Porn, Adultery & Marriage

Nov 13, 2008 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

The Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than most porn users would like to admit.

As an expatriate New York Giants and Mets fan, I rely on the New York Post to keep me informed about what's going on at the Meadowlands and in Flushing. (I'm also a Knicks fan but there's only so much aggravation I can take.)

The problem is that checking out the Post's website requires averting my eyes from the tabloid's headlines about some celebrity's "indiscretions" and the other sordid details splashed across Page Six. I'm tempted by what St. Augustine called curiositas: a "mental dispersion" and disordered "passion for knowledge," often flashy and empty, that diverts our attention from what's truly worthy of our attention.

Fortunately, other people don't have the same weakness, which is how I learned about an interesting (in a hopefully non-curiositas way) trendlet in celebrity culture: citing your soon-to-be ex-spouse's proclivity for pornography during divorce proceedings. Somehow, the fact that he (it's always a "he") spent $3000 a month on "adult" web sites, surfed for porn "when he was supposed to be taking care of [your] 5-year-old son" or "[cultivated] a taste for 'barely legal' porn sites" makes him even more of a jerk than he already is.

It is isn't only celebrities: as senior editor Ross Douthat tell us the October issue of Atlantic Monthly, according to a survey of matrimonial lawyers, "Internet porn plays a part in an increasing number of divorce cases."

All of which prompts Douthat to ask (and answer) a very good question: "Is pornography use a form of adultery?"

There are at least two reasons why your first answer might be "no." The obvious one is that you haven't touched the other person — you are not even in the same room as them. The other, less obvious ( if no less influential) reason lies in our attitudes towards pornography: The same ideas that "transformed adult-industry icons like Jenna Jameson and Ron Jeremy from targets of opprobrium into C-list celebrities" make it difficult to see the similarities between a married man paying $4000 for a call girl and his paying $10 to view a pornographic website.

But "difficult to see" isn't the same as "non-existent" or even "insignificant." It's only difficult because our the narrow and myopic way we look at the issue and, not coincidentally, marriage itself.

Instead of a legalistic approach that makes infidelity an "either/or proposition," Douthat suggests that we should instead regard infidelity "as a continuum of betrayal." If we do that, then we'll see that "the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would like to admit."

As Douthat argues, it's easy to see how former New York governor Elliot Spitzer's sleeping with a call girl is adultery. It shouldn't be that difficult to understand how if he had hired her to have sex with someone else while he sat in the room, watched and ... well, you know ... his actions constituted infidelity. Both acts belong "to the zone, broadly defined, of cheating on your wife."

That brings us to the question: "If it's cheating on your wife to watch while another woman performs sexually in front of you, then why isn't it cheating to watch while the same sort of spectacle unfolds on your laptop or TV?" Or put another way: How much moral difference does the amount you pay and where you are make?

To those who argue that porn constitutes a "normal outlet from the rigors of monogamy" and a less-destructive alternative to "real" prostitutes and affairs, Douthat replies that this "alternative" simply "universalizes" the "betrayal" and "degradation" that "only a minority of men have traditionally been involved in."

But it's only a betrayal if you share certain unstated assumptions about the nature of marriage which, increasingly, most people don't. An articulate spokeswoman for "most people" is Kerry Howley of Reason magazine. Howley doesn't regard using porn as "analogous to betrayal" because she thinks that "betrayal among adults" requires "some implicit agreement." She writes that in some "relationships" consuming porn is "disrespectful," while in others it's "nothing of a kind."

The use of the amorphous "relationships" rather than "marriages" is telling and appropriate. From a not-even-close-to-being-exclusively-Christian perspective, marriage is a basic human institution (arguably the basic human institution) whose impact is felt in almost every other aspect of human existence starting, of course, with human existence itself.

In contrast, a "relationship" is, as former New Republic television critic Lee Siegel put it, "not to be confused with a union," much less a marriage. Rather, it's "an ongoing argument between two stubbornly sovereign selves about the possibility of a union." An important goal of this "ongoing argument" is to arrive at "implicit agreements" about what constitutes betrayal, disrespect and breaches of faith.

Stated differently, marriage, in a not-even-close-to-being-exclusively-Christian understanding, is an institution that precedes the particular pairing, where the rules about what constitutes betrayal, disrespect and breaches of faith have been laid out by something and/or someone other than the couple. In this view, the use of hard-core porn is a betrayal regardless of what "our intuitions about intimacy" might be.

(The reason that marriages survive despite transgressions against the norms of fidelity isn't a "misbegotten contentment" that is ignorant of the spouse's "small treacheries" but anything from resignation to a willingness to forgive: Women may not feel "entitled" to demand more than nominal fidelity; they may not think that confronting him is worth the emotional cost; or they may think that his other qualities outweigh his failure in this area; but none of this changes the fact that he has broken a promise he made on their wedding day.)

On the other hand, the rules governing "relationships" (or Howley's other circumlocution, "monogamy") are of the couple's making since; to paraphrase Tolstoy, every relationship argues in its own way. I don't know about you, but the prospect of never-ending negotiations over what the basic terms of a relationship sounds like an especially-exhausting bit of hell to me.

While, as I said, this is by no means an exclusively-Christian understanding of marriage and fidelity, I don't expect non-Christian westerners to agree with me (or Douthat) — I expect Christians to.

Douthat quoted Jesus' words on the Sermon of the Mount — "I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" — and added that "even among Christians," Jesus' words are regarded "as a guideline for saintliness," rather than a guide "to ordinary sinners trying to figure out what counts as a breach of marital trust."

I know what Douthat meant: A lot of Christians tend to think (not in only in matters of sex) that the Sermon on the Mount is somehow optional rather than a description of the kind of people that we should "aspire to be." I can't begin to count the ways in which that's wrong, so I'll leave at this: At the very least, righteousness that surpasses that of the "scribes and Pharisees" requires more than being in a different room and staying within your budget.

Copyright 2008 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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