The news of the Ashley Madison data breach and subsequent release of users’ confidential details last week has been met with varied responses, some natural (good lord, a lot of our information is on the web — perhaps we shouldn’t take online privacy for granted?), some understandable (Karma! Serves these cheaters right!), and some desperately stupid (yer all a bunch of puritanical moralists!).
I’ve struggled to figure out where I stand on all of this. Certainly I didn’t feel an immediate sense of joy knowing that cheaters (or hopeful cheaters) everywhere would be outed. I did feel an immediate sense of discomfort, knowing that so much of our personal information is out there online, whether it’s credit card info or personal conversations we’ve had over text or email. I also don’t feel entirely comfortable with the trend of shaming by social media that’s become so popular of late, even when it’s shaming people who are maybe sleezebags. And finally, I was forced to think a little more thoroughly about my opinion of people who cheat on their partners.
Regardless, this kind of data breach is not “good,” even if it happens to cheaters. I mean, do we really trust the moral compasses of hackers that much? You’ll notice that, more often than not, these skills are used to leak celebrity nudes, to shut down sites like Mumsnet, or to hack into Anita Sarkeesian’s Wikipedia page, inserting pornographic images and links to porn sites. This kind of thing could happen to anyone — cheater or not — and it seems as though women are targeted in particularly vicious, misogynist ways.
All that said, it’s hard for me to muster up sympathy for cheaters… Particularly the kinds of cheaters who are so committed to cheating that they will go so far as to sign up for a service that will facilitate their affair(s). I mean, come on… This is not something that can be chalked up to a momentary lapse of judgement, passion, or an accident. As questionable as those excuses are (of course I believe humans are in control of their bodies and can choose not to jump into bed with someone who isn’t the person they are in a monogamous relationship with), I am fully aware that these things do sometimes happen and that it doesn’t always mean a person is “bad” or amoral.
But before we move any further into this discussion, we need to acknowledge that this conversation is a gendered one. Reports say that 70 per cent of Ashley Madison’s users were male, but it looks like many of those who made up the remaining 30 per cent of female users were actually fake, meaning the percentage of male users was as high as 90-95 per cent. Is this mere coincidence? I think not. Male entitlement is an issue, here.
Beyond that, I’m going to straight up tell you that I judge male cheaters differently than I do female cheaters. This is partly because I have, over the years, seen or heard about far more men cheating on their girlfriends than I have the reverse. The bro code is strong and it remains acceptable for men to dick around behind their girlfriends’ or wives’ backs, all the while supported by their buds. Simply, I do not have much sympathy for men who make a habit of cheating because it feeds their ego. There is a difference between a mistake and a way of life. And our culture tells men that, for example, it’s perfectly fine to see prostitutes behind their partners’ backs if they aren’t “getting what they need” at home or to pick up women at the club so long as your girlfriend or wife doesn’t find out. Ashley Madison endorses all these ideas, implicitly and explicitly. One ad suggested that cheating was acceptable if your wife put on weight. The narrative endorsed by Ashley Madison is not an ethically neutral one, but rather a misogynist one that conveys a sense of entitlement to sex and women’s bodies we know full-well is attached to masculinity.
There is no larger societal context that tells us it’s “natural” for women to pursue sex outside their monogamous partnerships. There is no common defense of this kind of behaviour in women that says, “Girls will be girls, you know women think with their vaginas.” Women do not, in large part, have porn addictions that are defended by society at large because they can only be satisfied in life so long as they have access to an endless stream of male bodies to serve as masturbatory aids. There is not an entire multi-billion dollar industry that sees thousands upon thousands of male adults and children abused and murdered because we believe women will go around raping other men if they aren’t permitted to act out every fantasy they’ve ever had on something or somebody. Men are not told, en masse, that “maintenance sex” is their duty and that if they don’t service their wives on demand, they’ll “lose interest.” Likewise husbands aren’t told to stay thin, get cosmetic surgery, wear sexy underwear, perform porny fantasies involving schoolgirl uniforms and BDSM, lest their wives stray.
