Does Using Porn Count as Infidelity?

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In today’s increasingly digital world, the line between sexual fidelity and cheating has blurred. One of the most common fuzzy areas is pornography. This uncertainty can create a significant amount of strife in committed monogamous relationships. Is porn cheating, or isn’t it?

Typically, the person who uses porn thinks that his or her behavior does not qualify as infidelity. He or she will say things like:

  • This is just a mental distraction, like reading a book or going on a hike. It has nothing to do with my relationship.
  • It’s not like I’m running off with real people for hookups or affairs. This is just for fun, and it doesn’t affect my relationship at all.
  • This is part of my private life. I’m married, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get to have a few things that are just for me.

Often, the porn user’s partner disagrees with these justifications, especially the idea that using porn does not impact the user’s primary relationship.

Several years ago, Drs. Rob Weiss, Jennifer Schneider, and Charles Samenow conducted research on that very topic – does online sexual activity impact a person’s primary relationship, and, if so, how. What they found was that when it comes to the negative relational impact of online versus real-world sexual activity outside the relationship, the impact is the same. The betrayed partner feels the same emotional pain, loss of control, and loss of trust with porn as with a real-world affair.

The study also found that no matter what type of sextracurricular activity is taking place, it’s not the actual sexual behavior that hurts the most; it’s the lies and secrets. This means that it’s not any specific sexual act (porn, strip clubs, affairs, webcams, or whatever) that does the most damage to a relationship, it’s the emotional distancing, the sense of betrayal, and the loss of relationship trust.

This knowledge prompted Dr. Rob Weiss to define infidelity in his book, Out of the Doghouse, as follows:

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

Dr. Weiss then notes that this definition does not speak specifically about affairs, pornography, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most in relationships: mutual trust. He also notes that this definition encompasses both online and real-world sexual behavior, as well as sexual and romantic activities that stop short of intercourse – everything from looking at porn to kissing to something as simple as flirting. Lastly, he points out that this definition is flexible depending on the couple.

When we’re talking about pornography, that last point is extremely important. A couple gets to decide, based on their own beliefs and values, what is OK and what is not OK in their relationship. Thus, it might be fine for one partner to look at porn, as long as the other partner knows about this behavior and is OK with it. If, however, one partner is looking at porn and keeping it secret, or if the other partner knows about it and doesn’t find it acceptable, then the behavior is cheating.

So, once again, cheating is less about the behavior and more about telling lies, keeping secrets, and breaking relationship trust. If one partner’s porn use is agreeable to both parties and not kept secret or covered up, it’s not cheating. Otherwise, it’s a betrayal of the relationship and counts as infidelity.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t discuss porn and how it fits or doesn’t fit within the bounds of their relationship. Instead, they agree that they are going to have a monogamous relationship, but they don’t define what that means. One partner may think about pornography as sex outside the relationship, but the other might not. In such cases, further conversation is needed. And even if porn is defined as acceptable within the relationship, the couple may need to define what qualifies (and does not qualify) as porn? Are camgirls and camboys (live online sex workers/performers) a form of porn, or not?

At the end of the day, what qualifies as porn is up to the couple, and whether porn is acceptable within the bounds of a relationship is up to the couple. But porn and porn-like behaviors do need to be discussed so the boundaries are clear. When these potential behaviors are not clearly and specifically discussed, problems can arise.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with pornography, free help is available at our sister website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com, and professional help is available at our Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles treatment center.