Ashley Madison Users May Be Jerks, But So Are the People Who Publicly Out and Humiliate Them

Cheating is slimy. Outing cheaters, though, is also slimy, because it plays upon the puritan, prudish attitudes we have about sexuality to punish people.
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July 21, 2015
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cheating, ashley madison

Ashley Madison, everyone's favorite site for arranging extramarital affairs, just got hacked bigtime by an organization calling itself The Impact Team. The group claims that it wanted to critique the site's "Full Delete" feature, which charges users $19 for a full scrub of their profiles and data. According to The Impact Team, Ashley Madison actually retains user data after requests for account deletion — kind of like the Facebook of sketchy dating sites.

In "protest," the group penetrated the Ashley Madison servers and started leaking information not just about some of the site's 37 million users, but also the organization's employees, including personally identifying information, pay, and more.

The site exists solely for people interested in seeking relationships outside their marriages, and the vast majority are cheating (or interested in cheaters) rather than participating in open, polyamorous, or nonmonogamous relationships where everyone is aware and consenting. Whether the thrill is in cheating itself or being in an affair, Ashley Madison caters to it, and it's big money. It's also worth noting that the membership is about 90 percent male, reflecting general statistics on who cheats (spoiler: men do it more).

Say what you want about Ashley Madison — some 81.7 percent of people think that cheating is "always wrong," although 62.7 percent of the population cheats, so welcome to Hypocrisy Town — but the site is offering a service that people seem to want, and it's bringing in a lot of money. That's the nature of capitalism and entrepreneurship. Ashley Madison, of course, is famous for being really outstandingly gross when it comes to promotional material, like the horrific ad featuring a fat model's image (without consent) to suggest that no one wants to bang a fat girl.

And I'd argue that when a marriage reaches the point of being so broken that people don't sit down to talk about their issues and instead seek partners on the Internet, it's not really fair to blame the Internet for it. Cheaters gonna cheat. We also live in a culture where people are heavily pushed to be monogamous, which makes it really hard for people to open up to the idea, or admit, that maybe a monogamous marriage isn't right for them — instead, they're driven to covert relationships that come with a lot of shame and humiliation.

When Melanie Burliet went undercover (so to speak) at Ashley Madison in 2008 for "Vanity Fair," she connected with a user who "called himself a 'big believer in monogamy through adultery.' His view — one he shared with his partner, allegedly — was that it’s unwise to 'pull down the shrouds' with the unhealthy aim of knowing everything. Thomas guessed that his wife had cheated on him, but this thought didn’t trouble him; nor, he professed, would the idea of his affairs torment her."

Whether he was being honest or not, his comment reflects a weird sort of liminal space in our relationship to monogamy, sexuality, and relationships — "we aren't going to admit that we have an open relationship, but we're not quite cheating either, but we don't want to know what the other partner is up to." It's rather bizarre, but it highlights the fact that not everyone is using Ashley Madison for the same reasons.

With the hack comes a big threat, even as the user data The Impact Team is posting is being taken down. Because in an era where monogamy is king, exposing cheaters can be a career ender, and it's certainly going to cause considerable controversy — the organization is clearly fully also aware of the blackmail potential of the information it's sitting on. At least some Ashley Madison users are no doubt quietly panicking over when, if, and where information about their accounts will surface.

Cheating is slimy: It endangers partners, it's emotionally cruel, and it's not the way to resolve a relationship that's not working. Cheaters deserve zero respect, because there are a lot of steps between "this relationship isn't working" and "I'm going to get involved with someone else," and "breaking up" should happen before "cheating." Being cheated on is an awful experience, and facilitating that is definitely gross.

Outing cheaters, though, is also slimy, because it preys and plays upon the puritan, prudish attitudes we have about sexuality to punish people. The media leaps on "gotcha!" moments like this, especially when they involve same-sex cheating, which is considered extra salacious thanks to homophobia, as seen in a recent case when Gawker exposed a married executive for seeking the services of a gay escort. The story didn't really offer any public benefit, and was posted purely for the attention value of outing the executive.

The organization posted the story because it knew it would get traffic, because stories about people who cheat always do — the surprising part was how the Internet reacted, exploding in fury about the level of tackiness involved. It's unusual to see the Internet at large rising up in response to an outing, criticizing the culture where cheating is treated like "news" and no one stops to think about what it's like to be the victim when a major act of mistrust in your relationship is being smeared across the media. The Ashley Madison hack reflects the same kind of situation, though, albeit with individuals who might not be as high profile. Yet, the average AM user deserves the same respect this executive did.

They're all doing something gross and despicable, but that still shouldn't be news, and outing the details of their private lives still doesn't serve any kind of public benefit. It contributes directly to public harm by humiliating their victims, regardless as to claims that being told their partners are cheating on them will benefit them in the long term. About the only thing it does is eliminate the possibility for blackmail by laying it all out on the table.

The risks of being blackmailed are very real, especially for executives, politicians, and other high-ranking members of society. Outings force people to step down from office, resign, or switch careers. Some might argue that cheaters should be punished, with no sympathy for people caught with their pants down, but these events aren't something to cheer about. They just reinforce really antiquated mores about sexuality, and make it that much harder for people to openly explore nonmonogamous relationships.

Think of Frank and Claire in "House of Cards" and their remarkably complex sexual relationship and partnership — something that would get politicians in the real world brought down in an instant if it was exposed. As long as we maintain the belief that nonmonogamous relationships are wrong and something to be punished, outing cheaters will be big business. Hacking Ashley Madison under the guise of making some kind of bold public statement doesn't do anything of the kind. It just serves to further the notion that any kind of contact outside a primary relationship is "cheating," and thus needs to take place covertly.

Maybe if we could all be open about our lives, sites like Ashley Madison wouldn't be such hot tickets, and we could all get on with being concerned about something other than what people are doing in their bedrooms or anyone else's.

Photos: Abhishek Jacob, Daniel Horacio Agostini (CC)