yeah, as a teenager. It’s rare for gay men of my generation – I’m fifty-three years old – to have been out in high school, but I was out in high school. That’s very common these days, much more common, and thank god that more people feel comfortable coming out younger, and are getting support when they come out younger. Still a risk, to come out younger, forty percent of homeless teenagers are queer kids who were thrown out after they came out, so it’s still – the consequences can be dire if the family has a terrible reaction. But yeah, I came out when I was a teenager to my very catholic parents.
NOAH RICHLER: I imagine you had to validate whatever rules or behaviour applied for yourself. Have you ever been bemused or surprised by, let’s call them conventions or more traditional arrangements that you might have arrived at anyway?
DAN SAVAGE: Well, some people look at my husband and me, look at our relationship, and see kind of a very traditional relationship. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, my husband kinda cooked and cleaned, did the laundry, I did the yard work. Although there’s a lot of mixing, ’cause he maintains the car, and does some butch things around there. In some ways our relationship was kind of shook out along traditional roles because he was the stay-at-home dad. But it never felt imposed on us. It felt like a free choice that we were making. We didn’t have to sit around wondering whether we were succumbing to gender roles, to the sort of creepy undertow, and being sucked out to gender conforimty sea [laughs], by this undertow. And so these felt like free and therefore joyful choices for us.
ERICA GARZA: Even though my husband and I are experimental in our sex life, I like to say that we’re not in an open marriage but we’re open-minded in our marriage, so we are open to talking about experimenting outside of our sexuality, but I don’t consider us a polyamorous couple. I guess I just don’t like the label of it. But we do have a lot of freedom in our marriage. A relapse for me would be being disconnected again. Feeling disconnected and starting to lie. I would imagine lying to my husband would be a big trust pass. So we are one hundred percent honest in our relationship. Even when, you know, it’s hard to be honest sometimes, when you have something difficult to talk about or a feeling that’s uncomfortable. It can be challenging, but I feel like integrity is really important and when we lose that integrity, then I think that a lot of things would fall out of place, and that would feel like the beginning of a relapse for me.
NOAH RICHLER: Do you think you know the person that you were? Do you feel close to the Erica who was on this journey?
ERICA GARZA: I do, yeah. I feel like she still comes up sometimes. And, you know, there’s a whole – there’s a part of my book where I talk about feeling like I see her sometimes, when I’m looking in the mirror. Because usually when I’m feeling fearful, when I’m feeling ashamed, when I’m feeling lonely, those are big feelings that I had around that time and I just pushed them down at the time. So now, when I feel them, and I see that twelve-year-old girl looking back at me, I just, you know, I just try and comfort her. I try to see… what does she need right now? What does she need to say? And I try to give that to myself. And I find that works best.
NOAH RICHLER: You point out that of those who self-identify as porn addicts, about seventy-five percent are men, and only twenty-five percent women. To what extent do you think that even now, describing yourself as having been a sex addict, has a gendered aspect to it?
ERICA GARZA: Sure, you know. There’s the whole madonna/whore complex with women. There isn’t room for women to express themselves as open and sexually as men. Of course. We know the kind of language we reserve for women who have a lot of sex. We call them whores, we call them sluts, and we don’t really use that kind of language for men. We say, oh, you know, that’s just men being men, boys being boys. And then when a woman comes out as a sex addict, either we call her a whore or we assume that something terrible must have happened to her, you know. She must have been abused. The thought of a woman having a lot of sex, or wanting a lot of sex, just doesn’t fit our narrative of what we expect of women. And, you know, a lot of the magazine articles that I really don’t like that have been written about my book always point out that I’m a mom. You know, that’s another one. How could a mom have been addicted to porn? Even when I had my daughter after I was already in recovery, it was just this thought that’s the headline, you know, because we don’t think of moms in a sexual way. So I think that there’s a lot of misconceptions that we have about women, and that leads a lot of women to not speak about these things as openly as men. But I think we’re in a cultural shift. So I am hoping that this is changing, and women are speaking about things that they’ve previously silenced. So hopefully we’re headed in the right direction here.
NOAH RICHLER: Dan Savage.
