Adultery and Vice

Ross Douthat of The Atlantic Monthly has recently discussed an issue that needs to be discussed, “Is Pornography Adultery?” I appreciate his thoughts though I think he unduly focuses on celebrity couples–who cannot really be used as a gauge of what happens in marriages in general–and he glosses over religious input on the subject. But still, I think he does an admirable job of beginning a necessary conversation. Here’s my response to him.


Thank you for your helpful essay on internet porn and adultery. I come at this as a minister (ordained, seminary-trained, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)) and not as a lawyer. Whenever I conduct premarital counseling, we always have a conversation that reflects your perception that “infidelity” is a “continuum of betrayal rather than an either/or proposition.” That’s helpful language for describing the fact that there are behaviors which one spouse could engage that the other would consider adulterous that do not include intercourse. As best as I can, I try to get each partner to verbalize where that line might be for them. I hesitate to say that your gloss of Jesus’s instruction is actually more relevant than you indicate. Jesus’s teaching about looking at a woman lustfully as equal to adultery shouldn’t be understood as an either/or proposition either. Rather, it is a hyperbole meant to reveal just what you indicate–that adultery starts somewhere along the path that leads to the betrayed bedroom. Somewhere Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over head but you can keep them from making a nest out of your hair.”

I sense that the distinction between porn and adultery is what in the relationship is being betrayed. With pornography, what is violated is a person’s self-worth as reflected in the eyes of their partner. People long for that sense that they are beautiful in the eyes of others. At least part of the commitment in marriage is that even as you age you will still adore one another’s bodies. Indulging pornographic material conveys the message that she’s not physically adequate for him, or he’s not physically adequate for her.

Excessive pornography use also begins to impact a relationship in much the same way any addiction can. It distracts from the relationship, consumes shared resources, causes emotional barriers, etc.

In an affair, what’s violated is not merely one’s sense of self as physically adequate but also the intimacy or trust in marriage. The secrets that are meant to be shared between wife and husband exclusively get shared with others. Where the use of pornography sends the message that one’s spouse is not physically satisfying, an affair conveys the message that one’s spouse is not emotionally or spiritually satisfying. It’s not just about beauty but trustworthiness.

When I’ve had the pre-marital counseling conversations, the tendency has been to go down one road or another. They either talk about how indulging fantasies can be a betrayal or how cultivating intimacy in relationships outside the marriage can be a betrayal. I’ve had a couple provide a detailed delineation of what sort of vice consumption is unacceptable–porn, strip clubs, lap dances, etc. But by far, most of the conversations have dealt in terms of intimacy and not vice—what sorts of interactions with other people are sufficiently deep enough to be warning flags of unfaithfulness. Admittedly, context may unduly influence the answers I’ve received. It’s easier to talk to a minister about having intimate conversations with others than it is to talk about dirty pictures and body parts. But still, it’s my sense that at least part of the distinction between excessive porn use and infidelity has to do with what aspect of the marriage relationship has been betrayed. In both situations, something is being betrayed. But, I think it’s instructive to know exactly what is being betrayed. What promises are broken in either case.

Andy Mangum
Pastor, First Christian Church
Arlington, Texas