Girl Talk: Sometimes, Pornography Can Feel Like Cheating

The moment that my boyfriend got up to use the restroom, my friend Liz* turned to me and said gravely and in hushed tones, “All right, I need to make this quick before he gets back from the bathroom.”

Surprised, I replied, “OK???” She sounded like she’d been desperately holding something in all evening, just waiting for us to be alone.

“I just need to tell somebody this. I found out this week that Jay*” — her fiancé whom she has been with for 10 years — “has been masturbating to porn when I’m not around. Like, instead of having sex with me.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought Liz was going to say she found out Jay was cheating. He was only looking at porn, though! Thank God!

But as I would soon find out, for Liz, there wasn’t much difference between the two.

Liz says she assumed Jay looks at porn; she assumes, I think reasonably, that nearly all men do. But actually seeing Jay jerk off to porn has completely freaked her out.

We ditched my dude. “We need some girl talk,” I told him, and headed to another bar to debrief.

Liz and Jay, who are both 28, are that cute couple that’s pretty much been together since high school. They kept a long-distance relationship alive during college, moved to the same town after graduation, and moved in together as soon as they got engaged. I’ve never doubted Jay’s commitment to Liz or Liz’s commitment to Jay.

I absolutely adore Liz — she is one of my best friends — but I’ll be the first person to admit she’s dealing with a lot of issues. Her biological mother died suddenly, when Liz was still in diapers, and it still haunts her. After a few years as a single parent, Liz’s dad remarried when she was in kindergarten. But the woman he remarried had and still has a drinking problem and can be viciously unkind, bordering on verbally abusive. Even though Liz has been in therapy for years, there’s still a lot of messy stuff going on with her self-image and her self-worth.

According to Liz, she and Jay have had a pretty great sex life for most of the eight years they’ve been together. She says there have been periods where she’s had a crazy high libido and even initiated sex with him so often that he turned her down.

But in the past couple of years, their sex life has petered out. She works full-time, is in grad school, and is doing most of the work planning their wedding, so she says she usually wants to go straight to bed instead of have sex. Plus, twice in the past few years, Liz has had surgeries on her abdomen and she has big scars, which she says Jay has looked at in such a way that she knew he found them “gross.” It doesn’t help, either, that Liz has always been physically larger and stockier than most women. She’s beautiful and she’s got a pair of boobs to die for; but it is clear to me, at least, that she doesn’t feel great about her body.

Liz says she assumed Jay looks at porn; she assumes, I think reasonably, that nearly all men do. But actually seeing Jay jerk off to porn has completely freaked her out.

A few nights ago she walked into his home office, catching him off-guard, and found him beating off to some typical blonde, porn-y girl onscreen. Liz said she asked him, surprised, “What are you doing?” Jay, apparently, got really embarrassed, minimized the window and didn’t want to explain to Liz what, specifically, he was watching. But Jay and Liz did have (an extremely awkward) talk about it. Jay said he masturbates instead of asking her to have sex when he is pretty sure she’s not interested. Liz said she can understand his reasons intellectually, but her feelings are extremely, extremely hurt that he finds other women so attractive that he’s sexually pleasured by them. In the few nights since this incident had happened, Liz said she continues to feel hurt, awkward and shocked.

I really didn’t know what to say to Liz. My first inclination was to tell her not to be so shocked and that Jay was right that practically all guys look at porn. Of course guys look at porn. Of course they masturbate to porn. And you know what? Women look at and masturbate to porn, too. I certainly do and I know I’m not the only girl who does.

But I felt terrible saying that, because I can understand why she feels shocked. I, personally, wouldn’t be shocked if I caught my guy jerking off to porn because I know he looks at it; we’ve even watched porn together a few times. But Liz has been with Jay for eight years and apparently he hasn’t used porn much, or he’s just been discreet about it.

I know Liz will get over the shock in time. She might have been a little naive here and I am guessing Liz probably just needs to hear more of her girlfriends chime in and say, “Oh, yeah, Brian/John/Dan/etc. jerks off to porn! It’s not a big deal!”

What I am more worried about, though, is her hurt feelings about Jay pleasuring himself with pictures of other women. Let me be clear: Liz is not hurt at the idea that Jay finds other women attractive — she is not that naive — and she admits she finds other men attractive herself. But she’s hurt — deeply, deeply hurt — that an 18-year-old surgically enhanced blonde with a flat tummy is the person who’s pleasuring her boyfriend. Jay may take Liz out to dinner, Jay may change the oil on Liz’s car, Jay may do Thanksgiving at Liz’s parents’ house, but Liz is extremely hurt his sexual jollies are coming from elsewhere. Intellectually, Liz doesn’t think porn is in the same league as cheating, but regardless of that fact, it feels the same to her.

I was honest: offering advice on this subject is way out of my league. But if really Liz wanted my peanut gallery opinion, I told her, I had two suggestions. First, she and Jay each needed to put forth some effort so they can “reconnect” in the bedroom. Does she need him to help out more with wedding planning or household chores so she does not tire out so much? Can she make some changes to rev up her libido again, like maybe getting CDs of sexy music or body oil for Jay to use on her?

Number two, I told Liz I think she needs to make peace with her body image issues so her fiancé jerking off to porn stars doesn’t bother her so much. I suggested, “Could you buy a corset to cover your belly, if that is what’s making you self-conscious? Or some sexy camisoles? There’s lots of cute lingerie you could wear if you feel self-conscious about your stomach.” Liz agreed both of those suggestions could help.

I thought my advice on Saturday night, Cosmopolitan-inflected as it may be, was pretty decent. But all day Sunday, another thought nagged at my brain: What if Liz just asked Jay to stop looking at porn? Yes, Liz can reach a ceasefire with her feelings of self-worth. Yes, eventually grad school will end, wedding planning will be over, and Liz (hopefully) will not be exhausted all the time. Those changes will attack some of the issues from other angles. But if it hurts Liz so much, couldn’t it help if Jay stops looking at porn entirely?

Jay looking at porn feels like cheating to Liz. I may not agree with that assessment, but who is to judge that Liz’s feelings about it are not legitimate? After all, there are no “good” or “bad” feelings, only feelings. And if Jay getting sexually aroused by random porn stars hurts Liz’s feelings, and Jay and Liz are equal partners in the relationship, then why shouldn’t Jay stop doing something that hurts her feelings?

*Names have been changed.

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