Is Watching Porn Cheating? It's Complicated — Sex Therapists Explain

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor

Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

Is Watching Porn Cheating? It's Complicated — Sex Therapists Explain

Porn can often be a hot-button issue in romantic relationships, in part because watching porn is a habit that most people do in secret without ever discussing it with their partners. Which raises the question: Is watching porn cheating?

It's a tricky question, so we asked sex therapists to weigh in.

Is porn cheating?

Watching porn is not considered cheating in every relationship, but it can be in some relationships. It depends on the relationship parameters the partners have agreed on.

"Cheating is, at its simplest, actions that cross the agreed-upon boundaries in a relationship. If both parties agree to not view porn and one person does in secret, then in that circumstance, yes, it could be considered cheating," explains Shadeen Francis, LMFT, CST, a licensed marriage therapist and board-certified sex therapist.

But watching porn isn't in itself a betrayal, Francis emphasizes. The betrayal happens when one person knowingly crosses a line they've agreed not to cross in the relationship.

Of course, many couples never explicitly discussed porn before entering into the relationship—and this lack of transparency can also lead to hurt feelings. "Often, this question hasn't even been discussed, so when the one partner finds out the other is watching porn, they feel betrayed," explains Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed marriage therapist and AASECT-certified sex therapist.

Part of the confusion here stems from the assumptions around what it means to be in a monogamous relationship: Some people assume that being sexually exclusive means that porn must be off the table, whereas others see watching porn as more of a personal, solo sexual activity and therefore not related to cheating because it doesn't involve other people. There isn't a right or wrong answer here—it's just about how the individuals in a given relationship see it and what they agree on going forward.

"However, if we look at the absolute criteria for cheating—secretive physical or emotional engagement with someone outside of the relationship—it is hard for porn to check this box. Certainly there is no touch and almost never any communication," Richmond says. "Most people watch for some sort of stress relief or anxiety reduction. It isn't as much about sex as it is about a biological physical release. It is almost never about connecting with the performers."

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The problem with demonizing porn.

Everyone's allowed to have their boundaries in a relationship. At the same time, Francis emphasizes the importance of making sure not to create a culture of hostility around a partner's natural desires—which can be worse for the relationship than the actual porn. 

"Most folks have been instructed to view porn (and any other form of self-focused pleasure) as a comment on relationship sexual satisfaction or, at worst, a threat to partnered pleasure. This misconception makes the landscape of desire dangerous and is often more harmful to the relationship than the porn viewing itself," Francis explains.

"Arousal isn't a threat. People still have the ability to decide what they do with their time, attention, and, yes, genitals. Partners cannot control their partner's behavior; you do not have agency over anyone else's body. Even if the behavior reflects a value difference, unless they have agreed not to watch porn themselves, you cannot enforce or mandate another person's relationship to their body. This leads to unhealthy power dynamics, reinforces a relationship culture of surveillance and insecurity, and is deeply shameful for both parties involved."

That means that the answer to disagreements about porn use often aren't simply to force the person to stop watching porn—it often won't work, and it can often make matters worse.

"Even if the person says they will give it up, most likely they won't, so this dynamic doesn't work anyway," Richmond says. "No one wants to be controlled, and our partner's mind and bodies are not ours to own. There must be open communication about what porn means to both people and a collaborative agreement going forward, as well as an attempt to perhaps meet in the middle."

Can porn negatively affect a relationship?

"Yes, watching porn can negatively impact a relationship, but it's most often not because it's 'cheating.' It's because the couple hasn't talked about why they want to or don't want to watch porn and what meaning porn has to them," Richmond explains. "Porn itself isn't the risk to the relationship; not talking about it is."

In general, research has produced mixed results about the effects of watching porn. Many studies have found porn is associated with lower relationship satisfaction, while others have found porn more commonly has no effect or even positive effects on couples' sex lives. (If you really want to get into the weeds, here's our deep dive on how porn affects relationships.)

One of the most common concerns about porn use in relationships is that the person is watching porn because they're not satisfied with their sex life with their partner. But according to Francis, that worry is often grounded in their partner's insecurities about their own desirability.

"This topic can open up some really meaningful conversations within relationships," she says. "Often, more than porn, couples are needing to resolve conflicts around the infrequency of sex, the kinds of sex that are being had (or not), or unmet needs for reassurance about their individual desirability."

Signs that porn is negatively affecting the relationship.