DAN SAVAGE: Sex is bigger and stronger and more powerful and older than we are. A quarter of a billion, half a billion years old, sex built us, it’s building whatever is coming after us, it has its own purposes and its own uses. We like to pretend that we’re in charge of sex. We tell little kids that one day they’re going to grow up and have sex, and we need to tell them actually, that one day you’re going to grow up and sex is going to have you. So no, I don’t think that that world exists. There are asexual people out there, one percent of the population, most asexual people are – describe themselves as heteroromantic, or homoromantic, or biromantic, and are still interested in relationships, are still interested in intimacy, just not in sex. And I just think that sex is not something that you could ever factor out of the equation. Take a look at the Catholic church. How they do – two thousand years of practice trying to remove sex from the equation, with no luck, and countless victims left in the wake.
NOAH RICHLER: Well, I mean, it’s a point of great shame that about ten years ago, I think, the first thing that I know of that united the Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish churches in Jerusalem was their horror of a pride parade.
DAN SAVAGE: Yeah.
NOAH RICHLER: And that says something.
DAN SAVAGE: Because of the sky religions, those great desert sky monotheisms, and their bananas attitude towards sex. We look at the Bible–as Sam Harris points out in Letter to a Christian Nation–Bible got, the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong, and that was slavery. The Bible is pro-slavery. Radically pro-slavery. Slave owners in the south in the United States during the Civil War waved bibles over their heads, and they could! If the Bible got – and these, you know, three desert monotheisms got – the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong, what are the odds that two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, or eight hundred, nine hundred years ago, they got human sexuality wrong? Which is a lot more complicated?
NOAH RICHLER: Have you had a pivot moment, a moment in which suddenly you needed to re-imagine yourself completely?
DAN SAVAGE: Sexually? Professionally? Personally?
NOAH RICHLER: Well what comes to mind? Today?
DAN SAVAGE: Well, it – gosh… you know, the – we’ve been talking about sex, so of course a sexual one comes to mind instantly, and for – my husband and I have been together for twenty-four years, married for as many of those years as we could be married, married in Canada, initially – and we were monogamous for the first four years, and then not monogamous for the last twenty. And often I have a laugh when people tell me that non-monogamy is always the end of the relationship, and spells impending doom, because we’ve been waiting for two decades for that doom to come and it hasn’t arrived yet. But really the pivot for us was when we went from the kind of gay couple that occasionally has sex with other people, together, to having relationships with other people. Because Terry – I mean, obviously, we’ve been together for almost a quarter of a century, we’re kind of relationship types, and we weren’t comfortable, either of us, just having the kind of anonymous one-off sex with near-strangers that – I don’t judge, a lot of people – and Terry was the stranger that I had sex with the first night that I met him and we just kept doing it. So I don’t think hooking up with strangers is a terrible thing, but we wanted to know people better. And so we much – we’re more at the poly end of the open spectrum now, where we have relationships. In addition to our marital relationship, instead of just sex with others.
NOAH RICHLER: It’s a naive question, but what is an argument against having multiple partners?
DAN SAVAGE: Emotional security, for many people. Disease prevention, for many people, even though there are studies that show that people in ethical non-monogamous relationships are no more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection from their partner than people in what they believed to be monogamous relationships. People who are closed or open, just as likely to get an STI. But for a lot of people, you know, closed relationship protects them from feelings of jealousy, feelings of insecurity, even though they’re still going to feel those things. There’s nothing about a closed relationship that insulates you, or immunizes you against jealousy. It immunizes you against jealousy. And so you’re still gonna experience – just as people in open relationships can experience those feelings.
NOAH RICHLER: And do you imagine that – is that a residue of what used to be more typically an upbringing in a religious family?
