This article just came out in The Atlantic. It is quite long but read it and chime in on your thoughts.

The marriage of Christie
Brinkley and Peter Cook collapsed the old-fashioned way in 2006, when
she discovered that he was sleeping with his 18-year-old assistant. But
their divorce trial this summer was a distinctly Internet-age affair.
Having insisted on keeping the proceedings open to the media, Brinkley
and her lawyers served up a long list of juicy allegations about Cook’s
taste in online porn: the $3,000 a month he dropped on adult Web sites,
the nude photos he posted online, the user names he favored
(“happyladdie2002,” for instance, and “wannaseeall”) while surfing
swinger sites, even the videos he supposedly made of himself

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the porn-related
revelations, though, was the ambiguity about what line, precisely, Cook
was accused of having crossed. Was the porn habit a betrayal in and of
itself? Was it the financial irresponsibility that mattered most, or
the addictive behavior it suggested? Was it the way his habit had
segued into other online activities? Or was it about Cook’s fitness as
a parent, and the possibility that their son had stumbled upon his porn
cache? Clearly, the court and the public were supposed to think that
Cook was an even lousier husband than his affair with a teenager might
have indicated. But it was considerably less clear whether the porn
habit itself was supposed to prove this, or whether it was the
particulars—the monthly bill, the swinger sites, the webcam, the danger
to the kids—that made the difference.

The notion that pornography, and especially hard-core pornography, has something to do with marital infidelity has been floating around the edges of the
American conversation for a while now, even as the porn industry, by
some estimates, has swollen to rival professional sports and the major
broadcast networks as a revenue-generating source of entertainment. A
2002 survey of the American Academy of Matri­monial Lawyers suggests
that Internet porn plays a part in an increasing number of divorce
cases, and the Brinkley-Cook divorce wasn’t the first celebrity split
to feature porn-related revelations. In 2005, at the start of their
messy divorce, Denise Richards accused Charlie Sheen of posting shots
of his genitalia online and cultivating a taste for “barely legal” porn
sites. Two years later, Anne Heche, Ellen DeGeneres’s ex, accused her
non-celeb husband of surfing porn sites when he was supposed to be
taking care of their 5-year-old son. The country singer Sara Evans’s
2006 divorce involved similar allegations, including the claim that her
husband had collected 100 nude photographs of himself and solicited sex

But the attention paid to the connection between porn and infidelity
doesn’t translate into anything like a consensus on what that
connection is. Polls show that Americans are almost evenly divided on
questions like whether porn is bad for relationships, whether it’s an
inevitable feature of male existence, and whether it’s demeaning to
women. This divide tends to cut along gender lines, inevitably: women
are more likely to look at pornography than in the past, but they
remain considerably more hostile to porn than men are, and considerably
less likely to make use of it. (Even among the Internet generation, the
split between the sexes remains stark. A survey of American college
students last year found that 70 percent of the women in the sample
never looked at pornography, compared with just 14 percent of their
male peers; almost half of the men surveyed looked at porn at least
once a week, versus just 3 percent of the women.)

One perspective, broadly construed, treats porn as a harmless habit,
near-universal among men, and at worst a little silly. This is the
viewpoint that’s transformed adult-industry icons like Jenna Jameson
and Ron Jeremy from targets of opprobrium into C-list celebrities. It’s
what inspires fledgling stars to gin up sex tapes in the hope of
boosting their careers. And it’s made smut a staple of gross-out
comedy: rising-star funnyman Seth Rogen has gone from headlining Judd
Apatow’s Knocked Up, in which his character’s aspiration to run
a pornographic Web site was somewhat incidental to the plot, to
starring in Kevin Smith’s forthcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno, in which the porn business promises to be rather more central.

A second perspective treats porn as a kind of gateway drug—a vice
that paves the way for more-serious betrayals. A 2004 study found that
married individuals who cheated on their spouses were three times as
likely to have used Internet pornography as married people who hadn’t
committed adultery. In Tom Perrotta’s bestselling Little Children,
the female protagonist’s husband—who is himself being
cuckolded—progresses from obsessing over an online porn star named
“Slutty Kay” to sending away for her panties to joining a club of fans
who pay to vacation with her in person. Brink­ley’s husband may have
followed a similar trajectory, along with many of the other porn-happy
celebrity spouses who’ve featured in the gossip pages and divorce
courts lately.

Maybe it’s worth sharpening the debate. Over the past three decades,
the VCR, on-demand cable service, and the Internet have completely
overhauled the ways in which people interact with porn. Innovation has
piled on innovation, making modern pornography a more immediate,
visceral, and personalized experience. Nothing in the long history of
erotica compares with the way millions of Americans experience porn
today, and our moral intuitions are struggling to catch up. As we try
to make sense of the brave new world that VHS and streaming video have
built, we might start by asking a radical question: Is pornography use
a form of adultery?

