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June 19th, 2008 · 10 Comments

Somewhat to my surprise, Ross Douthat actually is prepared to defend the claim that for a person in a relationship to look at porn is “equivalent to having an actual affair”:

Well, look at it this way: Is there any similarity between “having an actual affair” and having sex with a prostitute while you’re married? I think most people would answer yes. Then consider: Is there any similarity between having sex with a prostitute while you’re married and paying to watch a prostitute perform sexual acts for your voyeuristic gratification? Again, I think a lot of people would say yes: There’s a distinction, obviously, but I don’t think all that many spouses would be inclined to forgive their husbands (or wives) if they explained that they only liked to watch the prostitute they’d hired. And hard-core porn, in turn, is nothing more than an indirect way of paying someone to fulfill the same sort of voyeuristic fantasies: It’s prostitution in all but name, filtered through middlemen, magazine editors, and high-speed internet connections. Is it as grave a betrayal as cheating on your spouse with a co-worker? Not at all. But is it on a moral continuum with adultery? I don’t think it’s insane to say yes.

I think Jon Chait pretty much nails it here. By parallel reasoning, of course, any kind of fantasizing is on the same “moral continuum,” with or without visual aids. But this is all pretty casuistic: We move from case to case without direct consideration of what the objectionable features of adultery are. This gets a little tricky because, of course, what counts as adultery is a function of the understanding, explicit or implicit, a particular couple has. Some couples, after all, go in for “voyeuristic gratification” together. So what we’re really talking about is what we think a reasonable modal implicit contract is about. One obvious reason adultery is typically ruled out is the risk of contracting a disease from or impregnating (or becoming pregnant by) another partner, which obviously isn’t an issue here.

The more relevant problem is what we might call, loosely, betrayal of exclusive initimacy. But this is where mediation makes all the difference. You don’t have a “relationship” with Aurora Snow by dint of watching one of her movies; you’re certainly not at any great risk of running off with her.  All of which is to say, porn is not really a substitute for the sort of gratification that comes from real intimacy with a partner. I’m going to suppose that nobody’s implicit understanding involves an agreement not to get “gratification” from any other source—a nice glass of wine, a good novel, a game of pickup basketball. Obviously, porn is not quite so qualitatively different as these things, and I can imagine a particularly wretched sort of relationship in which it really did serve as a kind of substitute, rather than a complement. But it seems unlikely that this would be the case with very great frequency.

Addendum: I should probably stress a little more how much goalpost shifting is going on here. Think of it this way: There’s no good reason, once we’re in crimes-of-the-mind territory, to stop with hardcore porn. Ogling a scantily-clad Angelina Jolie in a mainstream film, after all, is a way of getting a certain species of sexual “gratification” from someone other than your partner, whether or not there’s an orgasm involved. And indeed, someone might well get upset if their partner seemed to be doing this a great deal. (Though I suspect less upset, in most cases, than if the same partner was ogling a real live person on the street.) But the question isn’t whether some people might have some reason to feel upset about this. The question is whether it makes sense to talk about anything in this broad sphere that might be upsetting to a partner as basically the same as adultery. Perhaps Ross will find it more persuasive if I put it this way: If we don’t stand strong in defending the traditional definition of adultery as the union of one man and one woman, we risk rendering the institution meaningless. After all, if adultery can mean anything, then it ultimately means nothing.

Tags: Sexual Politics



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Erstwhile // Jun 19, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    I suspect you’re being respectful towards Ross’s “argument” because you know the guy and it would be awkward to talk to him after forcefully that his argument is simply risible.

    Despite your overly gentle treatment, you’re right. Douthat is extraordinarily facile in equating (?) seeing a prostitute and having an actual affair. As you point out, he never dares to elucidate the relationship because both similarities and important differences would make themselves clear and the analogy would fall apart. I mean, can’t you see the similarity between draining the gizzard and choking the chicken? Yes, Ross. Yes, I can.

    But maybe the way to dispose of Douthat’s glib foolishness (and I say this while thinking that Douthat is a brilliant, brilliant writer who can’t possibly actually believe what he is arguing here) is to extend his analogy.

    Suppose that a woman came home to find her husband in bed with a prostitute. Now suppose that she told you (her close friend) that due to this fact, she was leaving him forever. No doubt this would be a justifiable thing for her to do.

    Now suppose that a woman in an otherwise wonderful marriage found (while cleaning some normally neglected corner of the garage) her husband’s average size collection of porn. Suppose that she told you, her trusted confidante, that she was leaving her heretofore beloved husband forever because she found the porn stash.

    Can anyone doubt that leaving a beloved partner because he has a (not bizarre or extreme) pornography habit is, well, just plain fucking crazy?

  • 2 Charles // Jun 20, 2008 at 2:32 am

    This line of thought takes me ultimately to the conclusion that any sexual activity not limited to one’s partner is some form of adultery. But, if I fantasize about my wife as she was 15 years ago, is that adultery? By definition who she *was* is not exactly who she *is* as she is constantly changing cells, values, experiences, planks (er, wrong analogy). So even as I have sex with my wife, the time it takes me to experience the sensations of fugly bumping, she has changed. The very act of sex between me and my wife is on the same adultery continuum with soft core porn and mass anal rape of underaged, crippled, virgins.

    Luckily, I’m gay and I don’t need to worry about the sophistic implications of heterosexual intercourse.

  • 3 southpaw // Jun 20, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Luckily, I’m gay and I don’t need to worry about the sophistic implications of heterosexual intercourse.

    Don’t you see? It’s all your fault, Charles. Your ability to get married in California is what’s leading to this storm in the heretofore untroubled waters of heterosexual monogamy.

