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The Ashley Madison hack is bad news for cheaters—and just as terrible for everyone else

Monogamy—as we currently practice it—doesn’t seem to work the way we think it should.


Harris O'Malley


Nearly a month ago, the dating website (though I use the term loosely) Ashley Madison was hacked. The group known as The Impact Team managed to download over nine gigabytes of data that included account information for almost all of the site’s 37 million users. The group threatened to make the data public—exposing the users’ personal information, a practice known as doxing—unless AvidLife Media shut down Ashley Madison and Established Man down permanently. 

AvidLife refused, and the hackers have made good on their threats: The full file has been published online and was confirmed to be genuine.

But as easy as it is to make divorce lawyer jokes and cluck our tongues in righteous derision for the people who’ve gotten caught up in the oncoming tidal wave of bullshit, we tend to overlook the fact that this is bad for everyone. The schadenfreude of watching cheaters supposedly getting run over by the oncoming karma only ends up distracting us from a lot of troubling issues. The problem isn’t whose names are in the data dump, it’s why they’re there at all.

The issues of monogamy and adultery are a hell of a lot more complicated than we give them credit for.

The wrong people are getting punished

One of the things that’s continually getting lost in the story is that the hackers were supposedly targeting AvidLife Media for their dishonest practices and encouragement of breaking social mores. Beyond simply encouraging infidelity (Ashley Madison’s slogan is “Life is short. Have an Affair”), they’ve been repeatedly accused of creating fake profiles to lure in suckers, as well as ransoming user’s privacy. 

Closing your account on Ashley Madison doesn’t actually remove your profile or user data; to do that, you had to pay an extra $19 to ensure that you were wiped from the database. All evidence seems to point to the fact that, ALM didn’t actually remove the information; whether this is through maliciousness or incompetence remains up for debate.

But as much as Ashley Madison may have received a black eye (although most online dating sites have been shown to have shoddy web security), they’re not taking a hit nearly as hard as their users are. What is painful for a corporation is potentially disastrous for its clients. 

Closing your account on Ashley Madison doesn’t actually remove your profile or user data; to do that, you had to pay an extra $19 to ensure that you were wiped from the database.

This epic doxing represents a privacy leak of an unprecedented size and potential fallout. Thirty-nine million people have had their names, email addresses, home addresses, messages, and photos exposed. Beyond simple issues of identity theft and credit card fraud (the costs of which are primarily absorbed by the banks and credit card companies) is that it exposes literally millions of people’s privacy in ways that can potentially affect them for years to come. 

To quote The Social Network: The Internet is written in ink and Google never forgets—especially when sites like 4chan are busily sharing the information in easily searchable formats. The stigma of being caught up in the Ashley Madison hack could potentially end not just marriages but careers.

But hey, it’s cool, right? It’s just a bunch of cheating dickbags getting what they deserve?

Not everyone who uses Ashley Madison is a cheater (and not all cheaters are equal)

The stereotype of the typical Ashley Madison user is a scumbag looking to step out on his wife—and in fairness, that’s an image that Ashley Madison deliberately encourages. However, not everyone who signed up for the site was using it to cheat on their partners. For one, there were the lookey-loos—men and women who signed on simply to see what’s out there. Some people signed up out of curiosity and never used the site outside of browsing profiles. Others simply wanted to feel wanted.

But hey, it’s cool, right? It’s just a bunch of cheating dickbags getting what they deserve?

One of the uncomfortable truths about monogamy and relationships is that just because we’re in a relationship, we don’t stop enjoying attention from other people. Passion ebbs and flows in a long-term relationship, and many people simply miss the feeling of being desired by others. As many people on other dating sites and Craigslist‘s pages can tell you, there are many, many people out there who join just to flirt and maybe exchange pics but never have any intention of actually meeting in person.

Then there are the ethically non-monogamous. More and more people are experimenting in varying forms of non-monogamy, whether it’s filling specific kinks or fetishes one’s partner can’t or won’t participate in, allowing a partner off the leash now and then or a fully open or polyamorous relationship.

Because of stigma and double-standards surrounding sex, it can be difficult for ethically non-monogamous men to find partners; too many people lying about being in an open relationship or having an arrangement have poisoned the well. In these cases, Ashley Madison makes sense; the women who’ve signed up have signaled their willingness to consider men who are otherwise in relationships. Seeking a partner on Ashley Madison cuts down on a great deal of the dilemma of how to present the subject of being monogamish and when. Everyone is presumably already on board.

