Interviews October 2008

Virtual Adultery

Ross Douthat discusses pornography, prostitution, the pixel-versus-flesh binary, and the strange moral dynamics of a national addiction.

In the days before VHS tapes and personal computers, a faithful husband wanting a bit of extramarital excitement had limited options. He could frequent strip clubs or adult movie theaters. He could live out his fantasies while flipping through the pages of Hustler magazine. What he couldn’t do was bring live nude girls into his own home without committing actual adultery.

These days, argues Ross Douthat in the October Atlantic, the barrier between fantasy and infidelity is becoming less and less solid. The Internet has flooded the marketplace with the sights and sounds of real people having real sex: instead of creeping into a triple-X movie house, a married man can now turn on his home computer and access an endless reservoir of video footage that leaves nothing to the imagination. As Douthat sees it, men who watch hardcore pornography are not merely witnessing sex acts but participating in them:

The suburbanite with the hardcore 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. … The Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit.

The notion that today’s pornography is adultery—or, at least, adulterous—is bound to strike some as overly pious. Even the most explicit Internet porn is, after all only a series of pixels on a screen, a far cry from a flesh-and-blood liaison. A wife who finds a URL like in the browser history of her husband’s computer might be disgusted by his juvenile habit, but chances are she won’t file for divorce.

Even so, Douthat urges his readers to rethink the way they categorize hardcore pornography. Instead of filing it away in an innocuous boys-will-be-boys folder, along with bachelor-parties and Pamela Anderson centerfolds, he encourages both men and women consider that watching real sex might amount to a de facto betrayal of marriage vows. The girl on the streaming video might not be one’s neighbor’s wife, but to Douthat’s mind, she’s far closer to home than she ought to be.

Douthat, an Atlantic senior editor and blogger, is the co-author of the book Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. We chatted about pornography one recent afternoon at the magazine’s Watergate office.


—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

This piece of yours actually began as a blog post. Isn’t that right?

It did. In fact, it began with a column by a so-called sexpert who works for Fox News. She was talking about the signs that your partner might be addicted to pornography, and almost as a throwaway comment in the course of the piece she talked about how people have different expectations about pornography. A lot of people, a lot of women especially, would feel really betrayed, she said, if they discovered that their partner was using pornography frequently—they would consider it a form of adultery. Julian Sanchez, a libertarian blogger, and an acquaintance of mine, responded that this was self-evidently the most ridiculous thing: How could anyone possibly believe that pornography is the same as adultery?

And so then I embarked—in my role as the token social conservative scold in the D.C. blogging world, I suppose—on a series of posts trying to tease out the implications of this issue. What is pornography’s relationship to adultery? Is adultery an either/or proposition? Or, if not, is there a continuum and where does pornography fall? And so out of this came the longer essay, which tries to explore the topic in more depth and hopefully come to a somewhat nuanced conclusion.

This word continuum can be a tricky one. Playing video games that are violent could arguably be on the same continuum as committing murder.

That’s a fair point. My argument is essentially that if you do posit a continuum of infidelity, looking at hardcore pornography is much closer to straightfoward infidelity than playing Medal of Honor is to actually gunning somebody down. The argument runs something like this: if you look at Eliot Spitzer, what is it that Spitzer was actually doing? He was paying a prostitute to have sexual intercourse with him. Well, what would have been the response of his wife, Silda Spitzer, and what would have been the response of a typical American wife, to the news that her husband had instead paid prostitutes to perform sexually in front of him while he masturbated? Would you draw a bright moral distinction between doing that, between watching sex and getting off on it, and paying a prostitute to have sex with you? Or is the moral distinction slightly blurrier? And if it’s blurry, isn’t it blurry between having sexual intercourse and masturbating to hardcore pornography as well? 

I’m not saying there isn’t a moral distinction inside that blurriness. Acknowledging a continuum doesn’t mean there aren’t still distinctions between acts on the continuum. But it also means acknowledging that there might be more ways to break your vows than just the specific act of physical intercourse.

Let’s zero in a bit on some of the different aspects of this. How much of the problem is the secrecy aspect? When a woman finds out that her husband is gambling on the Internet, or ordering illegal prescription drugs over the Internet, doesn’t that also feel adulterous in some way because he’s been indulging an addiction and keeping it from her?

Sure, the element of secrecy determines how great a betrayal something turns out to be. And obviously that segues into the broader question of women and spouses who know that their partner or husband uses pornography or …

… watches pornography with them.

Right, well, that’s sort of the second order of things, but let’s start with people who just know about it and accept it. You can say there’s no betrayal there because they know what’s going on and therefore, without betrayal, there can be no adultery. I think that’s a fair point, obviously, in judging the moral gravity of someone’s behavior. If you’re looking at hardcore pornography and your wife knows about it, clearly you’re betraying her in less of a profound sense than you would be if she didn’t know about it.

Similarly, is it appropriate to say that people who are in an open marriage are capable of committing adultery? One reading of what adultery means would say no—because if you go into a marriage with the understanding that part of your marriage is going to be that you have permission to have sex with other people, then adultery isn’t even a possibility.

But people who go into an open marriage are very aware that they’ve essentially changed the definition of marriage in order to exclude the possibility of adultery. And in the case of pornography, by tolerating your husband’s porn habit, you’re similarly changing the definition of your marriage, in ways that I think people are unwilling to acknowledge.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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