I’ve heard it said that there are men who don’t look at porn, and then there are men who are breathing. If recent surveys are any indication, porn use has become the norm among men, not the exception.
Still, I get a lot of questions from women who are feeling the heartbreaking impact of porn on their marriages. To them, porn feels like cheating, and for good reason.
I understand why many don’t think this is true (reasons I’ll address below), but first it is important that I define some terms.
By “using porn” I don’t mean merely seeing it. It’s hard not to walk about in public places or go online without seeing something that is at least meant to titillate the eyes of men. When I say “using” I mean intentionally taking porn in through one’s senses with the intention of being turned on and then, most likely, masturbating or at least getting sexually aroused.
By “cheating” I mean that using porn is breaking a vow—either implicitly or explicitly—made to one’s spouse. This is because marriage is, in part, about sexual exclusivity; it is about “forsaking all others.”
The Slippery Porn Slope
Take some steps with me down a morally slippery slope.
Step 1: Let’s say I were to visit a prostitute and have sex with her. That would be cheating on my wife. I assume no one would debate me on this point.
Step 2: However, let’s say that when I met with the prostitute we didn’t actually touch each other: I just watched her have sex with someone else while I masturbated in the same room. (Weird, I know. But just go with it.) Would that be cheating? Both in this case and in the previous case I am seeking the services of a prostituted woman for sexual pleasure—seeking out and enjoying the body of a woman who is not my wife in order to be sexually gratified. Could a man rightly say, “Yes, I pleasured myself in front of a hooker, but we didn’t touch each other. I stayed faithful to you”? I don’t think so. The pretense of no physical contact doesn’t matter because the action still violates the spirit of the sexual exclusivity.
Step 3: However, let’s say I didn’t visit the prostitute in person but only interacted with her online through erotic video chat. Let’s say I masturbated during the chat session while using the video image as the source of my fantasy. Is this cheating? Has the lack of physical proximity suddenly changed the situation that it is no longer breaking my marriage vow? I don’t think so.
Step 4: Now let’s say that instead of engaging in the video chat live, the prostitute recorded herself for me so I could masturbate at my convenience. Is this still cheating? Am I now suddenly remaining faithful to my marriage vows because someone hit the record button? No. That’s just stupid.
Step 5: Now let’s say the prostitute has a business card with a fancy title on it: “Pornographic Actress.” She even has a website with a resume listing of all the films she’s been in. Her pimp—I mean, agent—pays taxes and everything. Totally legit. Let’s say I reach out to this prostitute and pay her to view her recorded videos which she gladly sells me. Is this cheating? Does the change in title and the veneer of professionalism change the nature of the act? No.
Step 6: Now let’s say that this entire enterprise is industrialized so that this woman is part of a large network of other prostitutes who are doing the same thing. Much like walking into a brothel, I can pick the woman I want when I want, pay my fee, and enjoy her body for my lustful purposes. Is this cheating? What about the industrialized nature of the product changes the nature of the act? Nothing.
And on this last step we have arrived at what the modern porn industry is. This is why using pornography is cheating. It is engagement with a digital prostitute despite one’s vow to forsake all others.
Hold On, I’m Not Convinced.
I can hear the screeching of mental breaks right about now. Many are thinking, “Wait a second. Something major has shifted between the first scenario and the last. No one sees porn as digital prostitution. If this was the way our culture understood porn, it might be one thing. But very few people who watch porn go online thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get sexual gratification from a digital prostitute.’”
This is a good objection. After all, motive and intention count for something when it comes to the promises or vows we make. If I sign a contract saying I will not share proprietary information from my employer, but then forward a work e-mail along to a friend, not knowing it counts as “proprietary,” I’m not guilty of intentionally breaking my promise (even if my employer has grounds to fire me). Someone who uses porn might think along the same lines: “I’m just watching video clips made by actors and actresses, not intentionally seeking digital interactions with a prostitute.”
I agree, but motives only carry some of the weight when it comes to our moral decisions. The above slippery slope is not as much about motives as it is about the nature of the actions. Behind the making of pornography are real people really selling themselves for the sexual gratification of viewers. The medium doesn’t change the fact that a prostituted woman was used for her body and sex appeal, no matter the viewer’s understanding of the act.
This is why so many women say using porn feels like cheating: the act of seeking out another woman for sexual pleasure—even if she is hidden behind a veil of pixels and a sleazy acting agency—is not a movement towards faithfulness, but away from it.
Why Cheating Matters (and Why It Doesn’t)
However, by saying that using porn is breaking a marriage vow, I am not prescribing a specific reaction we should have to it. The six-step slippery slope presents six different scenarios, each having their own gravity of the offense. They may all be cheating, but they all show different levels of intensity.
We need to turn the tables on those who ask, “Is using porn cheating?” and address why it matters.
- For some, when they ask, “Is using porn cheating?” they bring a lot of baggage with the question. They think, “Since porn is cheating, I can never forgive you.” “Since porn is cheating, I have grounds to divorce you—and I will.” “Since porn is cheating, I will lash out and cheat on you.” These dispositions are, quite frankly, completely separate issues to address. To say a man has broken his marriage vow by seeking out porn is one thing. To say that he cannot be forgiven, that he should be divorced, or that he deserves revenge are other matters altogether.
- For others, when they ask, “Is using porn cheating?” they simply want their spouse to know that when they said, “I do,” they expected a spirit of monogamy. Yes, the world is full of sexual temptations. Yes, they know their spouse is full of hormones and attracted to other people walking about in the world. But they expected to be the focus of their spouse’s sexual energy, attention, and devotion. When they vowed to “forsake all others,” that is what they promised and what they expected in return.
The Heart of the Matter
Two facts lie at the heart of the issue.
First, people often desire the perks of marriage, but marriage vows are not taken seriously. As such, we find ourselves straddling two worlds. In one world, we embrace an idyllic picture of finding “the one,” growing old together, loving and serving another person until death we do part. In the other world, we enjoy the convenience and self-centeredness of solo-sex in front of the computer screen. These two worlds mix like oil and water in our miry hearts. Before long, you will either have to abandon pornography or abandon a genuine spirit of monogamy.
Second, people have been blinded by the sense of distance the digital world places between ourselves and the real world. We believe something doesn’t count as much if it is “online” or “on television” or “just fantasy.” We rename offenses: stealing becomes downloading, cruelty becomes speaking one’s mind, and exploitation becomes entertainment. We have settled for what Chris Hedges calls an empire of illusion. “Pornography does not promote sex if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation,” Hedges writes. “It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love. Pornography is about getting yourself off at someone else’s expense.”
So, He’s Cheating. Now What?
If your husband (or wife) is engrossed in porn, you are right to feel like this is cheating. He is defrauding you of something that should be your exclusive domain. You are not a prude for thinking this. You just take your vows seriously, as everyone should.
But where do you go from here? Start by getting educated about the addictive nature of pornography and the steps other couples have taken to take a new direction. Contact us 205-610-9319
by· January 19, 2015