We don’t have a right to know who’s cheating on Ashley Madison

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No one likes a cheater.

Anyone who’s been subject to infidelity—or has comforted a scorned friend—can certainly identify with our cultural fixation on payback. Cheaters host Joey Greco can thank unfaithful spouses for his decade-long stint in reality television. From the bombastic anthems about vehicular damage such as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows,” and even Blu Cantrell’s credit card-fueled shopping spree on “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!),” revenge can be all the sweeter—especially when it hits a sleazy significant other’s pocketbook.

Unfortunately, those hit tunes may end up reality for countless users on the clandestine hook-up site Ashley Madison, marketed to people who are are already in committed relationships or married. The hackers of the group “Impact Team” are ordering a permanent shut down of both Ashley Madison and Established Men, a “sugar daddy dating” site owned by AM’s parent company Avid Life Media—which the group characterized as “a prostitution/human trafficking website for rich men to pay for sex.”

Unless the sites shut down, Impact Team pledges to “release all customer records, profiles with all the customers’ secret sexual fantasies, nude pictures, and conversations and matching credit card transactions, real names and addresses, and employee documents and emails,” or so they claim to have. All of this, as the Daily Dot’s Dell Cameron notes, is in the name of exposing the site for allegedly defrauding customers over a $19 fee to have Ashley Madison’s administrators delete their personal information. Now that data could be one click away from airing out in the open.

Not only could this subject unknowing customers to identity theft, and other issues of personal security, it could also upend the families and relationships of people who frequent the sites. On social media, there’s cheering for what could be a day of reckoning for people who use Ashley Madison’s services. Cheating on a spouse is a despicable act, and the people who do so need to be honest and accountable for their behavior. But what Ashley Madison’s users—and people who are like them—do in the privacy of a bedroom as consenting adults is none of our business.

From the bombastic anthems about vehicular damage such as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows,” revenge can be all the sweeter—especially when it hits a sleazy significant other’s pocketbook.

Still, no one knows for sure whether or not all of the site’s users are married people who are enjoying sex outside of their relationships on the sly; after all, they could have open marriages, practice polyamory, or have an otherwise specific arrangement with their partner. It’s a conduit for an intimate connection of any kind, not a hard-and-fast platform for people who intend on cheating, despite how Ashley Madison brands itself. The same could be said for Established Men, for which no reports have confirmed operates in human trafficking rings, as the hackers alleged.

From what we know so far, information on Ashley Madison’s users isn’t vital to the general welfare. There’s no reason why matters involving private citizens—who are using an online community to find sex or romance—should be up for public consumption.

The Internet recently learned this lesson in a most unfortunate manner, after a story at Gawker served as an accessory to an outing-and-exploitation scandal, which zeroed in on a supposedly closeted Conde Nast executive. And although that executive happens to be the brother of former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, his extramarital solicitation of a male escort, as far as we know, is a private matter.

Now that his sexual behaviors are out in the open, either he’s having difficult conversations with his wife about the nature of their marriage, or maybe there’s nothing to talk about. His wife could very well be fine with him having sex with men outside of their relationship. Even so, the couple has children and other immediate family members who may be privately withstanding the emotional and mental anguish—needlessly caused by poor editorial judgment and one male escort’s ax to grind over a discrimination lawsuit tossed out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Of course, hackers aren’t held to the same standards as journalists, as it relates to sensitive information that’s uncovered in the process of reporting news that’s vital to the public interest. As private citizens in their own right, hackers can exercise a similar process of discernment—of figuring out what information needs to be released and what can be redacted when individuals’ safety and privacy are at stake. If hacks or a whistleblower revealed that taxpayer money was used by government officials to hire sex workers, then the identities of the officials implicated would be relevant, regardless of their marital status.

If people are suspected of cheating, however, that’s a matter that can be handled in a more personal and delicate matter, assuming an intervention is in any way appropriate. With tens of millions of Ashley Madison customers’ data now held as ransom in an apparent shakedown attempt—one aimed at shutting down the site for good—many relationships, and even livelihoods, hang in the balance.

It’s not up to a group of hackers—or the public—to dictate how these users’ relationships pan out, let alone force the issue of alleged cheating. Even if there’s one name on the list that belongs to someone we know, the manner in which we learn about their sexual behaviors matters as much as the act itself.

A couple years ago, a friend of mine happened to be checking out Grindr while on his lunch break. On the main screen—which shows profiles based on geolocation—he saw a familiar face was online and actively looking for hookups just steps away from his downtown Chicago office. That face was my boyfriend, with whom I wasn’t in an open relationship.

There’s no reason why matters involving private citizens—who are using an online community to find sex or romance—should be up for public consumption.

He didn’t know how to divulge the information, so he took some screenshots and sent them to my roommate, who happened to be one of my closest friends, asking her for advice. They agreed that telling me was the most responsible thing to do, especially since my boyfriend had been found out by his own recklessness behavior. And in a matter of days, empowered with that information, I raised the issue—and gave him his walking papers.

These were close friends of mine, not hackers or journalists. They met my boyfriend at least once before and knew the nature of our relationship. In sharing the information, they determined it was of vital interest to a beloved friend, one who they knew was being wronged and lied to. Without that chance discovery, I would’ve gone weeks or even months before potentially discovering his infidelity on my own.

That prospect, to my friends, was more daunting than bruising my now-ex boyfriend’s ego—and there was no credit card, address, or workplace information tangled up in the process.

But when people who don’t know the couples, and don’t know the relationships get in the business of prying into others’ sexual behaviors, sharing information about potential cheating presents quite the dilemma—one that could go horribly wrong if not handled with care. Unless a couple says otherwise, no one else is entitled to know or share the intimate details of their relationship, how they have sex, or any other related matters.

It’s a boundary that deserves respect and careful consideration, even if we disagree with someone else’s sex life and choices.

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Photo by TIFFANY DAWN NICHOLSON (TDNphoto)/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.