Is Pornography Adultery?

It may be closer than you think.

It’s possible, of course, to consider hard-core porn use a kind of infidelity and shrug it off even so. After all, human societies have frequently made sweeping accommodations for extramarital dalliances, usually on the assumption that the male libido simply can’t be expected to submit to monogamy. When apologists for pornography aren’t making Kipnis-style appeals to cultural transgression and sexual imagination, they tend to fall back on the defense that it’s pointless to moralize about porn, because men are going to use it anyway.

Here’s Dan Savage, the popular Seattle-based sex columnist, responding to a reader who fretted about her boyfriend’s porn habit—“not because I’m jealous,” she wrote, “but because I’m insecure. I’m sure many of those girls are more attractive than me”:

All men look at porn … The handful of men who claim they don’t look at porn are liars or castrates. Tearful discussions about your insecurities or your feminist principles will not stop a man from looking at porn. That’s why the best advice for straight women is this: GET OVER IT. If you don’t want to be with someone who looks at porn … get a woman, get a dog, or get a blind guy … While men shouldn’t rub their female partners’ noses in the fact that they look at porn—that’s just inconsiderate—telling women that the porn “problem” can be resolved through good communication, couples counseling, or a chat with your pastor is neither helpful nor realistic.

Savage’s perspective is hardly unique, and is found among women as well as men. In 2003, three psychology professors at Illinois State University surveyed a broad population of women who were, or had been, in a relationship with a man who they knew used pornography. About a third of the women described the porn habit as a form of betrayal and infidelity. But the majority were neutral or even positively disposed to their lover’s taste for smut, responding slightly more favorably than not to prompts like “I do not mind my partner’s pornography use” or “My partner’s pornography use is perfectly normal.”

This point of view—that looking at pornography is a “perfectly normal” activity, one that the more-judgmental third of women need to just stop whining about—has been strengthened by the erosion of the second-order arguments against the use of porn, especially the argument that it feeds misogyny and encourages rape. In the great porn debates of the 1980s, arguments linking porn to violence against women were advanced across the ideological spectrum. Feminist crusaders like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon denounced smut as a weapon of the patriarchy; the Christian radio psychologist (and future religious-right fixture) James Dobson induced the serial killer Ted Bundy to confess on death row to a pornography addiction; the Meese Commission on Pornography declared, “In both clinical and experimental settings, exposure to sexually violent materials has indicated an increase in the likelihood of aggression.” It all sounded plausible—but between 1980 and 2004, an era in which porn became more available, and in more varieties, the rate of reported sexual violence dropped, and by 85 percent. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but the sharpness of the decline at least suggests that porn may reduce sexual violence, by providing an outlet for some potential sex offenders. (Indeed, the best way to deter a rapist might be to hook him up with a high-speed Internet connection: in a 2006 study, the Clemson economist Todd Kendall found that a 10 percent increase in Internet access is associated with a 7 percent decline in reported rapes.)

And what’s true of rapists could be true of ordinary married men, a porn apologist might argue. For every Peter Cook, using porn and sleeping around, there might be countless men who use porn as a substitute for extramarital dalliances, satisfying their need for sexual variety without hiring a prostitute or kicking off a workplace romance.

Like Philip Weiss’s friends, for instance. In the wake of the Spitzer affair, Weiss, a New York–based investigative journalist, came closer than any mainstream writer to endorsing not only the legalization of prostitution but the destigmatization of infidelity, in a rambling essay for New York magazine on the agonies that monogamy imposes on his buddies. Amid nostalgia for the days of courtesans and concubines and the usual plaints about how much more sophisticated things are in Europe, Weiss depicted porn as the modern man’s “common answer” to the marital-sex deficit. Here’s one of his pals dilating on his online outlets:

“Porn captures these women [its performers] before they get smart,” he said in a hot whisper as we sat in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side. Porn exploited the sexual desires, and naïveté, of women in their early twenties, he went on … He spoke of acts he observed online that his wife wouldn’t do. “It’s painful to say, but that’s your boys’ night out, and it takes an enlightened woman to say that.”

