WE’VE COME A LONG WAY from Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, with its prim meows and horse carriage bells symbolizing female sexuality alongside risqué (for 1967) scenes of sadomasochism and sex work. We’ve come a long way from men explaining women’s sexuality through their art. Now, we do it ourselves.

Erica Garza’s Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction is like Belle de Jour if Séverine was a real woman writing in the 21st century and exploring her desires before she even had the chance to become a bored housewife. In fact, Garza’s book ends with a sex scene — as a new wife, post-recovery from said sex and porn addiction — which is anything but bored housewife: the apex of her recovery involves a Thai woman (who may or may not be a sex worker), her husband, and pleasure. That Garza’s memoir ends with satisfying sex, sensuality, and self-acceptance is triumphant, but not because her prior sex life seems so licentious; there’s plenty she doesn’t do. Rather, the compelling part of Garza’s story is that recovery entails the acceptance of her libido and refusal of shame. In a world that still fears female sexuality and buys into the dichotomy of the Madonna-whore complex, Getting Off is doing crucial work.

Garza is a Los Angeles native, raised Catholic by her Mexican father and Mexican-American mother in Montebello. Getting Off is her debut book, though she has published numerous essays about her porn and sex addiction, most notably the 2014 essay “Tales of a female sex addict” in Salon. Garza’s early porn viewing begins with a VHS tape found in her older brother’s room, and her first shared viewing experience is with her brother’s then-girlfriend. Garza and her brother’s girlfriend share a bed that night, and also a kiss. It’s Garza’s first foray into sexual experiences with girls. Interestingly, Garza never identifies herself as queer in her writing, but not for lack of queer experiences. Garza seems uninterested in labeling her sexuality, only hesitatingly adopting the label of addict. Her sexual interest in women is more of a proclivity than a preference, and a sort of “chicken or egg” question: is her sexual interest entirely a product of porn, or did porn help draw out her queer sexuality?

Other thematic threads woven through Getting Off’s narrative are the fear of exposure (which she overcomes via her nonfiction writing) and the intersection of technology and intimacy. In a poignant moment in her late 20s, Garza realizes she works online (writing copy remotely for an agency in New York City), communicates with her long-distance boyfriend online, and gets off online via streaming porn videos: “I went to the screen, not just for brief interactions with River, but for everything. […] Like my use of porn, I felt attached to the screen, but also safely distant. I could shut the laptop and walk away when I wanted. It was easier this way, but also not entirely fulfilling. This was not real intimacy, and I knew that.” We know so little about how desire, especially fantasy, works in the first place. We have even less of an understanding of how technology and sexuality interact, or damage our capacity for intimacy, though Garza’s book makes a few important contributions in this vein.

Garza’s addiction to sex and porn leads her to periods of promiscuity, obsessive thoughts, codependent relationships, and hours lost masturbating to screens; but overall her sex life seems — well, masculine. She has sex and orgasms all over the world. In some ways, she’s a female Lothario, though she makes clear the negativity of her experiences lies in her feelings of insecurity, shame, and worthlessness: “I wish I could say this was the last time I saw men like him, men dug up from a painful corner of my past and messily transposed onto a promising present to confirm the story I was intent on telling myself: this is all I deserve.” She repeats a few times the idea that her body or sex were “the most promising thing I had to offer a man.”

As a sex and porn addict, Garza doesn’t end up making porn, doing sex work, or experiencing sexual trauma such as rape. Her closest experience to non-consensual sex is one of the more gripping scenes: in Maui at 24, Garza’s landlady Helen — who turns out to be the island’s aging madam — sets Garza up with a wealthy, older businessman. As this man throws himself on the beautiful, young Garza, she narrates her discomfort, and it starts to feel like we’re headed toward “Cat Person” territory. But then, unexpectedly, she veers. Garza finds herself turned on by this older man, by the grossness of the situation, and feels like “those young girls in all those ‘old and young’ category videos that had filled so many hours of [her] young life.” Garza writes: “I got off on the idea that I was a whore being used, a dirty slut, something to be ashamed of.” Of course she would feel aroused; after watching video after video of porn scenes featuring similar visual and narrative territory, how could she not feel excited when a real-life encounter echoes that very same degradation, violence, and lack of agency?

