The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Is sex in virtual reality cheating? Part 3

I read with interest your recent column regarding whether Virtual Reality pornography is ‘cheating,' James wrote. Couples often wrestled with the issue of the husband's use of porn, whether print or video: did it constitute cheating, a form of adultery?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

 

James F. wrote to Ethics and Religion Talk:

“I read with interest your recent column regarding whether Virtual Reality pornography is ‘cheating.’ I assumed the respondents were talking about someone in a committed relationship, especially marriage. I am a retired psychologist and marriage counselor. Couples often wrestled with the issue of the husband's use of porn, whether print or video: did it constitute cheating, a form of adultery? The majority of wives, whether religious or not, felt it was cheating; whereas, the majority of men felt it was merely a harmless diversion (they offered various rationalizations!).  

“Since Jesus said, ‘If a man but lust after a woman in his heart, he has already committed adultery with her,’ is he committing adultery – ‘cheating’ – if he uses only his own imagination? That is, if a man closes his eyes and masturbates to images of another woman, whether a specific, real woman, or an image he has seen in a magazine or in a movie, is he committing mental adultery? More particularly, if his mental images are of a previous sex partner--actual memories of past sexual activity with another person? I have counseled many men, who admitted to this, even though they would never use print or video pornography.”

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“It’s clear from the question that the interest is in what would qualify — in almost a legal sense — as ‘cheating’ and less an concern for what’s really going on. Orthodox Christianity views sin through the lens of what is harmful (and the healing from that hurt) more than what justifies labeling certain behaviors as violations or not. Obviously the women in this counselor’s experience are deeply hurt by the behavior of their porn-watching men, regardless of what either group labels ​it. This pain brings division into the human relationship that is should most clearly express the Divine Unity of God: the relationship of a man and woman in marriage. What we label that open wound--whether or not we call it ‘cheating’ – seems the least of what we should be concerned about.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“In Reformed and Presbyterian practice, church discipline is reserved for actual sins of a grave or public nature. No one can be charged or disciplined for ‘committing adultery in his heart.’ But such persons can and should be admonished for the serious harm they are doing to others, and called upon to repent and amend their ways. In cases involving online pornography, one is staggered by reports of the vast numbers of images sought out, downloaded, and stored away by the men involved. Something has gone very wrong, and it will take a long time to put it right again. 

“Christ’s words do shed light upon the dark secrets of the heart. They remind us that sex is fraught with possibilities for both good and evil. They should also remind us that most Christians hit puberty with little or no preparation for what they are suddenly feeling and seeing in themselves and others. ‘Just say no!’ is not much help. A code of silence leaves us all to struggle along and work things out on our own. Trial and error is a poor substitute for candor, knowledge, wisdom, direction and encouragement. It seems to me that the Christian Church has erred in offering simple answers and simplistic solutions to the problems entailed in human sexuality.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“When asked a similar question I said it would be up to the couple’s covenant or agreement to determine if virtual reality pornography was considered cheating or not. The same holds true for this question as well.

“In Unitarian Universalism we would not turn to scripture to determine if some behavior were to be considered cheating or adultery. As a UU minister, I think what is important is how the person feels in their heart, if they feel it is cheating, if they feel guilt following the act or if they are keeping secrets from their partner then there is reason to re-evaluate their behavior. We are a religion of free thinkers; we value an individual’s right to their own thoughts, beliefs and in this case their own imagination as well.”

My response:

It is hard enough to life up to the demands of being a good person, to control one’s physical self, to show restraint and humility and kindness and be generous and stand up against oppression, without also expecting a person to shut down every aspect of a fantasy life. True, if a person constantly fantasizes for someone other than one’s partner during moments of intimacy, it may indicate a problem. But is it cheating, adultery, or a sin? No.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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