The use of the term enlightened is telling, since the strongest argument for the acceptance of pornography—and the hard-core variety in particular—is precisely that it represents a form of sexual progress, a more civilized approach to the problem of the male libido than either the toleration of mass prostitution or the attempt, from the Victorian era onward, to simultaneously legislate prostitution away and hold married couples to an unreasonably high standard of fidelity. Porn may be an evil, this argument goes, but it’s the least of several evils. The man who uses porn is cheating sexually, but he isn’t involving himself in an emotional relationship. He’s cheating in a way that carries none of the risks of intercourse, from pregnancy to venereal disease. And he’s cheating with women who may be trading sex for money, but are doing so in vastly safer situations than streetwalkers or even high-end escorts.

Indeed, in a significant sense, the porn industry looks like what advocates of legalized prostitution hope to achieve for “sex workers.” There are no bullying pimps and no police officers demanding sex in return for not putting the prostitutes in jail. There are regular tests for STDs, at least in the higher-end sectors of the industry. The performers are safely separated from their johns. And freelancers aren’t wandering downtown intersections on their own; they’re filming from the friendly confines of their homes.

If we would just accept Dan Savage’s advice, then, and get over it, everyone would gain something. Weiss and his pals could have their “boys’ night out” online and enjoy sexual experiences that their marriages deny them. The majority of wives could rest secure in the knowledge that worse forms of infidelity are being averted; some women could get into the act themselves, either solo or with their spouse, experiencing the thrill of a threesome or a ’70s key party with fewer of the consequences. The porn industry’s sex workers could earn a steady paycheck without worrying about pimps, police, or HIV. Every society lives with infidelity in one form or another, whether openly or hypocritically. Why shouldn’t we learn to live with porn?

Live with it we almost certainly will. But it’s worth being clear about what we’re accepting. Yes, adultery is inevitable, but it’s never been universal in the way that pornography has the potential to become—at least if we approach the use of hard-core porn as a normal outlet from the rigors of monogamy, and invest ourselves in a cultural paradigm that understands this as something all men do and all women need to live with. In the name of providing a low-risk alternative for males who would otherwise be tempted by “real” prostitutes and “real” affairs, we’re ultimately universalizing, in a milder but not all that much milder form, the sort of degradation and betrayal that only a minority of men have traditionally been involved in.

Go back to Philip Weiss’s pal and listen to him talk: Porn captures these women before they get smart … It’s painful to say, but that’s your boys’ night out. This is the language of a man who has accepted, not as a temporary lapse but as a permanent and necessary aspect of his married life, a paid sexual relationship with women other than his wife. And it’s the language of a man who has internalized a view of marriage as a sexual prison, rendered bearable only by frequent online furloughs with women more easily exploited than his spouse.

Calling porn a form of adultery isn’t about pretending that we can make it disappear. The temptation will always be there, and of course people will give in to it. I’ve looked at porn; if you’re male and breathing, chances are so have you. Rather, it’s about what sort of people we aspire to be: how we define our ideals, how we draw the lines in our relationships, and how we feel about ourselves if we cross them. And it’s about providing a way for everyone involved, men and women alike—whether they’re using porn or merely tolerating it—to think about what, precisely, they’re involving themselves in, and whether they should reconsider.

The extremes of anti-porn hysteria are unhelpful in this debate. If the turn toward an “everybody does it” approach to pornography and marriage is wrong, it’s because that approach is wrong in and of itself, not because porn is going to wreck society, destroy the institution of marriage, and turn thousands of rapists loose to prey on unsuspecting women. Smut isn’t going to bring down Western Civilization any more than Nero’s orgies actually led to the fall of Rome, and a society that expects near-universal online infidelity may run just as smoothly as a society that doesn’t.

Which is precisely why it’s so easy to say that the spread of pornography means that we’re just taking a turn, where sex and fidelity are concerned, toward realism, toward adulthood, toward sophistication. All we have to give up to get there is our sense of decency.

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Ross Douthat, an Atlantic senior editor, blogs at

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