The most stringent take on
this matter comes, of course, from Jesus of Nazareth: “I tell you that
anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery
with her in his heart.” But even among Christians, this teaching tends
to be grouped with the Gospel injunctions about turning the other cheek
and giving would-be robbers your possessions—as a guideline for
saintliness, useful to Francis of Assisi and the Desert Fathers but
less helpful to ordinary sinners trying to figure out what counts as a
breach of marital trust. Jimmy Carter’s confession to Playboy that he had “lusted in [his] heart” still inspires giggles three
decades later. Most Americans, devout or secular, are inclined to
distinguish lustful thoughts from lustful actions, and hew to the Merriam-Webster definition of adultery as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a
married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman
and someone other than her husband.”

On the face of things, this definition would seem to let porn users
off the hook. Intercourse, after all, involves physicality, a
flesh-and-blood encounter that Internet Explorer and the DVD player
can’t provide, no matter what sort of adultery the user happens to be
committing in his heart.

But there’s another way to look at it. During the long, late-winter
week that transformed the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, into an
alleged john, a late-night punch line, and finally an ex-governor,
there was a lively debate on blogs and radio shows and op-ed pages
about whether prostitution ought to be illegal at all. Yet amid all the
chatter about whether the FBI should have cared about Spitzer’s habit
of paying for extramarital sex, next to nobody suggested, publicly at
least, that his wife ought not to care—that Silda Spitzer ought
to have been grateful he was seeking only sexual gratification
elsewhere, and that so long as he was loyal to her in his mind and
heart, it shouldn’t matter what he did with his penis.

Start with the near-universal assumption that what Spitzer did in
his hotel room constituted adultery, and then ponder whether Silda
Spitzer would have had cause to feel betrayed if the FBI probe had
revealed that her husband had paid merely to watch a prostitute
perform sexual acts while he folded himself into a hotel armchair to
masturbate. My suspicion is that an awful lot of people would say
yes—not because there isn’t some distinction between the two acts, but
because the distinction isn’t morally significant enough to prevent
both from belonging to the zone, broadly defined, of cheating on your

You can see where I’m going with this. If it’s cheating on your wife
to watch while another woman performs sexually in front of you, then
why isn’t it cheating to watch while the same sort of spectacle unfolds
on your laptop or TV? Isn’t the man who uses hard-core pornography
already betraying his wife, whether or not the habit leads to anything
worse? (The same goes, of course, for a wife betraying her husband—the
arguments in this essay should be assumed to apply as well to the small
minority of women who use porn.)

Fine, you might respond, but there are betrayals and then there are
betrayals. The man who lets his eyes stray across the photo of Gisele
Bündchen, bare-assed and beguiling on the cover of GQ, has
betrayed his wife in some sense, but only a 21st-century Savonarola
would describe that sort of thing as adultery. The line that matters is
the one between fantasy and reality—between the call girl who’s really
there having sex with you, and the porn star who’s selling the image of herself having sex to a host of men she’ll never even meet. In this
reading, porn is “a fictional, fantastical, even allegorical realm,” as
the cultural critic Laura Kipnis described it in the
mid-1990s—“mythological and hyperbolic” rather than realistic, and
experienced not as a form of intercourse but as a “popular-culture
genre,” like true crime or science fiction.

This seems like a potentially reasonable distinction to draw. But
the fantasy-versus-reality, pixels-versus-flesh binary feels more
appropriate to the pre-Internet landscape than to one where people
spend hours every day in entirely virtual worlds, whether they’re
accumulating “friends” on Facebook, acting out Tolkienesque fantasies
in World of Warcraft, or flirting with a sexy avatar in Second Life.
And it feels much more appropriate to the tamer sorts of pornography,
from the increasingly archaic (dirty playing cards and pinups, smutty
books and the Penthouse letters section) to the of-the-moment
(the topless photos and sex-scene stills in the more restrained
precincts of the online pornosphere), than it does to the harder-core
material at the heart of the porn economy. Masturbating to a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model (like Christie Brinkley, once upon a time) or a Playboy centerfold is a one-way street: the images are intended to provoke
fantasies, not to embody reality, since the women pictured aren’t
having sex for the viewer’s gratification. Even strippers, for all
their flesh-and-blood appeal, are essentially fantasy objects—depending
on how you respond to a lap dance, of course. But hard-core pornography
is real sex by definition, and the two sexual acts involved—the
on-camera copulation, and the masturbation it enables—are
interdependent: neither would happen without the other. The whole point
of a centerfold is her unattainability, but with hard-core porn, it’s
precisely the reverse: the star isn’t just attainable, she’s already
being attained, and the user gets to be in on the action.