Then there are people who, for various reasons, simply prefer a site that’s built its reputation on discretion and guarding its users privacy. Many Ashley Madison users were gay and looking for discreet partners. While it’s easy to look down on the closeted, there are many who keep their sexuality a secret for very good reasons—such as this Saudi man who is now at risk for being prosecuted for being gay. (Note: This link contains no identifiable information.)

Because of stigma and double-standards surrounding sex, it can be difficult for ethically non-monogamous men to find partners.

But among even those who were committing adultery, there are cheaters and there are cheaters. As much as we like to see adultery as a black and white issue, there are inconvenient shades of grey. There are, of course, the serial cheaters, the callous assholes who have no problem lying to and betraying their spouses—but then there are those for whom cheating is the lesser of many evils. Someone whose partner can’t have sex isn’t the same as the man or woman who can’t keep it in their pants.

Not everybody can simply leave their partners—financial dependence, medical issues, or questions of safety can keep many people in an otherwise broken relationship. Still others have functional, companionate marriages that are great, except for the issue of sex. Insisting that these people should end their relationships means throwing away years or even decades of a relationship that they still value.

Still—as I have heard many people say—even if these people do exist, they’re a minority of the Ashley Madison userbase. The majority are (presumably) dirty, rotten cheaters and deserve what they get, right?

Doxxing people is cool (as long as it’s the right people)

We can all agree that violating people’s privacy is a deeply shitty thing to do. Doxing—collecting and revealing people’s private information including names and addresses—has long been a tool of harassment, used by trolls like Paul Elam, RooshV, and groups like Gamergate to attack and terrorize their targets and opponents. Most people would agree that forcibly outing someone who’s gay is, likewise, a horrible thing to do.

But we seem to be pretty OK with telling the world that so-and-so is cheating on his or her partner.

You’ll see this over and over again on social media: “I’m against doxing but…” It’s easy to justify to ourselves that this is just chickens coming home to roost and that the guilty party has brought it upon themselves by their actions. If they didn’t want this private part of their lives to get out there for all to see, they never should have done it in the first place. This is the same sort of reasoning people had for justifying sharing Jennifer Lawrence‘s nude photos during The Fappening.

Among even those who were committing adultery, there are cheaters and there are cheaters. 

There are times when exposing somebody has public value. Demonstrating that an anti-gay bigot in power is on the down-low defangs someone who’s doing active harm to others. Revealing that somebody is a predatory rapist—even if he can no longer be prosecuted for his crimes—can help shine a light on the system that enabled him.

At other times, however, it’s really about the rush that comes with feeling like the avenging fist of God. Much as with, say, digging up and sharing the personal information of people who kill celebrity lions, there’s a sense of righteousness that comes with exposing those dirty rotten cheaters. It feels like justice being served, avenging those who’ve been wronged, especially if they don’t know they’ve been wronged.

There’s no easier way to show how good a person you are then by exposing and judging the sins of others. But that feeling of righteousness falls apart when you consider that it comes part and parcel with taking part in one of the largest, most audacious blackmail plots we’ve ever seen.

There is that temptation to say that it’s a cheater’s just desserts and that they deserve it for their actions—to which I have to ask: What business is it of yours? How does a stranger’s private behavior—or a co-worker’s or a neighbor’s, for that matter, affect you in any way, shape, or form? It’s easy to say “fuck that guy,” without thinking that you can just as easily fit the description of “that guy” in somebody else’s eyes. You could easily find yourself in that avenging mob’s crosshairs.

The idea of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” is a thin fig-leaf to hide behind, especially when we all have things that we’d rather the public not know about to one degree or another.

There’s no easier way to show how good a person you are then by exposing and judging the sins of others. 

But beyond the slippery slope of whose privacy we feel righteous in violating, there’s the fact that the outcomes of this mob justice rarely only impacts the guilty (or not-so-guilty) party. The spouses of the men and women who’ve been exposed are now open to harassment from anyone and everyone who feels like being part of a moral vigilante squad. So too are their children.

People have a right to know what their husbands or wives are up to, but they also have a right to not know; exposing a cheater also means exposing the person being cheated on to anguish and pain that might otherwise have been avoided. Marriages and relationships—ones that might have otherwise survived or been saved—will be ended. Families will be broken apart. People will lose their jobs.

