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Is Using P-rnography Considered Cheating on a Partner?

Let’s consider this changed-to-protect-writer’s-identity question, as a springboard to address some issues that arise for couples around this subject:

“I recently found p-rnographic material downloaded on my husband’s laptop. I wasn’t looking for it; we just often use whichever laptop is around to check email or shop. But when I discovered it accidentally, I was shocked and upset- that’s not who I thought he was. When I confronted him about it, not only didn’t he apologize, but he got mad at me! He said a whole bunch of cruel things, which I’m not sure he means, but he seems serious: He said that I had no business being on his laptop, that there’s nothing wrong with p-orn, that there’s no difference between that and the romance novels I read. He said that I need to get out of the Dark Ages, because everyone he knows uses p-rn anyway. He said that he felt violated and controlled by my reaction, and that I’m the one with the problem. He added that maybe if I was more attuned to his needs in the bedroom, he wouldn’t need to look for more stuff online.

"I feel so confused and hurt. This is so unlike him, so unlike us. This never came up before, so I had no idea he was doing this, no idea he wasn’t satisfied with our bedroom life. We use each other’s devices all the time, and I assumed that was normal, but maybe I misunderstood something. I always thought that p-rn was for other people- not religious people in committed long term relationships. But he’s telling me I’m completely clueless. I feel like I suddenly don’t even know my own husband- and I’m starting to question my own judgement. I’m still so upset at him, but he’s upset at me too- am I the one in the wrong here?”

There are multiple layers and issues to unravel here.

One of the unique challenges of couples in the digital era, is confronting how the widespread use of and access to p-rnograpy and its normalization play into relationships.

The first issue raised is that this wife “found it.” This touches on two important themes: Privacy and secrecy.

Privacy is a healthy boundary, and even within happy couples, it’s appropriate to have some boundaries, such as not reading a partner’s diary or journal unless invited to do so. The question of whether couples should have access to each other’s devices in general is subjective. But whatever you decide, it should be agreed upon clearly. If you both want privacy, (or even just one of you does) then that should be respected. If you both don’t mind if the other uses your device, that can work too. (I do think couples should generally not read each other’s messages from other people, simply because that honors the privacy of the person who wrote the message; it was intended for the recipient, not necessarily a spouse.)

Secrecy is when one partner is deliberately withholding specific information. “Good secrets” could be things like planning a surprise, or someone’s good news that isn’t ready to go public yet, like an imminent proposal or early pregnancy. But toxic secrets include incidents like extramarital affairs- sexual or emotional, big financial losses of or purchases with joint money without discussing it, or major decisions about children that should be the domain of both parents.

What are their marital boundaries?

If this couple had already discussed and determined that they were okay with p-rn use for both of them, and then she happened to find it on his computer, there probably wouldn’t have been this sense of betrayal. Even if they’d discussed and approved it hypothetically, but just assumed neither ever used it, the fact that it had been agreed upon would have likely mitigated the shock and hurt somewhat.

If they’d previously discussed p-rn and agreed that it’s not an acceptable outlet in their relationship, and committed to abstain from it, then the husband might not have been as taken aback by her reaction or as defensive about his position.

But like many couples, it sounds like it hadn’t been previously discussed. And the wife, coming from a position that married and/ or religious people should avoid it for clear moral and marital reasons, assumed that he felt the same way.

We don’t know whether he always just assumed that they both had casual, permissive feelings about it, or that he also kind of assumed it was vaguely wrong, but maybe “not so wrong” so that when he did start using it, he justified it under the rationale of “well, we never said we wouldn’t.”

The broader question of whether p-rn is a form of cheating really depends on how you define cheating. Generally, infidelity entails both a breach of the marital boundary, and some sort of secrecy.

As an extreme example: In an “open marriage” (a marriage where both parties agree to a nonexclusive sexual relationship) then extramarital encounters which they all know about wouldn’t be considered cheating. (Note: this arrangement is not something I would recommend.)

At the opposite extreme: If a husband hired a very attractive, young female assistant with whom he worked closely all day, and deliberately withheld that information from his wife, then even if nothing sexual happened between them, but the wife found out about it some other way, the secrecy about it could provoke suspicion in her, and feel like a betrayal.

P-rnography vs Romance Novels:

To the point of comparing p-rn to romance novels, there are several important distinctions. The first is the secrecy, as discussed earlier. The second is that romance novels are written words, not pictures and videos of actual nude humans, and they have different psychological and neurological effects. And the third is that depending on the nature of the books vs the p-rnography, the messaging about sexuality, bodies, and pleasure, and how they impact the consumers can be very different too.

For example (and this is admittedly a generalization, so there are exceptions: Romantic material often amplifies the intimacy of sexuality, and inspires the reader to turn to a partner for sexual closeness, while the arousal p-ornography typically creates is a more objectified, self-centered version of s-x, and often either depletes or taints eroticism with a real partner.)

With all that, if a couple wants to negotiate an agreement to refrain from any erotic or romantic material at all, even written, for religious or personal reasons, that would be their prerogative as well.

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge..."

The husband’s argument that “everyone uses p-rn” is culturally subjective. The popularization and the normalization of digital p-rnography is only about a generation old. It would appear that significantly more people use it than would admit so publicly or even privately. But there are certainly still plenty of communities, families, and individuals who still consider it completely forbidden- religiously and/ or culturally. Even if it is so widespread as to be considered mainstream, that doesn’t make it healthy, moral, or advisable for people or marriages. And it’s still certainly valid to hope that your spouse wouldn’t use it.

Was this blaming the victim?

