Is Porn Cheating?

As a therapist who’s spent the better part of three decades treating sex and intimacy issues, especially infidelity, I can tell you that one of the most common bones of contention in heterosexual relationships is porn use. Usually, the wife or girlfriend views pornography as a form of infidelity, while the husband or boyfriend thinks it’s not. The man looks at porn, the woman find out, and the argument begins.

The women think and say:

  • This is the same as having an affair.
  • When you look at porn, it feels like you don’t love me.
  • How can I compete with the perfect bodies you stare at online?

The men think and say:

  • It’s not real sex, so it doesn’t count.
  • My dad looked at Playboy and it wasn’t a big deal, so neither is this.
  • Every guy does this. It’s normal, and you should cut me some slack.

So what’s the deal? Is it cheating or isn’t it?

In today’s increasingly digital world, the line between fidelity and infidelity is not nearly as clear as it used to be. Back in the day, cheating required actual physical sexual contact with another human being. If there was a debate, it was about whether one had to “go all the way,” or if things like holding hands, kissing, and heavy petting also counted as cheating. Nowadays we must deal with social media, texting, webcams, apps, and all sorts of other fuzzy issues. Not to mention online porn.

If you’re in a (supposedly) monogamous relationship, ask yourself the following (and please feel free to share your answers in the comments section below, as I am curious to know what readers think about these common relationship concerns):

  • If you’re chatting with an old flame of Facebook, are you cheating?
  • If you’re flirting (or being sexual) on a webcam or via text, is that cheating?
  • Does sexting count as infidelity? What if you only receive a sext, but don’t send one?
  • If you’ve got Ashley Madison on your phone but never use it, are you cheating?
  • If you go on dating sites or apps for fantasy purposes but don’t ever hook up, is that infidelity?

Honestly, the fidelity/infidelity gray areas are almost endless. And with every new advance in digital technology, we get more of them. So, once again, where do we draw the line? My answer is that the actions that do and don’t count as cheating depend on the couple. To understand this, you must first understand my digital-age definition of infidelity:

Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.

Please notice that this definition does not talk about porn, webcams, sexting, social media, hookup apps, strip clubs, one-night stands, prostitutes, affairs, or any other sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most in healthy relationships – emotional intimacy and trust. With infidelity, it’s not any specific sexual act that angers and hurts your betrayed partner the most, it’s the lying and the keeping of important secrets. After that, your significant other finds it hard to trust anything you say or do, and that is a painful realization for you both.

Note also that this definition is flexible, depending on the couple. Basically, couples are able to determine, via in-depth discussion and mutual agreement, the actions that do and don’t constitute cheating in their relationship. How their neighbors or their parents or society at large view things does not matter. If the couple decides that using porn is OK, perhaps with certain limitations on that usage, so be it. As long as neither party violates this openly discussed and mutually agreed upon boundary, the relationship has not been violated. With younger couples – people who tend to be more immersed in the digital universe – tech-based boundaries like this are actually relatively common.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what boundaries a couple agrees upon, as long as both parties are comfortable with those boundaries and neither party is lying or keeping important secrets about crossing those boundaries.

Another important facet of the above definition of infidelity is that it applies equally to digital and real life activities, which means you don’t need to have an in-the-flesh encounter to cheat. In 2012, Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Dr. Charles Samenow, and I conducted and published research on this very issue, surveying over 200 women in supposedly monogamous relationships whose male partners had engaged in and tried to cover up real world and/or online sexual activity outside the relationship. We found that when it comes to negatively impacting the relationship, there is no difference between digital and real world philandering. If porn use or some other online activity violates a couple’s explicit (or even implied) relationship boundaries, it is just as devastating to the betrayed partner as an in-the-flesh sexual encounter. The emotional pain, the sense of betrayal, and the loss of relationship trust feels exactly the same.

If you truly want to know if porn use is cheating, I suggest that you ask your partner. If your partner thinks it is, and that forces you to use porn in secret or to lie about what you’ve been doing, then you’re cheating. If, however, you and your partner can agree that looking at porn is OK, then you can do so with a clean conscience. The same goes for social media interactions, webcams, texting, sexting, apps, sexualized video games, and every other form of sexnology.

Admittedly, there are therapists out there who argue that if a man is using porn and his female partner has a problem with that, she is probably just too ashamed or moralistic to accept his sexual desires. What this position disregards is the betrayed spouse’s feelings and values, which are just as valid and important as the porn user’s. So even if she is being sensitive and conservative, that is her right. And if the porn user loves and respects her, he will accept this, and he will be open to discussing the matter with her in an open-minded way that leads to a mutually agreed-upon boundary (that may or may not allow his continued porn use). If, however, he simply blames her for being upset and accuses her of being “sex negative,” he devalues her sense of self, her feelings, and her opinion. And ultimately that is just as bad for the relationship as cheating.

So, once again, infidelity is not defined by a specific behavior. Instead, it is defined by the secrets that are kept, the lies that are told, and the damage that is done to emotional intimacy and relationship trust. The strongest, healthiest, and happiest relationships are built on communication and mutual trust. When the lines of communication are closed and trust is broken, one partner is bound to feel betrayed, used, taken advantage of, etc. And for that partner, the emotional pain associated with the loss of trust nearly always hurts more than whatever it is the cheater was trying to cover up.

For more information about infidelity and overcoming it after it’s been discovered, check out my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions – in particular sex, porn, and love addiction. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.

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