Ask Michele: Is Looking at Porn the Same as Cheating?

Editors Note: This post was recently updated with new links and new studies. The original blog post is retained at the bottom.

If you are in a room with 30 men, 23 of those men have used pornography. And if you are in a room with 30 women, 12 of those women have used pornography—and those are just the men and women who are willing to admit that they’ve used pornography. Chances are strong that the number is actually significantly higher.

While a growing number of men and women are looking at pornography on a regular basis, many are unaware of the long- and short-term consequences of pornography. Too many people think that pornography is a private vice that doesn’t really hurt anyone.

Is pornography cheating?

Is pornography cheating?

If you ask different people what they consider cheating is, you’ll likely get a wide variety of answers. That is exactly what The Desert News did in April 2017. Depending on one’s personal views and beliefs, the definition of ‘cheating’ seemed to vary significantly. Here are some of the noteworthy findings:

  • Only 76% of respondents said that having regular sexual relations with another person was cheating. Sadly, among Catholics who answered this question, only 70% think regular sexual relations with another person is cheating.
  • Nearly 40% of respondents think it is not cheating to maintain a dating profile while in a relationship.
  • Only 19% of Catholics think that going to a strip club is cheating. Among Mormons, this number jumps up to 43%.

And what did respondents think about pornography? Only 19% of respondents thought viewing pornography was cheating on their relationships. And only 12% of Catholics thought so.

Yes, pornography is cheating and there’s no defense for it

Yes, pornography is cheating and there’s no defense for it

A big reason that pornography has such a high use rate among both men and women is that too many people think it is a ‘private’ vice that does no harm. If it isn’t hurting anyone, why should anyone care what you watch in private, right?

  • Pornography damages your brain. Studies have shown that users of pornography have difficulty focusing and with their working memory. Even moderate pornography viewing is shown to shrink the grey matter of the brain that controls cognitive functions such as decision making and intelligence.
  • Pornography has the addictive power of drugs. Numerous studies have shown that a porn user’s brain responds to pornography the same way that a drug addict’s brain responds to drugs. This is why pornography is so hard to quit.
  • Pornography enables human trafficking. Research shows that the increase of use in pornography is also increasing human trafficking. Viewing dehumanizing physical and verbal violence, as well as the submission that is often showcased in pornography allows pornography viewers to normalize violence mentally and be more accepting of verbal and physical aggression.
  • Pornography leads to loneliness. “The more one uses pornography, the lonelier one becomes,” says Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked with porn addicts for the last 30 years.

As bad as pornography is for you and on the people involved in the pornography industry, where pornography really does its damage is in romantic relationships.

Pornography and Relationships

Pornography and Relationships

The reality is that pornography is cancerous to our romantic relationships in the same way that cheating with another person is damaging to relationships.

Viewing pornography will harm your dating relationships through various ways. It not only harms women through objectification, but it harms men by destroying authentic intimacy. It shatters trust in relationships. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we’ve become complacent with the issue of pornography. But when we think that pornography is really not a big deal, we’ve perpetuated the damage that it causes to relationships.

But if you’re struggling with pornography, all is not lost. Here are three features of a healthy relationship, based off of Saint Pope John Paul II’s definition of love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. These characteristics are the antidotes to pornography’s cancerous presence in a relationship.

Honesty

Vulnerability and openness are part of solid and intentional relationships. But if your relationship is lacking trust, vulnerability will be hard to come by.

Dave Willis, the founder of Stronger Marriages, writes on the different steps of trust in a relationship. He says that ultimately, trust should lead to a level of vulnerability and a sense of comfort with the other person. He wrote,

“When you truly trust someone, you’ll know it because you’ll feel completely safe and comfortable with them. They’ve earned your trust and you’ve freely given it. You don’t doubt their actions or motives. You choose to believe the best in them because they’ve consistently shown you the best in themselves.”

Yet pornography encourages us to lie to one another. This could be lying about if and when pornography is used in the relationship, or in one’s past. It could be lies about how pornography is supposedly victim-less, something that doesn’t really hurt anyone.

Or perhaps the lies center on the idea that pornography improves the sexual chemistry of the couple. Regardless of the lie, pornography encourages dishonesty between the couple, destroying the most important aspect of a healthy relationship—honest communication.

Even after partners have stopped viewing pornography, insecurities can still rear their ugly head. The biggest issue when it comes to viewing pornography is how it can damage the trust partners should have in their relationship. It could take months or years to restore the trust. It could leave the partner who isn’t viewing pornography feeling hideous, unworthy, and to blame. Their insecurities could lead them to shun vulnerability out of a desire to not be hurt anymore.

