Is Pornography Adultery?

It may be closer than you think.

Illustration by John Cuneo

The marriage of Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook collapsed the old-fashioned way in 2006, when she discovered that he was sleeping with his 18-year-old assistant. But their divorce trial this summer was a distinctly Internet-age affair. Having insisted on keeping the proceedings open to the media, Brinkley and her lawyers served up a long list of juicy allegations about Cook’s taste in online porn: the $3,000 a month he dropped on adult Web sites, the nude photos he posted online, the user names he favored (“happyladdie2002,” for instance, and “wannaseeall”) while surfing swinger sites, even the videos he supposedly made of himself masturbating.

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Interview: "Virtual Adultery"
Ross Douthat answers questions about pornography, prostitution, the pixel-versus-flesh binary, and the strange dynamics of a national addiction.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the porn-related revelations, though, was the ambiguity about what line, precisely, Cook was accused of having crossed. Was the porn habit a betrayal in and of itself? Was it the financial irresponsibility that mattered most, or the addictive behavior it suggested? Was it the way his habit had segued into other online activities? Or was it about Cook’s fitness as a parent, and the possibility that their son had stumbled upon his porn cache? Clearly, the court and the public were supposed to think that Cook was an even lousier husband than his affair with a teenager might have indicated. But it was considerably less clear whether the porn habit itself was supposed to prove this, or whether it was the particulars—the monthly bill, the swinger sites, the webcam, the danger to the kids—that made the difference.

The notion that pornography, and especially hard-core pornography, has something to do with marital infidelity has been floating around the edges of the American conversation for a while now, even as the porn industry, by some estimates, has swollen to rival professional sports and the major broadcast networks as a revenue-generating source of entertainment. A 2002 survey of the American Academy of Matri­monial Lawyers suggests that Internet porn plays a part in an increasing number of divorce cases, and the Brinkley-Cook divorce wasn’t the first celebrity split to feature porn-related revelations. In 2005, at the start of their messy divorce, Denise Richards accused Charlie Sheen of posting shots of his genitalia online and cultivating a taste for “barely legal” porn sites. Two years later, Anne Heche, Ellen DeGeneres’s ex, accused her non-celeb husband of surfing porn sites when he was supposed to be taking care of their 5-year-old son. The country singer Sara Evans’s 2006 divorce involved similar allegations, including the claim that her husband had collected 100 nude photographs of himself and solicited sex online.

But the attention paid to the connection between porn and infidelity doesn’t translate into anything like a consensus on what that connection is. Polls show that Americans are almost evenly divided on questions like whether porn is bad for relationships, whether it’s an inevitable feature of male existence, and whether it’s demeaning to women. This divide tends to cut along gender lines, inevitably: women are more likely to look at pornography than in the past, but they remain considerably more hostile to porn than men are, and considerably less likely to make use of it. (Even among the Internet generation, the split between the sexes remains stark. A survey of American college students last year found that 70 percent of the women in the sample never looked at pornography, compared with just 14 percent of their male peers; almost half of the men surveyed looked at porn at least once a week, versus just 3 percent of the women.)

One perspective, broadly construed, treats porn as a harmless habit, near-universal among men, and at worst a little silly. This is the viewpoint that’s transformed adult-industry icons like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy from targets of opprobrium into C-list celebrities. It’s what inspires fledgling stars to gin up sex tapes in the hope of boosting their careers. And it’s made smut a staple of gross-out comedy: rising-star funnyman Seth Rogen has gone from headlining Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, in which his character’s aspiration to run a pornographic Web site was somewhat incidental to the plot, to starring in Kevin Smith’s forthcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno, in which the porn business promises to be rather more central.

A second perspective treats porn as a kind of gateway drug—a vice that paves the way for more-serious betrayals. A 2004 study found that married individuals who cheated on their spouses were three times as likely to have used Internet pornography as married people who hadn’t committed adultery. In Tom Perrotta’s bestselling Little Children, the female protagonist’s husband—who is himself being cuckolded—progresses from obsessing over an online porn star named “Slutty Kay” to sending away for her panties to joining a club of fans who pay to vacation with her in person. Brink­ley’s husband may have followed a similar trajectory, along with many of the other porn-happy celebrity spouses who’ve featured in the gossip pages and divorce courts lately.

Maybe it’s worth sharpening the debate. Over the past three decades, the VCR, on-demand cable service, and the Internet have completely overhauled the ways in which people interact with porn. Innovation has piled on innovation, making modern pornography a more immediate, visceral, and personalized experience. Nothing in the long history of erotica compares with the way millions of Americans experience porn today, and our moral intuitions are struggling to catch up. As we try to make sense of the brave new world that VHS and streaming video have built, we might start by asking a radical question: Is pornography use a form of adultery?

The most stringent take on this matter comes, of course, from Jesus of Nazareth: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” But even among Christians, this teaching tends to be grouped with the Gospel injunctions about turning the other cheek and giving would-be robbers your possessions—as a guideline for saintliness, useful to Francis of Assisi and the Desert Fathers but less helpful to ordinary sinners trying to figure out what counts as a breach of marital trust. Jimmy Carter’s confession to Playboy that he had “lusted in [his] heart” still inspires giggles three decades later. Most Americans, devout or secular, are inclined to distinguish lustful thoughts from lustful actions, and hew to the Merriam-Webster definition of adultery as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband.”

