Women & Pornography

Porn and Marriage: Should We Treat Porn Like Cheating?

We’re tackling a tricky one this week as part of our Porn and Marriage series, so let’s just jump in.

Should We Consider Porn the Same as Cheating?

Here’s how the scenario seems to play out in a male struggler/female partner relationship. The woman catches the man watching pornography and the following conversation starts something like this:

How can you watch that stuff? Why are you choosing those women over me? I’m right here. Am I not good enough for you? You don’t really love me. You love those fake women on that screen.

What!? No! It’s not like that. Of course I love you. Of course I think you’re beautiful. 

Liar. If you really meant it, you would stop.

And the communication continues to degrade. The trust continues to erode, and the relationship continues to falter. Her response is one borne of betrayal, broken trust, and, often, fear.

In female struggler/male partner relationships, however, the response seems to be different. If a man catches his wife or girlfriend watching pornography (assuming he’s not supportive of this choice), his response tends to be condemning but for different reasons. Wives have shared stories with me of telling their husbands and hearing “I thought you were better than this.”

How can you watch that trash? What are you? Some kind of wh*#e? I didn’t marry a wh*#e. You lied to me. 

And it’s all, obviously, hurtful and confusing.

This is what happens when the most intimate private soul-tying encounter two people can experience is turned into a exploitive billion-dollar public commercial entertainment enterprise.

Hearts get messed up. Relationships get hijacked. People get hurt.

But how should we respond?

How is someone supposed to feel, react, or even do when their significant other is involved in pornography?

For decades, we’ve framed pornography as being identical to cheating. That’s not an exclusive attitude to the church. Women, in general, when they catch their male partners viewing pornography tend to view it the same as sleeping with someone. In some cases, it’s almost worse because we view porn stars and porn as fake (which it is).

At first brush, this isn’t an unreasonable perspective.

After all, pornography is often filmed from the man’s vantage point. It highlights the woman’s body. It idolizes the woman’s body while simultaneously objectifying it and idolizing the man’s sexual release. So it isn’t a huge leap of logic for women to believe that, in viewing pornography, a man is choosing those porn stars over her. She’s not being irrational.

The leap doesn’t seem to be as easily made when it’s the women who are the ones viewing pornography. That’s, in part, because of a larger narrative where we falsely believe women “don’t do this sort of thing.” Pornography isn’t “for women,” we think. After all, it highlights a woman’s body, not the man’s. It highlights a man’s sexual experience, not the woman’s.

What’s a husband supposed to believe? That his wife is choosing random women over him?

Perhaps that’s why it seems many husbands skip the “what’s wrong with me? Why would you choose them over me?” approach and go straight for the jugular. “Something is wrong with you.”

I think we need a different perspective.

The Effect May Be the Same

Pornography is a threat to intimacy, just like adultery (obviously) is. Because pornography is a sexual behavior, it makes sense that it would affect our sexual experience. I think it’s impossible for it not to. While it may seem completely unrelated to the offending partner, the offended one sees the two intertwined. Our bodies follow a similar pattern.

So, our natural response is to get it to stop. We want the cheating behavior to stop so that the relationship can be restored. We want to rebuild fences and reestablish safety. Any presence of outside lovers needs to be eradicated. Trust needs to be earned and loyalty proven by a complete desertion of “other lovers.” In other words, when faced with this situation, our initial reaction is almost always, “If you really love me, you’ll stop.”

However, the piece we’re often missing here is the pursuit of the heart. While the effect of pornography use may be the same, the heart motivation may be different.

A Quick Look at Matthew 5:28

For Christians, our proof text for arguing that pornography is the same as cheating always seems to be Matthew 5:28.

“but I say to you that everyone who [so much as] looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” {AMP}

Right there. Jesus says it. Porn is the same as adultery.

This verse and perspective has been used to justify divorce in marriages. It has been used to remove pastors from positions of leadership. Churches, families, careers, have fallen on the sword of this verse.

We interpret this to say that lust, and therefore pornography, is the same as cheating. We typically punish accordingly.

But is that really what He’s saying?

If you look at the entire passage, you’ll see that Jesus is in the middle of upsetting a spiritual apple cart. He’s making the point that we can’t be “perfect” enough to get into Heaven. He does that by pointing fingers at heart attitudes over actions.

