Is Watching Porn A Form of Infidelity?
Many patients ask this question. Here's why I don't answer.
Posted Aug 23, 2019
“Doc, you tell us–Is watching porn a form of infidelity?”
This is not a helpful question. In fact, I think it’s the wrong question. But women and men keep asking it, so let me answer it here.
The simple answer is, it all depends on how you define infidelity.
I. Many people define infidelity as having sex with another person outside a sexually exclusive relationship. People of course disagree on what “having sex” means, but almost everyone agrees that it involves an actual person. Some people refine that further to include or exclude sex workers, but “actual person” for them is key.
In this case, watching porn is not infidelity. A partner may not like it for various reasons (moral, political, ick factor), but generally won’t claim it’s infidelity.
II. Other people define infidelity more broadly, including sharing sexual energy outside the primary relationship, or having sexual satisfaction outside the couple. It’s vague enough that it covers just about everything, which I think is the point of this kind of definition. It’s sort of “I know it (infidelity) when I see it. And watching porn is infidelity.”
Another aspect of this second definition is “anything erotic or sexy that you don’t want me to know about is infidelity.” In that case, watching porn is infidelity. And it’s one reason people hide it so much.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a porn watcher say “I hide it because it’s a form of infidelity.” No, if anyone believes porn-watching is infidelity, it’s always the non-watcher (unless the porn-watcher has decided he's a "porn addict"). People hide their porn watching not because they think it’s wrong, but because they believe their partner will be angry if they find out and they want to avoid that.
So is porn-watching infidelity? It depends on how you define infidelity.
Some people approach this question less theoretically and more practically: “he masturbates to porn instead of having sex with me. That makes it infidelity.”
This is a common enough perspective. The pain these people are in is genuine.
But most people who say this incorrectly assume there’s a cause-and-effect: that he doesn’t have sex with me BECAUSE he masturbates to porn. This expresses the popular idea that a woman is in competition with porn for her mate’s attention.
And this simply isn’t so. That’s like saying the cooking channel is in competition with eating. Obviously, people would rather eat than watch glamorous cooking—IF they like what’s available to eat, and it isn’t too emotionally or logistically expensive.
And so with sex. Masturbation with porn is no competition for uncomplicated partner sex that a person can enjoy. But problematic sex—or a person’s inability to enjoy partner sex—can make masturbation with porn look like the best available option.
So what can make sex problematic? Here are just a few of the things that people say about partner sex:
~ The sex is boring or frustrating ~ The sex is physically painful ~ My erection is unreliable ~ If I don’t climax (or climax inside her) she gets upset ~ We quarrel a lot, and I don’t feel close to her ~ She doesn’t seem terribly interested ~ She doesn’t enjoy it ~ I’m not attracted to her ~ We can’t agree on birth control ~ There’s never a good time for us ~ Whenever we have sex we argue ~ Somehow sex is always so complicated
In addition, here are a few of the internal complications that can make masturbating to porn seem like the best erotic option:
~ I don’t like sex with a partner ~ I don’t want to feel that close to her, or have her feel that close to me ~ I feel so inept with women (or her) that I’d rather not have sex ~ I feel so anxious or guilty about sex (or sex with her) that I’d rather not do it ~ Partner sex reminds me of having been molested, or badly treated in a previous relationship
Any of these (and many people have more than one) can make partner sex more complicated, scary, aggravating, and less interesting no matter how much you trust or care for the other person.
It’s easy to imagine that Asperger’s Syndrome; an anxiety disorder such as OCD; ongoing depression; PTSD; distorted body image; perfectionist, self-critical narcissism; and a dozen other emotional states make responding to an intimate partner terrifying or maddening.
Thus, the converse is often true: for many men, masturbating with OR without porn is less anxiety-provoking and conflictual than partner sex. Masturbating can be an experience imbued with the confidence, sense of empowerment, sense of choice, and simple pleasure that most people would like to have with partner sex, but can't.
For men with these various considerations about sex, masturbating (again, with OR without porn) is a seemingly low-cost solution to a wide range of sexual difficulties, including unreliable erection and ambivalence about sex or intimacy. For such men, porn can make masturbating even more soothing and engaging (although the secrecy can lead to its own anxiety).
Living such a life—unsatisfying partner sex, relationship conflict, a complicated seven-day work-and-parenting routine, internal issues like anxiety or depression—the amount of partner sex a person (male or female) wants won’t be determined by the amount they masturbate, with or without porn. Most humans are not quite so simple as that.
In my clinical experience, most women don’t like hearing this. They’d much rather believe that some alien being or energy has kidnapped their mate’s sexuality, and that if their mate would just struggle enough to get free, he would come bounding back into the couple’s bed.
Ah, if only.
No, life’s more complicated than that. And so rather than saying “you’re being unfaithful with your porn whores (and right hand),” a woman (or man) being honest might ask “Hmm, our sex life seems to have collapsed. I wonder what we should do about it?”
This takes courage. It’s never enjoyable, and not always successful.
But arguing over the alleged infidelity of porn-watching avoids the real issue. The question isn’t Is porn watching bad? The question is:
(A) Do we want to get our sexual relationship back? (B) What are we willing to do to make that happen?
And if a partner’s answer to (A) is “meh,” or the answer to (B) is “uh, I dunno,” you then have to ask yourself an even more difficult question: now what?
In my experience, if a porn watcher thinks his partner’s agenda is to get him to stop watching porn, he defends himself and/or hides. If on the other hand her agenda is clearly for them to have more enjoyable sex, some of these men will head for the hills, while others of them will be ready to listen to what she says. They may not arrive at a compromise about porn, but they may end up with a better sex life.