The line suggesting her not “meeting his sexual needs” as the reason he turns to p-rn feels disingenuous, particularly if he never expressed to her that he wanted more. I believe that adults should take responsibility for our own behavior. If you want to work on your sexual relationship, this can be requested of a partner. If you choose to indulge in explicit entertainment, even if it’s in part, to explore what you don’t have in real life, then take ownership of that decision and the consequences.

Part of the "culture wars"

Our Western culture, including the zeitgeist in the mental health field, has been moving progressively tolerant of and even pro- p-rnography. It is often touted as not only normative but healthy, creative, and liberating. Yet there are still many who believe that it is generally detrimental, both as an industry and an entertainment genre, and often to relationships. But even for those who believe it can be a helpful tool to boost desire and passion, if there is secrecy, that would would still be a relational issue.

Religious and moral tension:

The writer’s mention of p-rnography as not behooving a religious person touches on a complex cultural reality. I don’t claim to speak for all religious people, but I imagine few would argue that p-rnography is a distinctly unholy depiction of s-xuality. While most Biblically educated people could easily quote multiple verses and sources upon which to base these values, there is often a dichotomy between doctrine and practice. Very few religious people are perfectly adherent to every detail of what they believe is right. Some strive to be, and when they find themselves veering from it, they try to self-correct. But many others give themselves allowances, opining: “Yes, I recognize that something may be a religious imperative in general, but it’s not a standard to which I choose to hold myself.”

This distinction is an example of what is called ego dystonic behavior – acting against one’s own beliefs and values, as opposed to the husband’s presentation in the case above which is ostensibly ego syntonic behavior- acting in a way that is in harmony with one’s beliefs and values.

[IE Dystonic: “I don’t believe it’s right for me to watch this, but sometimes I do anyway, and then I feel guilty, so I’m trying to stop.

Syntonic: “I don’t see this as something that I need to feel bad about or try to stop doing.”]

All this to say that a particular activity may be deemed religiously objectionable, but that doesn’t mean that all people who identify as religious will definitely abstain from it, or even believe they need to.

Other objections to p-rnography:

Some other common criticisms of p-rnography include reports of unethical, and often unsafe treatment of actors, including the concern that some are trafficked, unrealistic depiction of human bodies, relationships, and sexual activity, desensitization of viewers to s-xual violence and general stimulation, and the engendering of distorted expectations in viewers of themselves and partners in real life.

Perhaps the most disturbing development, both within the industry and the viewing demographic, is the alarming proliferation of what was previously called child p-rnography but is now referred to child s-xual abuse material.

There is little question that this industry dramatically influences the public’s perception of their own bodies and experiences, as well as their partners’ and generally not in favorable ways.

Can it become an addiction?

Another controversy regarding p-rnography is whether, when, or how it can be viewed as a form of addiction. I’ve heard some mental health professionals argue that “there is no such thing as p-rnography addiction, no such thing as s-x addiction” while others proactively seek specialized training and additional letters after their names in order to treat these “addictions.” I think it depends on how you define addiction. Simply engaging in a form of self-gratification due to temptation doesn’t intrinsically make it an addiction; we would still need to consider frequency, dependency, and effects. But regardless of the clinical terminology, we have many thousands of individuals who struggle with using p-rnography despite their own ego dystonic sense of either not wanting to use it at all, or feeling frustrated that they are using it more often than they want to be.

In any event, we should speak respectfully:

One more observation about the husband’s (alleged) tone in this case: His remark that his wife should “get out of the dark ages” sounds pejorative, and regardless of what a couple might be debating, spouses should endeavor to speak to one another with respect and empathy, and try to avoid sarcasm or passive aggression.

So returning to the original question:

Is p-rnography considered cheating?

It certainly can be, but it depends, mostly on the commitment terms and beliefs of the partners involved. There are different kinds of betrayal. For example: an “emotional affair,” where one partner engages in an emotionally intimate relationship external to the partner, is an example of a marital breach without physical touch. This can occur in person, or via phone, texting, or online platforms. A spouse kissing another person passionately, but stopping there, is a form of physical betrayal, without intercourse. A one-night stand is a betrayal, but a long-term relationship-affair incorporates both emotional and sexual betrayal. Using p-rnography is not the same degree of physical risk or betrayal as a partner engaging in a live, human, s-xual relationship with another person. But if there is that secrecy component, or a sense of transgressing the presumed boundaries of exclusivity, then the betrayal can affect the relationship in a similar way to an affair. Particularly if the viewer then begins comparing the partner to the p-rn, or requesting s-x acts and bedroom attire that feel uncomfortable or disrespectful to her, or loses interest in real life sexual activity altogether. [To clarify: it can be healthy and intimate for partners to discuss their own fantasies or desires; the problem is when it’s being driven by or compared to an unfair or unkind standard, especially if it feels vulgar or demeaning to the spouse.]

Fidelity and its reverse exist along a spectrum. Strong, healthy, loving marriages strive to honor their exclusivity in ways they agree upon. I strongly recommend that couples discuss and develop a consensus about their beliefs, values, and boundaries about this early in the relationship.

In the case above, the husband asserts that he’s entitled to use p-rn, so he seems to express no remorse or empathy for his wife. In other cases, the partner may apologize and express regret and desire/ commitment to stop. The beliefs and emotional positions of the partners involved, as well as the other resources of their foundational relationship, will help determine if and how an episode like this can be resolved.

*Some words are modified to avoid this post being flagged as inappropriate content

** If you'd like to learn more about healthy, holy sexuality education, see this:

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