We need to talk about monogamy

One of the most significant issues about the Ashley Madison hack is, in many ways, the most fundamental: what it says about our culture’s view on sex and sexuality

Ashley Madison had over 39 million users. That’s 39 million men and women who decided to look outside the strictures of monogamy. This goes beyond “glitch in the system” and straight into “we’re missing something significant” territory, because just that’s the tip of the iceberg. 

According to studies published in The Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 55 percent of married women and 60 percent of married men report being unfaithful to their spouses. When more than half of married couples are having affairs to one degree or another, that becomes a topic of concern, not because of any moral crisis but because we need to take a longer, harder look at how we view sex and monogamy. 

People have a right to know what their husbands or wives are up to, but they also have a right to not know.

While I’ll be the first to say that my views on monogamy are nuanced, the fact remains that most of us are bad at monogamy. It’s easy to write it off as a lack of willpower or a moral failing because it’s easier than being willing to admit that monogamy—as we currently practice it—doesn’t seem to work the way we think it should.

One of the things that we don’t like to talk about is that we may insist that we prize monogamy and matrimony, but we treat marriage and committed relationships as the death of sexual adventure and excitement. You may have swung from the chandeliers before, but now that you’ve put a ring on it, it’s straight vanilla missionary for you—if you have sex at all. It’s baked into how we look at marriage and commitment, right down to the practice of bachelor parties—that last epic night of “freedom” before you’re cut off from fun and excitement.

We also don’t like to acknowledge that monogamy just means we choose not to have sex with others; it doesn’t say a damned thing about not wanting to. Simply acknowledging that yes, you would like to bang someone who’s not your spouse is seen as a sign that things are wrong in your relationship and it’s all going to fall apart. This cultural unwillingness to be open about the fact that our desire for novelty and new partners doesn’t end when we say “I do” means that we don’t have the vocabulary or the emotional wherewithal to have open discussions with our partners about our needs.  

It doesn’t help that there’s a tendency to view sex as unimportant, except when it’s not. If a couple has mismatching libidos—one partner has a significantly higher sex-drive than the other—then the standard advice is either “do chores” (because of the unstated assumption that it’s the man who wants it more) so that their partner has more energy for sex or just “deal with it.” It doesn’t matter that what they want is greater intimacy with their partner; a bottle of Jergens and five minutes in the shower is supposed to suffice. The only other option is divorce.

That lack of middle ground makes it harder to deal with any bumps in the road, and that unimportant desire the hornier partner has suddenly becomes very important as soon as he or she looks to get their needs met elsewhere.

Monogamy—as we currently practice it—doesn’t seem to work the way we think it should.

Even our bodies literally work against us when it comes to long-term monogamy. Mammals—from rodents to primates—have a desire for novelty when it comes to sex partners. A rat will quickly lose interest in sex over time when only one partner is available; however, when a new partner is introduced, its interest spikes. So it is with humans. The dopamine flood that we get from sex with the same partner decreases over time but spikes with a new one.

That’s why the sexual encounters in the early stages of a relationship are firestorms of excitement that culminate in orgasms that blow the top of your head off: Your body is reacting to the novelty of a new partner and settles down as you become more familiar with one another. As a result, we get bored, even if we have a tight emotional bond. Sex At Dawn may have it right: we’re literally not built for long-term monogamy.

If that’s true, then monogamy as we currently practice it means that we’re setting ourselves up for failure. When we brand people who cheat as villains and cast doubt over the sincerity of their feeling for their partners, we make it impossible to have real discussions about handling adultery in ways that doesn’t automatically destroy a relationship. Similarly, by making it simply a personal and moral failure we end any potential discussion about sex and sexual incompatibility in long-term relationships that go beyond admonishments for partners with higher libidos to either do more housework or just suck it up.

This is not to say that non-monogamy and open relationships are the One True Way, just that we do need to be more willing to look at the complexities surrounding adultery and infidelity rather than declaring it to be The Crime Which Cannot Be Forgiven. It’s very easy to sit in judgement on others’ relationships until you realize how hard it is to know where you’ll be sitting.

Harris O’Malley is a dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove, the Dr. NerdLove podcast and The Good Men Project.

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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