Growing up, my mom used to often say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Well, in this context, when it comes to righteousness before God, Jesus is saying, “What you think in your heart matters as much as what you do.”

So what if you’ve never actually slept with another woman. If you’ve looked at a woman and lusted after her, your heart is adulterous.

In the verses before this, He equates anger to murder. He is essentially saying, “So what if you’ve never actually killed somebody. If your heart is filled with anger toward them, your heart is murderous.”

Are we going to put someone on trial and hang them from the gallows for being angry? No. But in context of our standing before God, there is no difference. Jesus is showing here that His purpose has always been redeeming hearts, not raising up an army of holier-than-thou rule-following robots.

In other words, this verse isn’t exactly the strongest case for “treat porn exactly like you would adultery” because that’s not Jesus’ point. He’s not using this as an apologetic argument against pornography. The point He’s making is that our guilty hearts will trip us up long before our actions do and not a single one of us has a righteous leg to stand on.

But His point does give us a framework to look at this differently.

What if it isn’t about sex?

To be perfectly clear, the effect of pornography use may be exactly the same as if the offending partner was cheating with someone else. It’s different than the anger-murder connection in that way. If I’m angry at someone, they’re still living and breathing and going about their business. My heart may want them dead, but they aren’t.

The lust-pornography-adultery connection is more muddled because it involves sex. The outcome of using pornography could very well be exactly the same as the outcome of sleeping with someone else. There may be betrayal, a erosion of trust, a loss of integrity, a fracture in relationship.

I’m always hesitant to share the stage with a wife of a former porn addict. While she shares her story of betrayal and hurt, I sit there feeling like “the other woman.” I’m the woman who understands her husband’s struggle more than I understand her pain.

When I hear a husband say, “Honey, no! It’s not like that. Of course I love you. I’m not choosing them over you” I get it.

Because, even though pornography is a sexual behavior, and affects sex, it’s not always about sex. It’s not always about the man choosing those women over his wife, or the wife “being a wh*#e.”

In his book, Unwanted, Jay Stringer proposes that our addictions to pornography and unwanted sexual behaviors are less about sex and more about self-loathing. He shares that with some of his clients, the motivation for watching porn isn’t lust; it’s self-hatred.

In many cases, porn is less like adultery and actually more like self-harm.

That’s not meant to be an excuse. Remember, the effects are the same. Porn use, for whatever motivation, is still a threat to marital intimacy and relationships and still needs to be dealt with.

But how would our attitudes and actions change if we stopped assuming it’s always about lust?

Because right now, whether it’s a male struggler or a female struggler, I feel the predominant theme is that porn is just the same as lusting after someone sexually. However, there is an argument that it can be, and often is, motivated by pain, shame, and even trauma.

It’s easier to see patterns of self-harm when they’re removed from something as intimate and personal as sex. It’s easier to see brokenness when we’re not tangled up in the middle of it ourselves and when its shards aren’t also cutting into our own hearts.

If you walked in on your spouse abusing drugs or inflicting some form of self harm, how would your response be different? Would it be different?

A Path Forward

Marriage provides a unique and powerful opportunity for us to be conduits of grace and healing but that requires us to pursue hearts. In our pain and disappointment, it can be easy for us to assume motives and attack behaviors. We want the porn to stop because the porn is damaging our relationship, but, in reality, it’s the heart behind it.

We have to be willing to set down our weapons of “behavior modification” and seek true transformation. No amount of threatening, demands, and shame will do that. We can’t shame people into healing. We can’t shame people into heart change.

If you are in a relationship with someone who uses porn and couldn’t give a care to how it affects you, etc, then they’ve revealed their heart. The why and how doesn’t matter if they don’t care to know how it affects their relationship.

But in the case of a spouse who is genuinely struggling. Who wants to stop and understands the damage that it can do to a relationship. A spouse who understands that even if the motivation isn’t the same, the effects are. In situations like this, we have an amazing opportunity to walk a path of grace and healing.

The next couple posts will talk a bit about what that looks like. If that’s your story, though, I encourage you to seek out a licensed Christian counselor who can help you navigate those waters together as a couple.

Should we treat porn like it’s the same as cheating? My answer is no. 

But that doesn’t mean that the effect isn’t as damaging. And both the effects on the offended spouse and the motivation of the offending spouse need to experience healing and grace for there to be true growth and restoration.

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