On the face of things, this definition would seem to let porn users off the hook. Intercourse, after all, involves physicality, a flesh-and-blood encounter that Internet Explorer and the DVD player can’t provide, no matter what sort of adultery the user happens to be committing in his heart.

But there’s another way to look at it. During the long, late-winter week that transformed the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, into an alleged john, a late-night punch line, and finally an ex-governor, there was a lively debate on blogs and radio shows and op-ed pages about whether prostitution ought to be illegal at all. Yet amid all the chatter about whether the FBI should have cared about Spitzer’s habit of paying for extramarital sex, next to nobody suggested, publicly at least, that his wife ought not to care—that Silda Spitzer ought to have been grateful he was seeking only sexual gratification elsewhere, and that so long as he was loyal to her in his mind and heart, it shouldn’t matter what he did with his penis.

Start with the near-universal assumption that what Spitzer did in his hotel room constituted adultery, and then ponder whether Silda Spitzer would have had cause to feel betrayed if the FBI probe had revealed that her husband had paid merely to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts while he folded himself into a hotel armchair to masturbate. My suspicion is that an awful lot of people would say yes—not because there isn’t some distinction between the two acts, but because the distinction isn’t morally significant enough to prevent both from belonging to the zone, broadly defined, of cheating on your wife.

You can see where I’m going with this. If it’s cheating on your wife to watch while another woman performs sexually in front of you, then why isn’t it cheating to watch while the same sort of spectacle unfolds on your laptop or TV? Isn’t the man who uses hard-core pornography already betraying his wife, whether or not the habit leads to anything worse? (The same goes, of course, for a wife betraying her husband—the arguments in this essay should be assumed to apply as well to the small minority of women who use porn.)

Fine, you might respond, but there are betrayals and then there are betrayals. The man who lets his eyes stray across the photo of Gisele Bündchen, bare-assed and beguiling on the cover of GQ, has betrayed his wife in some sense, but only a 21st-century Savonarola would describe that sort of thing as adultery. The line that matters is the one between fantasy and reality—between the call girl who’s really there having sex with you, and the porn star who’s selling the image of herself having sex to a host of men she’ll never even meet. In this reading, porn is “a fictional, fantastical, even allegorical realm,” as the cultural critic Laura Kipnis described it in the mid-1990s—“mythological and hyperbolic” rather than realistic, and experienced not as a form of intercourse but as a “popular-culture genre,” like true crime or science fiction.

This seems like a potentially reasonable distinction to draw. But the fantasy-versus-reality, pixels-versus-flesh binary feels more appropriate to the pre-Internet landscape than to one where people spend hours every day in entirely virtual worlds, whether they’re accumulating “friends” on Facebook, acting out Tolkienesque fantasies in World of Warcraft, or flirting with a sexy avatar in Second Life. And it feels much more appropriate to the tamer sorts of pornography, from the increasingly archaic (dirty playing cards and pinups, smutty books and the Penthouse letters section) to the of-the-moment (the topless photos and sex-scene stills in the more restrained precincts of the online pornosphere), than it does to the harder-core material at the heart of the porn economy. Masturbating to a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model (like Christie Brinkley, once upon a time) or a Playboy centerfold is a one-way street: the images are intended to provoke fantasies, not to embody reality, since the women pictured aren’t having sex for the viewer’s gratification. Even strippers, for all their flesh-and-blood appeal, are essentially fantasy objects—depending on how you respond to a lap dance, of course. But hard-core pornography is real sex by definition, and the two sexual acts involved—the on-camera copulation, and the masturbation it enables—are interdependent: neither would happen without the other. The whole point of a centerfold is her unattainability, but with hard-core porn, it’s precisely the reverse: the star isn’t just attainable, she’s already being attained, and the user gets to be in on the action.

Moreover, the way the porn industry is evolving reflects the extent to which the Internet subverts the fantasy-reality dichotomy. After years of booming profits, the “mainstream” porn studios are increasingly losing ground to start-ups and freelancers—people making sex videos on their beds and sofas and shag carpeting and uploading them on the cheap. It turns out that, increasingly, Americans don’t want porn as a “kind of science fiction,” as Kipnis put it—they want realistic porn, porn that resembles the sex they might be having, and porn that at every moment holds out the promise that they can join in, like Peter Cook masturbating in front of his webcam.

So yes, there’s an obvious line between leafing through a Playboy and pulling a Spitzer on your wife. But the line between Spitzer and the suburban husband who pays $29.95 a month to stream hard-core sex onto his laptop is considerably blurrier. The suburbanite with the hard-core porn hookup is masturbating to real sex, albeit at a DSL-enabled remove. He’s experiencing it in an intimate setting, rather than in a grind house alongside other huddled masturbators in raincoats, and in a form that’s customized to his tastes in a way that mass-market porn like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas never was. There’s no emotional connection, true—but there presumably wasn’t one on Spitzer’s part, either.

This isn’t to say the distinction between hiring a prostitute and shelling out for online porn doesn’t matter; in moral issues, every distinction matters. But if you approach infidelity as a continuum of betrayal rather than an either/or proposition, then the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit.

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Ross Douthat, an Atlantic senior editor, blogs at rossdouthat.theatlantic.com.

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