seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

On Porn and Adultery

Here I go again, writing about and linking to someone that I generally find to be a lunatic - Ross Douthat. He is a conservative writer who occasionally puts something worth reading the The Atlantic. I read his October 2008 piece - "Is Pornography Adultery" - expecting to laugh and disregard his conclusions.

It was a better piece than I expected, but I still think he entirely missed the answer. He is looking for some universal solution - God's answer perhaps. Well, there isn't one. The best answer to this question can be found in damn near any issue of Playboy - in the Playboy Advisor section. The answer is that adultery depends on how a couple understand their relationship.

If a couple believes that fantasy infidelity is adultery - then pornography is adultery. If they do not, then it is not. Ross came closer than I expected to this realization, but seems to just miss it. He rightly notes that the larger question is one of a continuum. Is it cheating to hire a prostitute if you do not physically touch her? What if you do it over the Internet?

I found the process he used interesting even as I reject much of his moralizing about the basic sexual needs we humans have such trouble dealing with. I enjoyed his brief look at some data:

In the great porn debates of the 1980s, arguments linking porn to violence against women were advanced across the ideological spectrum...

It all sounded plausible—but between 1980 and 2004, an era in which porn became more available, and in more varieties, the rate of reported sexual violence dropped, and by 85 percent. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but the sharpness of the decline at least suggests that porn may reduce sexual violence, by providing an outlet for some potential sex offenders.

Interestingly, he offers a rather rosy defense of the porn industry:

Indeed, in a significant sense, the porn industry looks like what advocates of legalized prostitution hope to achieve for “sex workers.” There are no bullying pimps and no police officers demanding sex in return for not putting the prostitutes in jail. There are regular tests for STDs, at least in the higher-end sectors of the industry. The performers are safely separated from their johns. And freelancers aren’t wandering downtown intersections on their own; they’re filming from the friendly confines of their homes.

While I suspect porn is a far safer industry than classic prostitution, let's not get too carried away in defending it. I have no doubt that many of the women working porn have trauma in their past and, at the very least, self-esteem issues. There are undoubtedly exceptions - but I was surprised to see anyone defend the porn industry and the perspective is helpful in this discussion.

Ultimately, I have to return to my original rebuttal. Adultery should be defined by a couple (or group if you are into that), not the state, and definitely not the church.