Is watching pornography a form of cheating? It depends

Pornography is a hot-button issue of the day, and every season, more states add themselves to the list of legislatures that have declared pornography, and Internet pornography, to be a public health crisis. Often, these legislative efforts identify pornography as having blanket negative effects on people, and especially on couples. Historically, many have claimed that porn use causes divorce and marital difficulties on the basis of pretty sloppy data and research. Recent research is finding that the effects of porn on marriage vary greatly, depending upon some characteristics of the marriage and the porn use. Nonreligious couples who watch porn together seem to be quite well insulated from experiencing any negative effects from porn use.

But, isn’t watching porn the equivalent of cheating—getting sex outside the marriage? Dr. Phil has suggested that watching porn is “not OK” and likely opens the door to cheating. Antiporn group Fight the New Drug proclaims that watching porn is cheating, because it feels like it, and because of oxytocin. (They suggest that watching porn releases oxytocin in the brain, which causes you to “bond” with the porn, rather than your real life partner). And the explicitly religious organization Covenant Eyes declares that using porn is cheating, because it is “engagement with a digital prostitute despite one’s vow to forsake all others.”

So now, research sheds some interesting light on this question, and helps to reveal that not all people view porn use as cheating—in fact, most don’t. And further, the people who do view porn as cheating tend to be a certain group of people.

Negy, et al. recently published research where they examined people’s attitudes about porn and cheating. They also compared respondents in the U.S. to respondents from Spain. First, a very large portion respondents in both the U.S. (73%) and Spain (77%) believe that porn use is not cheating.

Things get really interesting when Negy and researchers examine what characteristics predict a person’s viewing porn as cheating. First, being from the U.S., compared to Spain, was associated with viewing porn as cheating. So were being single (not in a relationship at the time) or being a person who doesn’t watch porn. Finally, people who have low self esteem are more likely to view porn use as cheating, but only if they are from the U.S. Interestingly, there weren’t any gender differences. Women were not more likely than men, across the board, to view porn as cheating.

So what’s going on here? Well, when people are not in a relationship, they may be more likely to have idealistic and more rigid views about what constitutes cheating than those who are currently in a relationship and who may have somewhat more pragmatic, accepting, and realistic views.

People who watch porn tend to have less concern and fear about the impact of porn than those who don’t. Other researchers have found that couples in which one or both partners use porn commonly report that it has “no negative effects” or positive effects on their relationships.

What about the U.S. vs. Spain comparison? First, the U.S. has much stronger, negative and rigid negative attitudes about infidelity, compared to Spain and many other European countries. What was even more interesting in this research however, was the finding that in respondents from the U.S., being religious also predicted the view that porn is cheating, whereas Spanish respondents showed no effect of religiosity. About 70% of Spaniards identify as Catholics, but only around 9% of the citizens attend church at least monthly.  In contrast, as much as 42% of Americans attend church weekly. Multiple studies on the effects of porn find that it is attendance of church services, rather than identification as religious, which appear to be mediating variable on the impact of porn on a person and relationship.

In general, Europeans, and Spanish Catholics, tend to be less punitive about sex in general, and also less dogmatic and energized about their religion, compared to many U.S. evangelical church-goers. These differences probably lie at the root of these interesting findings, affecting how people from different cultures view their religion and sexuality.

So, is watching porn cheating? It depends. If you are from the U.S., attend church, don’t watch porn yourself and are currently single, then yes, it’s pretty likely you will judge watching porn as a form of cheating.

But, what if you’re wondering if your partner will view watching porn as cheating? Should you run through a demographic checklist?

No: You should ask your partner, and talk to them about their views of porn and infidelity in general (such as whether a behavior like talking to an ex on Facebook is seen as a betrayal). This is an important conversation that far too few couples have, usually because they’re scared of what they might hear, or what cans of worms might get opened. Most people don’t view porn use as cheating—so your odds are pretty good, actually. But if they find out you are watching porn in secret, or have lied about it, then there are issues of secrecy and deception to deal with. If you start to talk about your sexual and relational values, then you can start to have a deeper, more accepting, honest relationship, where you can even discuss issues such as sexual privacy, or how the two of you might deal with temptations of infidelity. Ultimately, these are foundations that build strong relationships, whether porn is involved or not.

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