Garza and I are both in our mid-30s. We are both in the generation who grew up with the internet; we began with a free trial of AOL on our home desktops, then encountered sex chat and internet porn. We are also of the generation who is now writing about how this early porn viewing shaped our sex lives, especially the fantasies we play in our heads; Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve In Your Life and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today are two books exploring similar territory. I’ve wrangled with the difficulty of writing about porn in my own work, and can attest that it is no easy feat, as our society still tends to punish women who refuse silence and repression, who insist on being public. It’s worth noting, for example, that Marie Calloway is a pseudonym and Broder’s book was published on the heels of her anonymous Twitter account, @SoSadToday. Garza is admirably bold, laying everything bare via her chosen genre. The best parts of her book are when she writes explicitly about the porn she watches and the fantasies she masturbates to. The two are interwoven: the porn feeds the fantasies, and vice versa.

Through her journey to recovery, which involves Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings in Los Angeles, yoga in Bali, months in Thailand with her boyfriend, and a week-long retreat called “the Hoffman Process” in Northern California, Garza discovers her addictions are tied to a lack of self-worth stemming from childhood traumas. She also discovers that “[t]rauma can be ordinary”: her traumas include the arrival of a baby sister at age 10, a back brace in seventh and eighth grade, her older brother ignoring her in their teen years, and early sexual experiences, in particular one with an aggressive, insensitive teenage boy named Alex. In an emotional scene where Garza describes her favorite porn scene to her boyfriend (“[a] scene so troubling and stomach-turning that the idea of telling him seemed like the most dangerous thing I could do”), opening herself up to vulnerability and his potential judgment, she writes:

And so I told him. How long I’d been watching porn like this. How I couldn’t get turned on unless I was turned off. How I needed the women to be mistreated and misused — guzzling gallons of cum, slapped, thrown around, laughed at, walked around on leashes, ridiculed, dragged by their hair and tossed into the Dumpster. Anything that announced to the world that they were worthless and deserved to be humiliated. Because I felt worthless. I deserved to be humiliated. Porn was a mirror for how I felt about myself.

The crux of Garza’s recovery is embodied in working through this realization: the women in porn scenes ought to be mistreated and she herself ought to be mistreated. Garza ultimately comes to believe she deserves to be treated well, and finds a partner who does so. Notably, Garza does not see a gap between erotic fantasy or play and wanting to be treated poorly in a non-sexual sense (a gap which plenty of people in BDSM communities acknowledge). Rather, she determines that her string of poor relationships and her addictions stem from feelings of worthlessness.

Garza peppers her narrative with references to research in the field of sexuality studies to add gravitas to her self-reflection. She touches briefly on Gary Wilson’s TEDxGlasgow talk, “The Great Porn Experiment,” about how porn viewing in adolescence trains the brain to rely on novelty for arousal or, as she calls it in another reference, “arousal addiction.” Other studies refer to this phenomenon as “ramping up,” or the need for increasingly extreme scenes in order to reach orgasm. But if you get off to violent, degrading images, are you inherently lacking in self-worth? Or is your brain being groomed by the images? Though Garza writes through the lens of addiction and recovery, the conclusions she draws feel a bit too simple at times. What about women who look at hardcore porn and have strong feelings of self-worth? Garza doesn’t explore this question and it isn’t part of her journey, but nonetheless, it feels like a pertinent question that perhaps future books in this field might address.

