Recently, I opened my October issue of The Atlantic, which features an essay asking the very provocative question, “Is Pornography Adultery?”
As I read it, and contemplated the questions it was raising, I flashed back to when my son was little and I belonged to a moms group. About six women gathered once a week with our small kids. At one such meeting, at the home of a mom I’ll call Debbie, she announced with distress: “I came home the other day, and I caught my husband on the computer looking at porn!” It seemed like the other moms gasped. “I can’t believe it,” Debbie said. “It feels like such a betrayal!”
Every one chimed in sympathetically—except, I have to confess—me. It’s not that I wasn’t concerned that my friend was upset. I just didn’t understand why she was upset. What was the big deal, I thought? So what if a man decides to take a peek at some naked women? Aren’t men programmed for that kind of visual stimulus? Haven’t humans had an inclination to create erotic images since the time we lived in caves?
Debbie explained that the image on her husband’s computer screen just involved a naked woman, no underaged female (or boy) and no activity that looked too raunchy (sodomy; S&M, three-ways, etc.). She also said she had checked their credit card bills, and her husband had not racked up any charges to porn sites, so he probably was, at most, taking brief, occasional peeks.
I kept thinking, what’s the problem?
She said she found porn to just be degrading to women. Some moms nodded in agreement.
Another mom suggested, very reasonably, that Debbie talk to her husband and see what was going on with him, whether he was feeling stressed with work or family life or missing intimacy. Debbie admitted this could be the case. After all, she had given birth six months earlier to her second child. Her older child, a boy, was two and a half. So, she had her hands full. I could certainly understand that. I had just one child, and he kept me on my toes.
Throughout all this, I just tilted my head, gave a look of concern, but said nothing, because I kept thinking, even if Debbie and her husband’s love life is just fine, again, does it really matter if he looks at porn? Isn’t a man, or woman, entitled to their fantasies? To their own private thoughts and ways of escaping into those fantasies? Does marriage give you the right to control the thoughts of your spouse?
Then again, unlike Debbie, I had never faced this situation. Back then and now, to my knowledge, my husband doesn’t look at porn. If I found out he did, or he told me, I might shrug, and we’d even laugh about it. “Good for you,” I’d say. Or, “Tell me more about it.” Once we watched a soft-core porn movie together, and it was, shall I say, arousing.
But with the changing nature of the Internet, porn isn’t what it used to be, says Ross Douthat, an Atlantic senior editor who penned the essay asking where one crosses the line from porn into adultery. According to Douthat, porn viewers these days can enjoy more interactive experiences than they would have back when they could only gaze at photos of Playboy or Hustler.
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. 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.
The essay opens by describing the online dalliances of Peter Cook, who had been involved in a contentious and public divorce from the former supermodel Christie Brinkley. In addition to having a teenage mistress, Cook also dropped $3,000 a month on adult Web sites and posted nude photos of himself online, and even videos of himself masturbating. This evidence was introduced into court to show what a bad husband and father Cook was.
Douthat considered the supposedly addictive nature of Cook’s porn viewing habits, and brought up the long-held feminist view, echoed by Debbie, that porn is demeaning to women. He also mentioned other perspectives. One treats “porn as a kind of gateway drug—a vice that paves the way for more-serious betrayals.” Another, which goes along with my viewpoint, “treats porn as a harmless habit, near-universal among men, and at worst a little silly.”
I suppose you have to deal with each porn viewing case on an individual basis, and each person and couple has to make their own decisions about what’s acceptable and what’s not. My friend Debbie was bothered by what her husband was doing. It doesn’t matter that I thought she was working herself up over nothing. It matters what she feels and what she and her husband have worked out as ground rules in their marriage. And, for the record, if I found out my husband was pulling a Peter Cook, spending $3,000 a month on Adult Web sites and masturbating into a webcam, I’m not sure I would cry adultery, but I would be ick-ed out by the behavior and think he was being rather pathetic. My respect would falter. Yes, if my husband were doing a Peter Cook, I would say he was crossing a line of some sort, if not into adultery then into behavior that’s not something I can personally tolerate in a husband.
But how to define that line? Even for myself and my marriage? Well, I can always go back to what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 about the subjectivity one must apply in determining what is obscene and what is not: “I know it when it see it.”