Does pornography = adultery?

I'm guessing most evangelicals will answer "yes" to the question: Does pornography equal adultery? (Although if you disagree, please share your thoughts below.) And I think that's right—but there's an excellent article over at The Atlantic this month about the topic which you should read even if you think you know the answer. It's by Ross Douthat (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite culture-commentators), and takes that seemingly straightforward moral question and unpacks it to reveal a lot of related questions about how our society understands pornography (please note: article contains frank language and subject matter). Questions like:

  • Does it make a practical difference (in our everyday lives, marriages, or relationships) if we consider pornography a form of adultery, rather than "just" another sin?
  • Is pornography ever something to be tolerated as an unpleasant but unavoidable "fix" for out-of-control sexual appetites? If pornography "safely" redirects sexual impulses that might otherwise go somewhere dangerous or illegal... does that make it less immoral?

Douthat (who does reference Jesus' famous warning about lust and adultery) suggests that pornography definitely exists on the "spectrum of adultery"—not as blatant or harmful as other forms of adultery, but something more serious than people like to admit. And current trends and technologies are making the distinction between pornography and adultery blurrier:

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? Isn’t the man who uses hard-core pornography already betraying his wife, whether or not the habit leads to anything worse? (The same goes, of course, for a wife betraying her husband—the arguments in this essay should be assumed to apply as well to the small minority of women who use porn.) [...]


This isn’t to say the distinction between hiring a prostitute and shelling out for online porn doesn’t matter; in moral issues, every distinction matters. 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.


This is an intensely personal subject, so I'm hesitant to ask you to relate your personal thoughts or experiences. But going just by the sobering statistics, this isn't an academic question for the majority of us. Do you consider pornography a betrayal of marriage vows? A harmless little vice? Does it matter?

Comments (61)

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Where I think the question gets interesting is when you include softer, even subliminally erotic material.
Everyone can agree that a line should be drawn, but the questions of where and who manages the drawing are where the friction can be found.

Porn is not adultery for so many reasons. The most obvious is that a porn viewer may not be married or the person in the porn may not. I could easily say that it is fornication, licentiousness, lust, sensuality, etc. but not all porn is adultery.

I would say that if you are married or the person performing is married it is adultery. But that is really just splitting hairs. Really, is it bad to bring someone else into the relationship God intended for only two people? Of course it is. Even worse, isn’t it a really bad idea to live in a dream world rather than face the truth. Porn is an act on a fantasy created by people to feel good about themselves through a completely selfish act. It is the opposite of love. Isn’t that reason enough to avoid it.

Porn is an objectification of people and a false sense of intimacy. I had a seminary professor that told someone that if you are married, it is OK to masturbate, as long as you don’t lust. What an interesting concept. Is it possible to masturbate and not lust? Isn’t all of that a form of selfishness that doesn’t belong in the love relationship God intended for men and women?

I have struggled for some time with the “hierarchy” of sin. Although some have tried to show me references to prove otherwise, I can’t see anyplace in Scripture where God thinks some sin is better or worse than others.

From a “practical” standpoint, we can see how some sin has more impact (on ourselves and other people) than other sin. In that respect, there may be a difference in the realm of pornography. But don’t we have studies that show people who are engaged in pornography are never satisfied?

Healthy discussion, but l hope no one comes away saying “pornography is OK.” We’ve compromised too much in our contemporary culture already.

I would have to be one that answers “yes” to that question, too.  Jesus told us that to look upon a woman with lust is equal to committing adultery in our heart.  God does not look at the outward actions of man, but to the inner heart.  We are to set aside and die to our own selfish, fleshly desires and to walk in the ways of Christ.  And if our Christ was standing next to us at that laptop and seeing what we were seeing, I have a feeling he wouldn’t be looking at pornography as just a harmless way to pass the time.

When someone questions whether pornography use is adultery, I always wonder if they’re trying to justify something.  In my experience, it’s the wrong question; the fact remains that pornography is incredibly damaging to anyone, whether single or married, whether it qualifies as adultery or not.

It’s funny because I use the same arguments against porn that I eschew when applied to role-playing games.  Porn use represents an unhealthy descent into a fantasy world that causes the user to less effectively operate in the real world.  However, unlike RPGs, the element of masturbation that typically accompanies porn usage and the inevitable shame cycle make porn a much stronger physiological and emotional (and yes, spiritual!) vice, one that more readily degrades into a full-blown addiction.

So is pornography adultery?  Ultimately, I don’t care — I think the question is irrelevant.  I think it is as harmful as adultery, but might even be worse in many senses given its hidden nature, lower cultural resistance and higher availability.  How’s that for a non-answer? :-)

Great article, BTW.

Yes it is harming.  Now God made woman beautiful and wanting because if he didn’t we wouldn’t want to procreate.  Two if you have had a loving intimate relationship with your wife or husband, you will say that not only did it satisfy a primal urge, but that it felt wonderful.  God made us to procreate and therefore, made it pleasant to say the least.  It is however, wrong and a sin to go outside the marriage.  John

while it is true that its very wrong, this material is offered for free on internet and sometimes pops up automatically on the net, but if you go on godly websites, you will find out that most things are not being offered for free there, and for new believers its quite discouraging.
The battle is countering what they are offering on porn websites, and the idea is to get as many people as possible to believe the truth (believe in God) and most don’t have credit cards in their countries, now how do they access gospel stuff now

If God didn’t recognise “scales of badness” He would not be just. Check out Zechariah 1:15 or Matthew 26:24. I think it’s the mistaken conception of Hell as a place equally tormenting for all inhabitants which makes people think God sees black and white.

Unfortunately, you could ask my wife if she feels porn is a form of adultery. She would answer and strong YES! I have shattered our marriage, plus many other aspects of our lives due to my porn and lust addiction.
It is a horrible trap of satan to be avoided at all costs. Now mainstream media is becoming a gateway to the porn industry (in my opinion). Each time a new show comes out for primetime it gets more sexual and overt. It’s coming to the point where it’s not going to be safe for anyone who wants to live an upright life to even turn on the TV or radio. And I’m not talking about paid extras on cable/satellite. I’m talking about cheap network TV and radio. And don’t get me started about the affects media has on our children and the junk they are exposed to. Even if you are able to protect them in your own home, unfortunately most of their peers are probably not receiving the same protection.
Sorry for the rant, but I know first hand the devestation that porn brings. It is SIN and it is adultery. I did not save the most private thoughts & fantasies I had for my wife only. I have never physically cheated on my wife, but my thoughts kept me unconnected in that area. Your thoughts and actions should be kept in line with your spouse only.

Yes it is adultery. It is sad how sex is everywhere and so accessible to tear up marriages. My husband and I were temporarily living apart so we could both work on other issues before living together again, at one point we weren’t talking and thought it was over. So his friend had a 5 day stag party in Montreal and my husband went knowing what his friends were like. Noone put a gun to his head. So I am so heartbroken and unfortunately I am filing for divorce on Monday. I don’t care if he got a private lap dance or didn’t. I will not stay in a marriage where I can actually ask my husband “How many women have you seen in person naked other than your wife?” and that he actually has a number for me.  And Jesus understands how betrayed a woman feels even if it is a sin of the heart, which is why he said we can use it as a clause to divorce. This is a sick world. I war with myself to forgive him and move on but, why should I stop believing in God’s people and believe what satan wants me to, that all men are like this? All men are not like this. I feel bad for our 4 children. All under the age of 10 with no father now.

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