Garza ends Getting Off by taking ownership over her sexuality. She describes this acceptance through the metaphor of “return[ing] to the little girl” she was in childhood, a period when she learned to masturbate beneath the bath faucet and engage in online sex chat, pretending to be 18. The period where a girl’s sexuality exists only for herself is all too fleeting, and Garza points to this truth: as a teenager, she realizes the erotic power she possesses in telling boys she views internet porn. “After I’d had enough tequila and was feeling ballsy, I’d rave about the kind of porn I liked, but I’d refrain from mentioning clips I thought they’d consider too gross,” Garza writes. The thrill of revealing your secret, subversive porn viewing to potential male lovers, as a way to signal “I’m sexy, I’m adventurous, I’m dirty, you desire me,” makes the porn less about a girl’s own desire and always, sadly, about a girl’s perceived desirability to men. Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, discusses the cultural training and sexual socialization through which “little girls” learn “the desire to be desired” rather than how to desire their love objects or their own pleasure. “Girls learn to watch their sex along with the boys,” Wolf explains, “[and] that takes up the space that should be devoted to finding out about what they are wanting, and reading and writing about it, seeking it and getting it.” Wolf calls this an “outside-in perspective” women have on their own sexuality, in which questions about desiring a partner are inverted into questions about being desirable to a partner. Porn, in Garza’s memoir, provides the framework for her sexual desires, while also teaching her this “outside-in perspective,” in which she believes her sexuality and objectified body is her main currency in the world (fighting — and often losing — the battle with writing as a more positive currency).

Garza certainly is not anti-porn. Rather, Garza suggests that the world needs to have this conversation in a much louder way and in schools, at a younger age than adults think is appropriate. Garza tells us in a footnote: “The BBC reported in 2015 that of nearly seven hundred surveyed youngsters, ages twelve to thirteen, one in five said they had seen pornographic images that had shocked or upset them.” Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape confirms this statistic through a series of case studies that demonstrate teens are looking at porn and teenage girls are internalizing porn’s messages. Orenstein found girls in high school and college are taking Women’s and Gender Studies classes, identifying as feminist, dressing sexy to assert feelings of agency over their sexuality — then routinely not having orgasms with male partners, and not seeing the oral sex they perform on male partners reciprocated. In other words: Girls aren’t getting off, but they are getting boys off.

If we care about the sexual health of our young people, we might encourage them to read Getting Off. Teenagers could benefit from reading books like Garza’s, Amy Rose Spiegel’s Action: A Book About Sex, Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, or even Oriana Small’s Girlvert: A Porno Memoir, books that offer an unflinching look at the pros and cons of porn — Small’s from within the industry itself. At the end of her memoir, Garza reflects on a photo of herself as a 12-year-old:

Each year would bring with it a whole new set of reasons why I didn’t deserve pleasure, why I should hate myself, why I should hide and pretend and escape. But in that photo, locked in time, as real and true as any other moment in my life, I knew what I wanted and I couldn’t wait to say it. Look at me, BOYS. I’m a girl and I am sexual. I’m a girl and I have desires.

That it seems revolutionary for a girl to have desires — in all of their complexities, kinks, fetishes, and fantasies — and yearn for those desires to be not only acknowledged, but met, points to how far our society still has to go in affirming every individual’s capacity to feel pleasure, sensuality, respect, and agency.

This is the real question of sex addiction, porn addiction, or simply porn viewing: How can we — and I mean men, to some degree, but more so women — have healthy sex lives when watching mainstream porn feeds our brains with abusive, violent images? What if Buñuel’s Séverine had access to the degrading porn only a click away today? Her eroticization of debasement was already present in her own mind; would porn have provided her an imaginative outlet, instead of her foray into working in a Parisian brothel? Does porn make our sex lives better or worse? These are questions Garza considers in Getting Off, questions for which she offers no easy answers. In our porn-saturated society, we’ve only just begun to have this conversation out loud. What we need are more books like Garza’s, in which women are willing to discuss their sexuality in all of its complexity.

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Kristin Sanders is the author of CUNTRY (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), a finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series, as well as two chapbooks: This is a map of their watching me (BOAAT, 2015), and Orthorexia (Dancing Girl Press, 2011).