Is Porn a Form of Cheating?

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Robert Weiss PhD, LCSW, CSAT

As our lives, including our romantic and sexual relationships, have increasingly moved into the digital arena, the once clear line between being faithful and cheating has, in some respects, gone blurry. One of the more common gray areas involves pornography.

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had one or both halves of a couple ask: Does porn count as cheating? Usually, the porn user thinks it doesn’t, and the porn user’s partner thinks it does.

Often, the porn user will say things like:

  • I’m only looking at it. I’m not even masturbating.
  • It’s not like I’m looking at real people that I’m going to meet and run off with.
  • My dad looked at Playboy. This is no different.
  • I love my partner and think he/she is sexy. This has nothing to do with him/her.
  • I only look at it once in a while. It doesn’t impact my relationship at all.

The porn user’s partner often disagrees with these justifications – especially the last one, that using porn does not impact the user’s primary relationship. Either way, both parties want to know: Is live, in-person contact required for cheating, or does virtual sexual behavior also count?

A few years ago, to answer this question, Drs. Jennifer Schneider, Charles Samenow, and I conducted a survey of women whose husbands were engaging in significant amounts of sextracurricular activity, either online or in the real world, with the most common online behavior involving pornography. The most important finding of our study was that when it comes to the negative effects of one partner being sexual outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, online and in-person behaviors are no different. The betrayed partner feels the same emotional pain, loss of control, and loss of trust either way.

The results of this study confirmed my long-standing belief that no matter what type of extracurricular sex you’re having, it’s the lies and secrets that hurt the most. This means that it’s not any specific sexual act that does the most damage to a relationship, it’s the emotional distancing, the sense of betrayal, and the loss of relationship trust. Based on this knowledge, I have crafted the following definition of infidelity.

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

Please notice that this definition of cheating 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. Please also notice 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, I ask you to notice that this definition is flexible depending on the couple. It lets you and your partner define your personal version of sexual fidelity based on honest discussions and mutual decision-making.

This means that it might be just fine for one partner to look at porn (or to engage in some other form of extramarital sexual activity) as long as the other partner knows about this behavior and is OK with it. If, however, one partner is looking at porn (or engaging in some other form of extramarital sexual activity) and keeping it secret, or if the other partner knows about it and doesn’t find it acceptable, the behavior is cheating.

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If you or someone you care about is struggling with porn addiction, help is available. Seeking Integrity offers inpatient treatment for sex and porn addicts, as well as low-cost online workgroups. At the same time, SexandRelationshipHealing.com offers a variety of free webinars and drop-in discussion groups, podcasts, and more.