  • 4 Jonathan Goff // Jun 20, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I’ve been reticent to jump in on this debate, but I had a few thoughts that I figured worth sharing, coming from a Christian libertarian sort of background:

    The stand of a Christian on the use of pornography should be pretty clear. I don’t know how it gets translated in other versions of the Bible, but in the KJV, Matthew 5:27-28 (sermon on the mount FWIW):
    “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

    But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

    For a Christian, that’s about as clear as it gets. I think this same phrase may be quoted at least on other place in the New Testament, and also appears in the Book of Mormon as well.

    From this quote, from the Christian perspective again, we can see two things:

    1. Christ explicitly calls out “looking on a woman to lust” as a form of infidelity.
    2. If you read the rest of the sermon on the mount, it’s clear that he’s contrasting the higher law he’s giving with the lesser law he had given to Moses. Ie, adultery itself was the lesser (more fundamental and easier to live) law, while the don’t even luck with lust commandment was the higher law. Other examples are where Christ said that the old law was Thou shalt not kill, but said the higher law was to not even get angry or to hate. Etc. Basically, AIUI, you could use the distinctions drawn to say that physical adultery still is more serious (because it’s the lower, easier law that everyone is supposed to be able to follow), but that pornography or other forms of mental infidelity are still considered wrong.

    In other words, I think both you and Ross have points–I think that porn (or even fantasizing about another woman, even if she’s fully clothed) is a form of unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, but that it’s also clear that it’s not as serious a breach as actually sleeping with someone else.

    To use another (probably flawed analogy), locking up people you think might be terrorists without giving them a way to defend themselves is a form of tyranny. So is stuffing Jews into ovens. While everyone would agree that the latter is worlds more severe than the former, that doesn’t mean that actions like robbing people of their right to habeus corpus aren’t tyrannical, just because their the worst form of tyranny.

    ~Jonathan Goff
    (old friend from your Free-Market.Net days, Christian libertarian, and Rocket Plumber)

  • 5 Bad // Jun 20, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    “The question is whether it makes sense to talk about anything in this broad sphere that might be upsetting to a partner as basically the same as adultery.”

    Except that neither Ross nor the original FoxNewsish person said that they were “basically the same.” You’re all hammering away at a grossly oversimplified version of Ross’ point.

    The fact is, many many women do consider watching hardcore porn a form of infidelity. Just ask Dan Savage.

    It’s not insane to feel that way. Because it is on the same continuum, and people draw their boundaries and expectations for their relationships very differently. A lot of women really ARE hurt to find their husbands masturbating regularly to pictures of other (and otfen specific other) women. It’s not a question of whether they are insane or not to feel that way. They just DO feel that way.

    The question is why: what sorts of values, fears, concerns, religious ideas, etc. drive them to feel that way, and is that something they should get over, or see differently?

    I’m not exactly in Ross’ court here when it comes to his opinions on porn being bad. But you’re all really oversimplifying and misrepresenting the issue.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Jun 20, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Bad Idea-
    Uh, actually, that’s *exactly* what the original Fox person was saying: That looking at porn is “the equivalent of having an actual affair.” And that is, in fact, a totally crazy position to take, as even Ross seems to allow.

    I would not have bothered commenting if the claim had been only that some people are upset by their partners’ looking at porn, and that they may have some justification for feeling that way. Couples can presumably negotiate that sort of thing for themselves.

  • 7 Bad // Jun 21, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Uh, actually, that’s *exactly* what the original Fox person was saying: That looking at porn is “the equivalent of having an actual affair.”

    Read it again: note the “They assume” part. She’s discussing the state of mind of a woman unaware of a porn addiction, not making any sort of actual case for their equivalence.

    And she has no real reason to: she doesn’t argue the point just like Dan Savage doesn’t argue the point. The issue of equivalence in that context is one of how the women feel, not whether they are equal crimes on some sort of hypothetical objective scale. Plenty of women feel that masturbating to some other person, digital or real, is a form of cheating. And it’s not crazy. It’s just their particular boundaries (which may, for some men, legitimately be a deal breaker).

    Ross, on the other hand, was actually responding to your rather extreme claim that it never would have occurred to you that there was “any similarity.” He pointed out, and quite accurately I think, that there are similarities, and indeed something of a continuum (i.e., sleeping with someone regularly, sleeping with a prostitute, watching someone in your hotel perform acts in front of you, and watching the same thing just via a computer).

    Just like we can all decide where on a continuum to draw moral distinctions (for instance, in the conception to birth continuum in the abortion debate), we can of course argue that porn is okay, but watching a pro at a hotel is not. But doesn’t justify claiming that there is no similarity at all, which is what you did, or ignoring the fact that this is what Ross was responding to, and NOT the defense of the idea that they are objectively the same things.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jun 21, 2008 at 11:40 am

    The line is “They assume their partner understands…” which is a fairly plain endorsement of the view. And no, Ross’ argument is pure causistry; you can connect adultery and freindship, or murder and namecalling by his method — which are, in an absurd and functionally useless sense, on a “continuum”. At some point, an equivalent of Godwin’s Law has to kick in, where the analogy becomes so strained that it just obscures whatever real problem there might be.

  • 9 Micha Ghertner // Jun 21, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    [crossposted comment to Distributed Republic]

    If you think comparing watching porn to having an affair is batshit crazy (and it is, of course), just be glad you didn’t have to grow up learning that masturbation “is the most severe of all Torah forbidden sins“, including not just murder, but “when one emits sperm to waste it is as if he destroys the earth.” Which is, of course, “punishable by death.”

    So give Ross Douthat some credit here; at least he is only comparing masturbation to having an affair. His analogy could have been a whole lot batshit crazier.

  • 10 borehole // Jun 22, 2008 at 7:03 pm

    >>You don’t have a “relationship” with Aurora Snow<<