Faithfulness

For a relationship to be happy and healthy, a couple should be faithful to each other. This means seeing one’s mind, heart, soul, and body as an exclusive gift to the other person, a gift truly fulfilled later in marriage. This does not mean that the couple is under the illusion that each person is perfect. A healthy relationship is not made up of two perfect people, but rather two people who refuse to give up on each other, despite their flaws.

Pornography lies and says love and sex can be perfect. Pornographic images are always available and do not require sacrificial love. In 2005, researchers in Sweden found that people who view pornography regularly are more likely to start having sex sooner and with more partners than those who do not view pornography. Those who view pornography are also more likely to engage in riskier sex, which increases their odds of developing a sexually transmitted disease.

Respect

Pornography is the scientifically proven guide to how to be a bad lover. The more pornography someone consumes, the lonelier they become. Dr. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who has worked for the past thirty years with those struggling with pornography addictions, wrote:

“Anytime a person spends much time with the usual pornography usage cycle, it can’t help but be a depressing, demeaning, self-loathing kind of experience.”

When we feel bad about ourselves, we seek comfort and consolation from those around us. And while we normally rely on family members, friends, or romantic partners to comfort us, those who consume pornography on a regular basis instead turn to pornography as an easy, quick source of comfort.

For a heart daunted by the reality of human relationships, pornography allows an escape—all while stealing away the opportunity to develop an authentic intimacy with another human being. Pornography says that the two of us are not enough to satisfy. It lies, saying that the messiness of human relationships is too hard and it is easier to retreat to clickable pixels who offer sex on demand.

Viewing pornography is essentially cheating on your significant other. But it is also cheating you out of an authentic, human interaction that stretches you to be a better version of yourself. Pornography offers a never-ending source of lovers— but none of them really love you.

Selfishness lies at the heart of pornography. Healthy relationships call us out of ourselves into a selfless, crucifixion-type love. While pornography encourages us to think of what is pleasurable and instant, sacrificial relationships call us out of our comfort zones.

Love or pornography? The choice is yours

Love or pornography? The choice is yours

If you view pornography and don’t think it could be harmful to your relationship, take time to reflect on the reality of your actions. Would you look at pornography if your partner was beside you? Is the desire you’re bringing into pornography meant to be desires fulfilled in a total, faithful, fruitful, and free relationship with your partner?

Do you justify your actions by thinking ‘everyone does it’? But the ultimate question you have to ask yourself is which is more important: pornography or your relationship.

For the good of our relationships, we have to choose between authentic love and pornography. They cannot exist together, and they cannot both be present in a romantic relationship. Pornography, rooted in lust and deceit, will only lead to the ruin of relationships if it’s allowed to run rampant. But authentic love? That will lead to years of beautiful love together.

Original Post: Dear Michell…

Dear Michele,Is looking at porn the same as cheating? My girlfriend is trying to tell me that looking at porn is the same as me meeting someone and developing a relationship. I know that looking at porn is not right in the eyes of God and the Church, but I feel it is a personal sin. I don’t lie about it, I am very open with my girlfriend. And I know this is something I need to work on. But really, she thinks that I am hurting her. What do you think?
Signed,
Am I Cheating?

Dear Am I Cheating,
Wow. Explosive question. Ok, you seem to be aware that looking at porn is harmful to you, even going as far as recognizing it as a sin. So I won’t harp on that issue, but will at least say that porn is very destructive to your own ideas and expectations about sex. You understand that porn is entertainment, and “real” women are not going to be the actresses you are accustomed to seeing in porn.

Yes, porn is hurtful to you. Yes, porn is hurtful to your girlfriend. Yes, porn can harm your spirituality. Porn can harm your future marriage. And porn is devastating to the people actually performing the acts you watch. It is an outrage against the dignity of the human person. I will paraphrase JPII in saying, “the problem with porn is not that it shows too much, the problem is that it shows too little. It shows a body separated from a person.”

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read John Paul II’s writing on Theology of the Body. I can’t cover it here, but it is a very healing and integrative approach to the gift of our sexuality. But, to your question. I don’t know if you are sexually active with your girlfriend. Even if you are not, the gift of our sexuality is designed to be expressed within the safety of a lifelong committed marriage. By exploring sexual expression by yourself, you are taking an experience that is meant to bond to you another and using it for your own satisfaction. Or, you may become bonded to the one-dimensional view you see of other women. Either way, you are not honoring the dignity of your girlfriend or your relationship when you view porn.

You say you are working on it. I want to support you in those efforts. If you’ve been using porn for many years, it can be very difficult to stop. Consider finding an accountability partner or group. You may try reading, “Every Man’s Struggle.” If you haven’t, consider going to reconciliation, as many times as you need. And I would suggest working with a trained professional if you are not finding success on your own.

Thank you for the bravery of your question, many men struggle with using porn. It is one of the crosses of our generation, and I hope and pray you will continue to move towards healing.

God Bless,

Michele Fleming, M.A.

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