DAN SAVAGE: I do think that we’re seeing less paranoia and judgment, and knee-jerk rejection of people in open relationships. Because more people in them are becoming out about them. It used to be that we only heard about friends or family who were in an open relationship, or had had outside sex, when they got a divorce. We would find out about it when it led to the end of the relationship. People who were in successful open relationships allowed themselves to be perceived as monogamous, which we call social monogamy. You’re socially monogamous, even though you aren’t sexually monogamous. So we knew people in successful open relationships, we just didn’t know we knew them because they weren’t out about it. They didn’t tell us. So the only ones we found out about were the ones that – where the crap hit the fan. And the relationship ended. And then we associated openness with the collapse of relationships, because that’s the only openness we ever heard about. But more and more people, I think – more and more straight people, straight couples, inspired by gay couples, are being out about the fact that they’re open. And this is good not just for people in open relationships, this is good for people in closed relationships. ‘Cause there are people out there who can’t honour a monogamous commitment, and yet are making them because they think that’s their only option. And the more people are open about being open, the fewer people who aren’t capable of making a monogamous commitment are gonna make those monogamous commitments, and then break the heart of the person that they made that monogamous commitment to. And so a world where people can be open or closed, a world where monogamy is opt-in, it’s a conversation, it’s a choice, and not a default setting, not just better for people in open relationships, better for people who want to have closed relationships.
NOAH RICHLER: Erica Garza.
ERICA GARZA: in the early stages of my recovery, I thought I could never watch porn again, you know, this has been a big cause of pain in my life, and has kept me disconnected from other people and made me feel ashamed for so long, so I just gave it up completely, and I also thought, you know, I’m going to be in this strictly monogamous relationship, and never venture outside of that, because I’m going to go down this terrible path. And I think that that served me at that time, because I needed to break up those patterns and those habits and start to reflect on how I’d gotten to that point. But then it got to a point where it started to feel inauthentic to me, you know. I still wanted to be open minded and experimental with my sexuality, I still wanted to watch porn sometimes, but I wondered if I could integrate that into my life without going down that destructive path. If I could learn moderation. If I could do those things, be an experimental, open-minded, sexual person without hurting people that I loved or lying or putting myself in unsafe situations. And that’s really when another part of my recovery began, that started to feel more authentic to me. And that’s a learning process, you know. It’s not, like, just something you decide one day and then overnight, it’s fixed; it was something I had to learn. And so I feel like it’s much more about balance. I’m definitely not anti-porn, and I have gotten to a place where I do watch it occasionally. But because I’ve learned healthier ways of dealing with my problems, I don’t use it as an escape route. So I watch porn because I want to, not because I need to.
NOAH RICHLER: Your memoir is also something of a love story. Finally you make the acquaintance of a man you call River. It doesn’t work out immediately; you follow him to Shanghai, there’s a period of separation. I’m not trying to be corny, but is love the thing that ends your addiction because, in fact, love is the ultimate novelty?
ERICA GARZA: I would say connection, is the thing. Because so much of my addiction – and I think for a lot of people who are struggling with this, especially with something like porn addiction, where there’s not much space in our culture to talk about this openly, there’s still a lot of stigma and shame attached to it – and so I think a lot of addiction has to do with feeling like you’re more broken than anybody else, and feeling like you can’t show other people who you are, you can’t be vulnerable, so you should just stay isolated and away from other people and alone, and so I spent a lot of time feeling quite lonely and disconnected from other people, and even if I was having a lot of sex with a lot of different partners, there was still a wall up between me and another person. So when I met the man who became my husband, I had already started working on myself. I knew that I had issues with porn and with sex, and so I was in Bali, and I was taking care of myself, and just spending time alone, and paying attention to the thoughts in my head. And I know it sounds very Eat, Pray, Love, but I was doing a lot of yoga and meditation, and things like that, to just understand what was happening in my head, and try to think differently, and switch up my pattern. So I was in that clear-headed space when I met my husband. And he was on a similar path – he was overcoming drug addiction – and so we were both kind of in that same space of wanting to do things differently. And we were able to hold each other in that space. So I revealed to him, for the first time ever, revealed to a person that I thought I was a sex and porn addict. And he didn’t run away. And I thought, you know, this feels so good, to be this real and honest and vulnerable with another person. I’m going to keep talking about this, this is something I need to be working on. And that’s when things started to shift for me. I started to go to twelve step meetings, I started to write about my journey, my addiction, I started to seek therapy. And all of those things, I was doing the same thing: I was revealing to other people what I had kept hidden for so long, and connecting with other people about things that I thought if they found out, then they’ll reject me. And nobody ever rejected me. I felt so much closer with other people talking about these scary things. So, although, in my case, yes, it was a love story and I met and married this man, I think I could have had that connection with another person as well. It could have been a great friend that a met, it could have been a teacher, you know, it could have been a great therapist who changed my life. It just happened to be a person that I ended up falling in love with. But truly, it was the connection.
