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.

What about the intimacy aspect of it—the act of watching porn in one’s own home versus going out to the strip club with the guys? Going to a strip club is arguably a lot worse—you’re looking at actual flesh. Whereas if you’re looking at porn, you’re just looking at pixels on a screen. But you seem to be implying that there’s something more insidious about this new kind of pornography where you’re at home watching streaming porn over the Internet.

There are a couple of distinctions here. There is a fantasy/reality distinction that’s worth making. I think the closer the form of sexual activity comes to real sex, the closer it comes to adultery. In strip clubs—and in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and even Playboy Magazine—you’re still in the realm of fantasy because those people are sexually unattainable. Marylin Monroe, in the original Playboy, is not coming to actually have sex with you; you have to use her image to imagine her having sex. The stripper is not actually going to come down off the stage and have sex with the gross guys sitting around her waving money—or if she will, then that’s because she’s also a prostitute and not just a stripper.

But the woman in a hardcore pornography video isn’t just letting her body be used as an object of male fantasy. She’s having real sex, and having it not for herself or for her partner, but for you, the consumer. And unlike a model or even a stripper, she’s simultaneously advertising her more or less permanent availability. As long as you’re willing to pay her a sufficient amount of money, you can have sex with her too, in theory, because that’s what she does: she has sex for money.

Again, I’m not saying that masturbating to hardcore porn is identical to full-on physical intercourse. I’m just saying that it might be worth thinking a little bit harder about what’s actually going on in the case of someone who’s paying for streaming video content of hardcore sex and sits at home alone and masturbates to it. The New York magazine website does these anonymous sex diaries by ordinary New Yorkers, and there was one by this guy who was engaged. He would describe waking up in the morning next to his lovely fiancée and making love to her and so on and so forth. Then it gets to day three or four of the diary and his fiancée is gone for the night. He says, “I know I’m alone, so I log on to one of my favorite streaming adult sites. I crank the volume up loud and really enjoy myself.”

So if you’re that guy, what are you actually doing when you “really enjoy” yourself while your fiancé’s away. Well, you’re having a physical sexual experience, you’re masturbating to orgasm, presumably, you’re doing it in an intimate environment that approximates where you would actually have sex—in this case with his fiancée—and you’re doing it in a way where it involves actual sex on the part of other people.

And what effect does the financial component have?

Well, you don’t have to pay for Internet porn—you can get it for free—but a lot of people pay. There wouldn’t be hardcore pornography on the Internet more broadly if a lot of people weren’t paying for it. But it’s a separate moral argument as to whether it’s okay to pay for sex—an essay for another time, I suppose. You could remove the financial aspect from hardcore porn and the cheating on your wife aspect would still be there.  The only reason the paying angle is important is because it throws the issue into relief, by making the parallel between hiring a prostitute and hiring, in some sense, a porn star more transparent. What do we call having sex for money when it isn’t pornography? We call it prostitution. What do we think of prostitution’s relationship to marriage? Well, we think men who visit prostitutes are cheating on their wives. So what do we think of men who employ porn stars to reach sexual release? Well …

You mentioned Playboy a moment ago. We had an interesting article a couple of years ago by Jon Zobenica about the Playboy approach to pornography—the “adult” Hugh Hefner model of drinking fine wine and reading William F. Buckley Jr. while looking at naked women. I wonder if you think there’s any superiority to that kind of porn.

Sure: if you think there’s a moral continuum involved in these things, you have to be willing to say that looking at Playboy is not as bad as watching hardcore pornography, absolutely. I don’t know if “superiority” is the right word to describe it—a lesser evil, maybe. There’s a place where pornography shades into art, obviously, which is why one of the arguments that’s made about why it’s impossible to restrict porn is that the line between porn and art isn’t really clear. At a certain place that becomes true—but I don’t think that becomes true in the case of Playboy magazine.

You’ve talked about how looking at pornography is mainly a male phenomenon. But women read romance novels that can range from fairly innocent Harlequin books to extremely sexually explicit stories by Anaïs Nin. For a lot of women, that’s more of a turn-on than watching what seems to be really cheap, badly produced porn. Would you consider it adulterous to read hardcore descriptions of sexual acts and use that as a fantasy?

I think the level of reality that exists with hardcore porn just isn’t present in that kind of thing: The crucial distinction is that you aren’t implicating another person in the act. It’s sort of an absurd example, but the closest equivalent of hardcore pornography for women who are more turned on by the written word than by visuals might be paying a stranger, or strangers, to write them sexy love letters all the time. I think that a lot of husbands, if they found out that their wife was paying $25 a month to get really sexy love letters, would feel more betrayed than if they found out their wife was reading Harlequin romances—for much the same reason that I think a wife should feel more betrayed by a hardcore porn subscription than by, say, a Maxim subscription.

In your piece, you quote a line spoken by Jesus in the Book of Matthew: “Every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Other traditions go to great lengths to keep married people from being tempted, but this idea that the temptation itself is adultery seems to be a Christian one. Do you think you would have come to this conclusion independently, or do you think you were informed by your tradition?

The fact that I’m a Christian no doubt had an influence on my thinking on this issue. On the other hand, the argument that I’m making in this piece is not the argument that Jesus himself is actually making. In fact, it’s very different. Jesus is casting a very wide net, and saying that everything that partakes of infidelity, from intercourse to lusting in your heart, should be described as adultery. I’m trying to draw distinctions between different forms of infidelity and figure out how they line up on the continuum—and then say that while a lot  people think of porn as akin to lusting in your heart,  really it’s closer to physical sex. It’s absurd to assign numbers, obviously, but for the sake of argument, if there were a 1-to-8 scale where lusting in your heart was a 1 and having sex with your neighbor was an 8, I think a lot of people would instinctively say, “Hardcore porn—that’s a 3 or 4,” whereas I’m saying its maybe a 6 or a 7.

On your blog, you’ve made a strong case for enforcing prostitution law. Does pornography have any place in this discussion?

No. I don’t think we’re at a point in American life especially where we’re having an argument about whether pornography should be banned or whether it should be allowed. I think we’re now one step beyond that—we’ve gone from saying that porn is bad, but that it should be tolerated, to saying that it isn’t bad at all. And that’s what I’m trying push back against. The problem with where we are right now with pornography is not that Americans are surrounded by temptation and sometimes give in to it. It’s that there’s a tendency to cease to regard it as a temptation.

I think that it’s unrealistic to imagine that pornography will ever vanish. But there has to be a balance between idealism and realism—there have to be ideals that we hold up, even knowing that most people won’t live up to them.