Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

— Winston Churchill

Infedelity. Shades of Gray?

A well-written article by Ross Douthat in this month’s edition of The Atlantic asks, “Is Pornography Adultery?”

“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?…”

In 1994 we didn’t have streaming video but we had an avalanche of phone sex. Just as 900 was becoming synonymous with naughtiness, I opened a phone bill to find more than $2,000 in long distance charges. Of course there had to be a billing error, I explained to the phone company. They agreed to suspend the charges and investigate the account.

A sympathetic customer service rep called a few days later to explain the charges were legitimate. Someone was dialing 900 numbers from my home telephone. The calls, she explained, were for phone sex.

My marriage was already in chaos and when I confronted my previous husband, waving page after page of evidence in his face, he looked in my eyes with complete conviction, and he denied any wrong doing. I wanted to believe him, and I even took the phone company to task by refusing to pay the charges.

We started locking the door to our apartment. Maybe a friend or relative was using our phone when we weren’t home. Anything seemed plausible as long as I didn’t have to face the truth. That cold-water shower came two weeks later when I opened my business phone bill. Late at night someone had been sneaking into the toy store I owned and was obviously participating in activities that simply shouldn’t take place in a space dedicated to making children smile. Only a few days lapsed before I handed him my wedding ring and told him to leave.

Did I feel like my previous husband committed adultery? Was his indiscretion the reason our marriage ended? No. Our marriage was a battle ground and the phone sex was just one explosive, one of many proverbial straws. The fact that he lied, that he stood back and watched while I argued with the phone company about whether or not the charges were legitimate; that he allowed me to humiliate myself to protect his secret. Those selfish acts hurt more than his fantasies about an anonymous woman on the other end of a phone connection. But then again, adultery by its very nature includes two universal elements: sex & lies.

Did I feel like he cheated? Yes but I didn’t feel like he’d committed adultery. He cheated on several fronts, but in 1994 popular culture, divorce documents and the boys-will-be-boys shoulder shrug didn’t allow for the argument, “He cheated on me with a phone.”

Douthat points out that that the definition of adultery includes a physical act, “voluntary sexual intercourse” between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse, but he goes on to make a clear and compelling argument that with today’s technology, the fantasy-versus-reality landscape continues to blur…

“…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.”

Is engaging with pornography adulterous—what do you think?

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12 comments to Infedelity. Shades of Gray?

  • I think it depends. My husband looks at porn on the internet sometimes and it doesn’t bother me. If he looked at it constantly and it seemed to be effecting other areas of our life it would definitely bother me, but I don’t think simply looking at a picture of a naked woman on occasion is adultery.

  • I really think it depends. And I say that because I believe that when you lie about it or actively hide it then you are cheating. If it is more than every once in a while and you are more engaged in it than your marriage, its a problem. But there is a lot of subjectivity to it.

    WickedStepMoms last blog post..Stop it, You’re Embarrassing Me!

  • I think that anything a spouse does that makes him/her lustful toward a person other than his/her spouse is adultery. Excusing someone looking at pornographic images is just opening a door that doesn’t need to opened, in my opinion. It’s kind of like the young serial killer who starts out by torturing small animals. It can lead to bigger, much worse things.

    HeatherPrides last blog post..Ike, You are One Sneaky S.O.B.

  • I thought you might like a man’s view on this.

    I agree what your ex did was wrong. He lead you into a lie and did not upfront admit to you his needs. My first wife and I were the same. She did not approve, yet she knew that on occasion I viewed it. We divorced because of her infidelity. When I married again, I was upfront with my wife and told her that I enjoyed viewing pornography on occasion. Though she was not one to do it, she now knows its something I enjoy and willingly incorporates into our sex life at times.

    My wife knows that I would not physically cheat on her. My ex did that and I know first hand how devistating that was. She also knows that what I view be it on the internet or DVD is just a fantasy that brings a spark into our bedroom.

    Mikes last blog post..Good Neighbors, Good People

  • Tricia

    Mike, thanks for chiming in. The slippery slope theory certainly turned an opposite corner in your first marriage. I’m so sorry. I do think there are shades of gray and the lying and sneaking around that can accompany pornography is what makes it feel like infidelity, it’s not necessarily the viewing.

  • I agree, no sneaking around allowed at my house. Above board and being truthful. Sometimes it takes the second time around to learn a lesson. Men aren’t always bright enough to figure it out right away. We try though…

    Mikes last blog post..Good Neighbors, Good People

  • It feels like infidelity to me. Not as cut and dry as sleeping with someone in a hotel room or carrying on. But mentally, emotionally, he wasnt with you and therefore, not completely present in the relationship…he should have been talking to you instead of going off in that direction. I like it when a man says “great sex scene in this movie!” and share with me why or whatever, because it helos me know where his mind is and he likes it when I know where his mind is.

    stepping over the junks last blog post..Fudge-stick-ulls and other experiments

  • Jen

    I think the issue is more lying than infidelity. I don’t think porn, in itself is cheating. It’s about breaking the boundaries in your marriage. I do very much think there are shades of gray in cheating in general terms – but it has to be black and white within the marriage. Now, I don’t care if my hubby wants to look at porn sites – I DO care if he tries to hide it from me. If I didn’t want him to look at them, and he did, I’d consider it cheating in all likelihood (not entirely sold on this yet, since I haven’t been there!).

    Jens last blog post..Let me just say……..

  • I’d have to agree with Jen- I don’t think watching porn would constitute infidelity. Guys like porn, I’ll never understand it, but it is what it is. If my husband lied about it, well, that’s something else entirely. I’d be furious… not about the porn watching, but the lying.
    Great post!!!

    Sam (The Edge Of Insanity)s last blog post..Weekly Winners… That’s The Point (Of A Sharpie)

  • Kit Little


    I’m glad to see that you’re still blogging…and touching on some touchy subjects too! I hope that you’re okay…let me know if/when you might want to get together. I miss ya!


    Please don’t think that I’m harrassing you – I just miss your…everything…

  • I don’t think watching porn is infidelity, but if it interferes with communication or physical interaction you would normally have as a couple, then it can be a problem. Most guys are not substituting fantasy for reality, they’re just privately enjoying the fantasy itself.

    I read an article not long ago that equated the popularity of women’s romance novels with pornography. It basically proposed that most men would rather watch a fantasy, while most women prefer to read a fantasy. I’ll have to hunt down a link.

    Dougs last blog post..The Low Art of Car Buying, Part Deux

  • Oh good topic. I can’t think like a man (usually a good thing) so I don’t fully get WHY watching porn is such a seeming important activity fo them, but I sure get that they do. Infidelity takes more than passive viewing. It’s an interactive thing. As soon as there’s any sexual communication, it’s cheating. Phone sex and cybersex are interactive and to me, total deal-breakers. The lies, as with anything else are too. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

    Hilarys last blog post..Non Trivial Pursuits

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