NOAH RICHLER: Has motherhood affected your assessment of your history of addiction? Of your ideas about yourself?
ERICA GARZA: I guess I don’t have the energy to watch as much porn now that I have a child now [laughs]. I, you know, I think that it’s made me want to be kinder to myself, and especially to my young self, in thinking back and in thinking what I would have needed as a young girl. How can I give that to my daughter growing up? How can I allow her and make space for her to embrace her sexuality so that she doesn’t learn to associate shame with her sexuality early on? You know, I’m going to talk to her about sex, which is going to be a huge change from what I experienced growing up. I’m never going to make her feel like I’m an unsafe person to come and talk to about these things. So just having openness and allowing myself to be vulnerable so that she can see that and she can learn from that, I think that would be really helpful to pass on to her.
NOAH RICHLER: You’ve cogitated and thought about sexuality, or a sexual sense in children, you don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. How did you handle it yourself?
DAN SAVAGE: Talking about sex with my son?
NOAH RICHLER: Yeah. I can remember my father taking me to the Relais Bisson, which is a little hotel in Paris, where the Eloise in Paris books are written, and my sexual education went like this: Noah, you know, yes. Which I didn’t. That was it.
DAN SAVAGE: [laughs]. The kids wanna say, I know everything you don’t have to talk to me, and the parent has to say, I know that that might be – it might be true that you know everything, but I also know that you would lie and say you did know everything to avoid this conversation, so we’re gonna have the conversation anyway, even if you know everything. Which is what I said to my son. And we had a couple of long talks on hikes, and some checking-ins every once in a while. It’s a bit of a torment to have a sex writer for a parent during that sex-ed talk, because, you know, you do sex writing, and advise people of their problems, you get familiar with a lot of worst-case scenarios that most parents don’t feel obligated to cover during the sex talk. Like traumatic masturbation syndrome was a conversation we had to have. But yeah, we had those convos, and they were just as awkward for me as they would be for any other parent. Kids don’t wanna talk about sex with their parents, but as a parent, you know, you have to have this conversation. And you would think that someone who had been writing about sex for decades before had to have that convo with a kid, their kid, we screwed it up. We had a convo about, you know, when he’s curious, about where babies came from, and sex, and reproductive biology, basically, and then one day he came down to the kitchen and looked and me and said, you and daddy have sex for no reason. You can’t make a baby. And then I was like, uhhhh, shit, we left out the 99.99% of the sex that people are having 99.99% of the time, which is for pleasure, not for babies. And then we had to have that conversation about pleasure, and we’d left that out because he seemed a little young for that aspect of it, but obviously he’d been turning it over in his head, like, if sex is how you make babies and sex is for making babies, why are men having sex with men?
NOAH RICHLER: You’ve raised a very lucid, clear thinker, so… yeah. You should be pleased.
DAN SAVAGE: [laughs] Yeah, he’s always busting us for inconsistencies.
NOAH RICHLER: You’re been listening to “Loving Thyself,” the sixth episode of The Walrus Podcast series, Pivot. A big thank you to Erica Garza, whose memoir, Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction is published by Simon & Schuster. And to the extraordinarily prolific Dan Savage whose bold and highly entertaining discussion of modern sexual mores and dilemmas is as much an acute dissection of American life, and best explored through his website and app, SavageLoveCast.com. And than you Sean Ahmed for the labour of connecting us. This episode of Pivot was produced by Angela Misri and Judy Ziyu Gu of The Walrus, with the assistance of Jonah Brunet. The reader was Christina Papantoniou, and the music is Charles Spirin’s. Should you wish, you can find transcripts, links, and subscribe to this podcast at thewalrus.ca/podcasts. I’m Noah Richler. Thanks for listening.