Moreover, the way the porn industry is evolving reflects the extent
to which the Internet subverts the fantasy-reality dichotomy. After
years of booming profits, the “mainstream” porn studios are
increasingly losing ground to start-ups and freelancers—people making
sex videos on their beds and sofas and shag carpeting and uploading
them on the cheap. It turns out that, increasingly, Americans don’t
want porn as a “kind of science fiction,” as Kipnis put it—they want
realistic porn, porn that resembles the sex they might be having, and
porn that at every moment holds out the promise that they can join in,
like Peter Cook masturbating in front of his webcam.

So yes, there’s an obvious line between leafing through a Playboy and pulling a Spitzer on your wife. But the line between Spitzer and
the suburban husband who pays $29.95 a month to stream hard-core sex
onto his laptop is considerably blurrier. The suburbanite with the
hard-core porn hookup is masturbating to real sex, albeit at a
DSL-enabled remove. He’s experiencing it in an intimate setting, rather
than in a grind house alongside other huddled masturbators in
raincoats, and in a form that’s customized to his tastes in a way that
mass-market porn like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas never was. There’s no emotional connection, true—but there presumably wasn’t one on Spitzer’s part, either.

This isn’t to say the distinction between hiring a prostitute and
shelling out for online porn doesn’t matter; in moral issues, every
distinction matters. But if you approach infidelity as a continuum of
betrayal rather than an either/or proposition, then the Internet era
has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery
than I suspect most porn users would like to admit.

It’s possible, of course, to
consider hard-core porn use a kind of infidelity and shrug it off even
so. After all, human societies have frequently made sweeping
accommodations for extramarital dalliances, usually on the assumption
that the male libido simply can’t be expected to submit to monogamy.
When apologists for pornography aren’t making Kipnis-style appeals to
cultural transgression and sexual imagination, they tend to fall back
on the defense that it’s pointless to moralize about porn, because men
are going to use it anyway.

Here’s Dan Savage, the popular Seattle-based sex columnist,
responding to a reader who fretted about her boyfriend’s porn
habit—“not because I’m jealous,” she wrote, “but because I’m insecure.
I’m sure many of those girls are more attractive than me”:

All men look at porn … The handful of men who claim they don’t look at
porn are liars or castrates. Tearful discussions about your
insecurities or your feminist principles will not stop a man from
looking at porn. That’s why the best advice for straight women is this:
GET OVER IT. If you don’t want to be with someone who looks at porn …
get a woman, get a dog, or get a blind guy … While men shouldn’t rub
their female partners’ noses in the fact that they look at porn—that’s
just inconsiderate—telling women that the porn “problem” can be
resolved through good communication, couples counseling, or a chat with
your pastor is neither helpful nor realistic.

Savage’s perspective is hardly unique, and is found among women as
well as men. In 2003, three psychology professors at Illinois State
University surveyed a broad population of women who were, or had been,
in a relationship with a man who they knew used pornography. About a
third of the women described the porn habit as a form of betrayal and
infidelity. But the majority were neutral or even positively disposed
to their lover’s taste for smut, responding slightly more favorably
than not to prompts like “I do not mind my partner’s pornography use”
or “My partner’s pornography use is perfectly normal.”

This point of view—that looking at pornography is a “perfectly
normal” activity, one that the more-judgmental third of women need to
just stop whining about—has been strengthened by the erosion of the
second-order arguments against the use of porn, especially the argument
that it feeds misogyny and encourages rape. In the great porn debates
of the 1980s, arguments linking porn to violence against women were
advanced across the ideological spectrum. Feminist crusaders like
Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon denounced smut as a weapon of
the patriarchy; the Christian radio psychologist (and future
religious-right fixture) James Dobson induced the serial killer Ted
Bundy to confess on death row to a pornography addiction; the Meese
Commission on Pornography declared, “In both clinical and experimental
settings, exposure to sexually violent materials has indicated an
increase in the likelihood of aggression.” 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.
(Indeed, the best way to deter a rapist might be to hook him up with a
high-speed Internet connection: in a 2006 study, the Clemson economist
Todd Kendall found that a 10 percent increase in Internet access is
associated with a 7 percent decline in reported rapes.)