Men are socialized to care about themselves more than anyone else. Women are socialized in the opposite way — to put their needs and desires last. Women are also made to put up with various forms of abuse — sexual, physical, emotional, and verbal — in heterosexual relationships in a way that men are not. (Cheating, to be clear, can be a form of emotional abuse. It is a mindfuck and any woman who has been in a relationship with a serial liar/cheater knows that.) We are also expected to put an enormous amount of emotional labour into our relationships that means we work around men’s “problems,” trying to support them into treating us well and “teaching” them how to be emotionally intelligent adults. Women often believe that if they just love their abusers enough, the abuse will stop. We end up excusing behaviour we should not because we are fed a bunch of Men Are From Mars bullshit and convince ourselves that sexist stereotypes are innate and unchangeable.
Considering all of this and the fact that the vast majority of users on Ashley Madison were men, I think it is ridiculous to talk about this whole incident outside a gendered context. Which is, interestingly, exactly how many people have been discussing this.
Dan Savage wrote:
“… Whether someone was on Ashley Madison because she actually wanted to cheat or someone else was on the site because he merely got off on thinking about cheating, outing private people for their sexual conduct — even their ‘wrong’ sexual conduct — can’t be justified.”
Who, one might ask, are all these “shes” he’s thinking of? That ten percent of female users isn’t worth alternating “shes” and “hes” in Savage’s commentary in a “this could happen to anyone!” kind of way…
Glenn Greenwald wrote:
“Busybodies sitting in judgment of and righteously condemning the private, sexual acts of other adults remains one of the most self-satisfying and entertaining — and thus most popular — public spectacles…”
He goes on to criticize the “puritanical glee” of judgers, which he sees as hypocritical considering “how common both infidelity and online pornography are,” which is, in many ways, fair. But not unless you start using male pronouns somewhere in there… Greenwald doesn’t feel there is anything morally wrong with cheating and uses the following example to make his point:
“Say you’re a gay man or lesbian forced through societal or religious pressure into a heterosexual marriage, and ‘cheating’ is your only form of sexual fulfillment: Is that clearly morally wrong?”
Easy answer: No. No I don’t think that it is “clearly morally wrong.” I don’t think cheating is clearly always anything. Life is complicated and so are relationships. Monogamy and marriage is not necessarily a great arrangement for all people. I could care less about “marital vows,” as marriage is not a value that matters to me (I have long voiced my opposition to marriage, as an institution). But respect and compassion is important to me and I don’t think it is respectful or compassionate to allow your partner to think you are in a monogamous relationship with them when, in fact, you are going out of your way not to be. Being cheated on feels embarrassing, disempowering, disrespectful, cruel, and, of course, constitutes a breach of trust that can be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
Certainly I agree that no one’s life and/or career should be destroyed because they cheated or tried to cheat. As such, I am not “gleeful” about this data breach at all. But to treat this as though this is simply a human phenomenon that might be helping marginalized people to find happiness and fulfillment in their lives is kind of ridiculous. Were there a whole bunch of lesbians on Ashley Madison? (Spoiler: NOPE.)
We are not perfect beings. We make mistakes. But trying to have an affair on Ashley Madison is not a mistake. This isn’t like an, oh I was at a party and we drank too much wine and made out, oops scenario.
Greenwald argues that “adultery is a private matter between the adulterer and his or her spouse.”
But is the larger pattern of male entitlement, selfishness, objectification, and emotional abuse truly “just a private matter” that no one should talk about or “judge” ever, lest they be labelled “moralistic puritans?”
This was not at all the right way to go about holding men accountable (and I don’t really believe that was the point of the hack anyway). But, at the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that men, throughout history, have rarely been held to account, as a group or as individuals, for their inconsiderate, selfish, hurtful, and abusive behaviour. It has been far more common that they’ve been excused and protected and that those who say, “Hey maybe you don’t need to go to a strip club or hire a prostitute for your buddy’s bachelor party or leave your wife for your nanny or watch porn on the sly,” are labelled as “moralistic prudes” who simply don’t understand men’s “natural” urges and physical “needs.”
There are lots of reasons people cheat and sometimes the reasons are good or fair. Even if the reasons aren’t good, I am not a fan of public shaming or of life-ruining as a solution. But fucked if I’m going to pretend that most men cheat for “good” reasons when surely we all know that most of them cheat because they are selfish, egotistical, man-children who think the world owes them gratification at any cost.
The fact that anyone would discuss cheating, within the context of Ashley Madison or otherwise, outside a gendered context and without factoring in male entitlement, objectification, and the dynamic that exists in heterosexual relationships, fueled by patriarchy, is ludicrous.