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Is Watching Porn Cheating? Well, It Depends…

When couples talk openly about porn use, they’re more likely to find the right answer for their relationship. 

Connor Robinson for Fatherly

Quick hypothetical. Imagine a married dad has the house to himself for the afternoon. Let’s say he conforms to some widely-held preconceptions about heterosexual dad behavior. He watches ESPN, tinkers with the lawn mower, blasts some classic rock, eats an enormous sandwich, then fires up the laptop and starts watching porn

His wife calls. She says she’ll be home in an hour and asks what he’s been up to while she’s been away. Odds are he won’t give a full accounting of his solo activity — meaning, the porn-watching won’t be mentioned. It’s more than just the privacy of the act that prevents him from sharing; it felt like he was doing something behind her back. 

For many men, watching porn often occurs in secret. They do it alone and rarely talk about it afterwards. They consider it harmless. But if it’s harmless, why hide it? Is there something about the nature of using porn that violates trust in a relationship? In other words, is watching porn cheating? 

Determining porn’s relationship with cheating is a more complicated question than it may appear. When asked, mental health professionals, relationship experts and even private investigators specializing in infidelity all offer a range of sometimes conflicting answers. But just as there’s no one relationship, there’s no one single definition of what constitutes cheating. The truth is that when couples communicate openly about porn use, they’re more likely to find the right answer for them. 

Three of the 15 highest trafficked websites are porn sites. A 2014 survey study estimated that 46 percent of American men and 16 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 39 use porn at least once a week. Those numbers are almost certainly higher today. Pornhub reported that traffic spiked during the pandemic and skyrocketed further on August 24, 2020 when a four-hour Zoom network outage put WFH on hold. If your home has an internet connection, the odds are good someone will click into porn at some point. 

But is watching porn cheating? Well, first we need to know what cheating is. Therapist and author Tammy Nelson defines cheating as sexual or romantic behavior with someone outside of the relationship. “Whatever the behavior is, it’s kept dishonest and secretive.”

In some relationships, Nelson says that pornography use can become cheating. “Not necessarily because of the visuals, but because porn is used for masturbation. The sexual behavior of masturbating, while for most people is a private act, can be a sexual secret that is kept from a primary partner or spouse, and therefore feels like a betrayal.”  

In a 2020 Psychology Today column therapist and sexologist Rob Weiss defined cheating as a break of trust concerning intimate, meaningful secrets. There’s a lot of flexibility built into that definition, since understandings of what’s intimate and meaningful vary from relationship to relationship. 

“What is considered a relationship-ending cheating episode by one couple may be a regular Tuesday for another,” says sex and intimacy coach Leah Carey.

Often, people assume their partners feel the same way as they do about what’s okay and not okay in a relationship.

“For many of us, our needs, wants, and boundaries are a result of the homes and communities we grew up in,” Carey says. “They’re so ingrained, that we assume they’re ‘the norm’ and everyone else is working from the same blueprint.” 

Of course, the truth is that couples can hold wildly different views on porn use and whether it constitutes infidelity. They believe that they’re in total agreement simply because they never feel obligated to talk about it. 

“Most couples never talk openly about the agreements that govern their relationship, or about what exactly constitutes ‘cheating’ to them,” says men’s relationship coach Reece Stockhausen

Just because you and your spouse don’t talk about porn doesn’t mean your spouse doesn’t want to know. Private investigator and polygraph operator Lisa Ribacoff says her female clients often want their partners to address porn use while they’re strapped to a lie-detector.  

“When the examinee is male, seven out of ten exams have a question related to pornography on it, whether it is viewing the content, clearing the web history on their cell phone or clearing the cache on their computers, and even concealing downloaded files from the Internet,” she says. 

Ribacoff’s female clients don’t just want to know if their husbands secretly watch porn. They also want to know why they use porn and whether the porn use reflects a problem or shortcoming in the relationship.  

“Questions like ‘[are you using porn] because I don’t look like her?,’ ‘Am I not good enough?’ and ‘Am I not giving you what you want?’ typically arise during the conversations I have with female clients,” Ribacoff says.  

Porn’s relationship harm doesn’t stop at inspiring self-doubt. Pennsylvania counselor and marriage coach Michelle Croyle argues that porn use can drive a wedge between people in a relationship. 

“It cheats the one engaging with the porn out of true intimacy with an actual human being,” she says, adding that porn can often be a form of self medication for people under stress or coping with emotional pain.

Like many self medications, porn use exacerbates the problem it is intended to medicate. “Porn robs the user of the ability to constructively assess and address the actual problem, masking but not resolving or healing the underlying dysfunctions driving the behavior.”

Porn can certainly serve a purpose in healthy relationships, provided the partner’s consent and their boundaries are respected.

“While many people may view porn use negatively, it can also be a useful tool to get everyone’s sexual needs met in a partnership, especially in relationships with differing sexual preferences in which one partner may not be able to or willing to fully meet another’s full range of sexual needs,” says Alabama clinical therapist Christa McCrorie.

Dr. Nelson agrees. “Good erotica —  imagery that shows consensual, mutually pleasurable, and realistic sex scenes — can be used in a passionate and satisfying erotic life for both partners,” she says. 

Porn use doesn’t have to indicate that someone considers sex with a partner bad or boring. Everyone needs space for privacy and a chance to listen to their own thoughts without interference. If that private space includes exploring new erotic territory, there’s good reason to be comfortable with that. 

“Maybe we just want to explore our sexuality first before involving the other person just yet,” Nikolina Jeric, founder of sex and relationship advice site 2Date4Love says. “Or maybe we’re shy and don’t know how to communicate our desires with our partner. We maybe didn’t find the best way to do it just yet. Watching pornography might be just an outlet for our desires and a way to de-stress.” 

The bottom line in the Is watching porn cheating? conversation is one that often underlines all relationship advice: communication is paramount. Find out how your partner really feels about it. Problems arise when we make assumptions about how a partner should feel or react. Ignorance, as is often the case with relationships, is certainly not bliss. 

Without knowing where the line is, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it. But it’s certainly safe to say that when you feel as though you’re sneaking around on your partner, be it with porn or anything else, you probably are.