And what’s true of rapists could be true of ordinary married men, a
porn apologist might argue. For every Peter Cook, using porn and sleeping around, there might be countless men who use porn as a
substitute for extramarital dalliances, satisfying their need for
sexual variety without hiring a prostitute or kicking off a workplace

Like Philip Weiss’s friends, for instance. In the wake of the
Spitzer affair, Weiss, a New York–based investigative journalist, came
closer than any mainstream writer to endorsing not only the
legalization of prostitution but the destigmatization of infidelity, in
a rambling essay for New York magazine on the agonies that
monogamy imposes on his buddies. Amid nostalgia for the days of
courtesans and concubines and the usual plaints about how much more
sophisticated things are in Europe, Weiss depicted porn as the modern
man’s “common answer” to the marital-sex deficit. Here’s one of his
pals dilating on his online outlets:

“Porn captures these women [its performers] before they get smart,” he
said in a hot whisper as we sat in Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower
East Side. Porn exploited the sexual desires, and naïveté, of women in
their early twenties, he went on … He spoke of acts he observed online
that his wife wouldn’t do. “It’s painful to say, but that’s your boys’
night out, and it takes an enlightened woman to say that.”

The use of the term enlightened is telling, since the
strongest argument for the acceptance of pornography—and the hard-core
variety in particular—is precisely that it represents a form of sexual
progress, a more civilized approach to the problem of the male libido
than either the toleration of mass prostitution or the attempt, from
the Victorian era onward, to simultaneously legislate prostitution away
and hold married couples to an unreasonably high standard of fidelity.
Porn may be an evil, this argument goes, but it’s the least of several
evils. The man who uses porn is cheating sexually, but he isn’t
involving himself in an emotional relationship. He’s cheating in a way
that carries none of the risks of intercourse, from pregnancy to
venereal disease. And he’s cheating with women who may be trading sex
for money, but are doing so in vastly safer situations than
streetwalkers or even high-end escorts.

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.

If we would just accept Dan Savage’s advice, then, and get over it,
everyone would gain something. Weiss and his pals could have their
“boys’ night out” online and enjoy sexual experiences that their
marriages deny them. The majority of wives could rest secure in the
knowledge that worse forms of infidelity are being averted; some women
could get into the act themselves, either solo or with their spouse,
experiencing the thrill of a threesome or a ’70s key party with fewer
of the consequences. The porn industry’s sex workers could earn a
steady paycheck without worrying about pimps, police, or HIV. Every
society lives with infidelity in one form or another, whether openly or
hypocritically. Why shouldn’t we learn to live with porn?

Live with it we almost
certainly will. But it’s worth being clear about what we’re accepting.
Yes, adultery is inevitable, but it’s never been universal in the way
that pornography has the potential to become—at least if we approach
the use of hard-core porn as a normal outlet from the rigors of
monogamy, and invest ourselves in a cultural paradigm that understands
this as something all men do and all women need to live with. In the
name of providing a low-risk alternative for males who would otherwise
be tempted by “real” prostitutes and “real” affairs, we’re ultimately
universalizing, in a milder but not all that much milder form, the sort
of degradation and betrayal that only a minority of men have
traditionally been involved in.

Go back to Philip Weiss’s pal and listen to him talk: Porn captures these women before they get smart … It’s painful to say, but that’s your boys’ night out. This is the language of a man who has accepted, not as a temporary
lapse but as a permanent and necessary aspect of his married life, a
paid sexual relationship with women other than his wife. And it’s the
language of a man who has internalized a view of marriage as a sexual
prison, rendered bearable only by frequent online furloughs with women
more easily exploited than his spouse.

Calling porn a form of adultery isn’t about pretending that we can
make it disappear. The temptation will always be there, and of course
people will give in to it. I’ve looked at porn; if you’re male and
breathing, chances are so have you. Rather, it’s about what sort of
people we aspire to be: how we define our ideals, how we draw the lines
in our relationships, and how we feel about ourselves if we cross them.
And it’s about providing a way for everyone involved, men and women
alike—whether they’re using porn or merely tolerating it—to think about
what, precisely, they’re involving themselves in, and whether they
should reconsider.

The extremes of anti-porn hysteria are unhelpful in this debate. If
the turn toward an “everybody does it” approach to pornography and
marriage is wrong, it’s because that approach is wrong in and of
itself, not because porn is going to wreck society, destroy the
institution of marriage, and turn thousands of rapists loose to prey on
unsuspecting women. Smut isn’t going to bring down Western Civilization
any more than Nero’s orgies actually led to the fall of Rome, and a
society that expects near-universal online infidelity may run just as
smoothly as a society that doesn’t.

Which is precisely why it’s so easy to say that the spread of
pornography means that we’re just taking a turn, where sex and fidelity
are concerned, toward realism, toward adulthood, toward sophistication.
All we have to give up to get there is our sense of decency.