Here are a few signs that your porn use might be affecting your relationship, according to Richmond:

  • You're hiding your porn use from your partner because you think or know they won't approve of it.
  • You or your partner's erotic energy is going exclusively toward porn, resulting in a low-sex or sexless relationship.
  • You or your partner expect sex with each other to look like the sex in porn.
  • You or your partner try to "perform" during sex to meet porn standards.
  • You feel like you can't ask for what you want in bed; you feel pressured to mimic what you see in porn.
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How to talk about porn with your partner.

If you watch porn and don't know how your partner feels about it, Richmond says it's important to just have a conversation about it. Here's a simple conversation starter:

"I was reading an article about watching porn in relationships, and I realized we've never really had a conversation about that. I don't want to keep secrets, so I thought it'd be good for us to talk about this and see how we both feel about it."

It can be helpful to explain what you get from watching porn, whether it's just for a quick physical release, a way to explore fantasies, or whatever else it might be. It'll also be important to reassure your partner that your porn use doesn't have to do with how you feel about them so they don't worry. (Or if it does feel related to your feelings about the relationship, bring up those concerns so you can start working on them together!)

Often navigating feelings around porn use will take more than just one conversation, so make sure to give your partner time to process if they need it, to ask questions to understand their feelings about it, and to be proactive in making sure your partner feels secure in the relationship.

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What to do if your partner watches porn:

1. Have a nonjudgmental conversation to understand each other's points of view.

A conversation is imperative, no matter how awkward it might feel.

It's important to understand why your partner watches porn and what they get out of it, says Richmond. "Is it about anxiety reduction, boredom alleviation, mood improvement, sleep enhancement, novelty, curiosity, exploration, or one of dozens of other reasons? Again, it is almost never because the porn-watching person isn't happy with their partner or because they have a desire to cheat."

Likewise, your feelings about the issue are valid. Explain what feelings are coming up for you now that you know about your partner's porn use. Try to convey these feelings without attacking or judging your partner for their porn use. Focus less on convincing each other about who's right; instead, focus on understanding the feelings and needs each of you is describing.

2. Give yourself a reality check.

"Porn is media designed to be arousing by showing scenes of actors and performers experiencing pleasure," Francis reminds. "Even if what your partner views doesn't please you, in particular, how does it make you feel to know that they can be turned on by their own fantasies? Have you ever been aroused by anything that wasn't directly related to your partner? If yes (which is the answer for most people), that is normal."

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3. Make honesty a priority.

Finding out about a partner's porn use can sometimes feel jolting or even traumatizing because it feels like there's been a secret between you this whole time. As Richmond points out, the secrecy is often more damaging than the porn use itself.

So putting the porn aside for a second, it's worth having a conversation about the importance of honesty and transparency in your relationship: Why was there such a big secret between the two of you for this long? How can you foster an environment where your partner feels safe sharing intimate truths about themselves with you? And how can they assure you that you can trust them to be honest going forward?

4. Check in on how well each other's needs are being met in the relationship.

How connected are the two of you feeling these days? Is there excitement and passion in the relationship? Do you feel like your sexual and emotional needs are being met? Do you both feel sexy and desired?

These are all questions that can come into focus when porn use comes up, so it's a great time to check in on how the two of you are feeling and what you can do to make sure you both feel super secure in the relationship. When you're feeling good about the relationship (and in your sex life), often the question of porn feels less threatening.

5. Build your sexual self-esteem.

For many people, learning about a partner's porn use can make our own insecurities—about the relationship and ourselves—flare up.

"The worry about whether the porn watcher is dissatisfied or disinterested in sex is often grounded in their partner's internalized insecurities about their own desirability," Francis says. "Working on your own sense of sexual worth and appeal can help lessen the fear associated with knowing that other people are also sexually appealing."

Work on building your sexual self-esteem, connecting with your own sexual energy, and enjoying the benefits of masturbation yourself.

"Your partner can support this journey also," Francis adds. "How does your relationship make room for sexual attention, flirtation, or just compliments?"

6. Make space for compromise.

Both Francis and Richmond say that asking your partner to stop watching porn altogether is likely not an effective strategy and will ultimately just put more strain on the relationship. So in place of ultimatums, find ways to really connect as a couple and breathe new life into the relationship. Ask your partner to really hear and understand your feelings, and really listen and try to understand theirs.

While you might never see completely eye to eye on porn, there may be ways for you to meet somewhere in the middle. Richmond suggests considering options like watching porn together (mutual masturbation is a thing!) or even creating your own.

If you and your partner are struggling to make progress in these conversations, seeing a couples' therapist, counselor, or coach can be very helpful. A professional can guide you through these tough conversations and help you get creative with solutions.

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