Ashley Madison are scum.
Simply for creating this television ad – complete with a song called I’m Looking For Someone Other Than My Wife – they deserved to have a hell of hackdom rained down upon them.
For this billboard, that dominated one of Sydney’s busiest streets for months, they deserve a smackdown.
And for the influx of cheery press releases in every journalist’s inbox – The Day Of The Year We Are Most Likely To Cheat, The Names That Are Most Likely To Cheat, The City That Is Most Likely To Cheat – they deserve to have their business hanging in tatters.
Yes, for their mindless, dismissive, aggressive marketing of the thrills of infidelity, Ashley Madison are scum.
But the men and women who signed up for Ashley Madison? They are not scum.
And it shouldn’t have taken the reported suicide of two people directly related to AM’s hack to tell us that.
It shouldn’t have taken the saturation coverage of the leak of 33 million names to alert us to the fact that people like having sex. Not necessarily always with their life partners.
The popular narrative around the leaking of the AM names is that this is a group of people who deserved everything they got. They are nothing more than dirty, rotten cheaters, and if now their lives are being made uncomfortable, difficult, in some circumstances unlivable, by their secrets lying exposed, that’s their problem. They made their bed.
It’s a black and white issue, a tale of good (righteous hackers, taking on the pimps) and the evil (Ashley Madison, the pimps, and the married philanderers, the scum).
Wanting to have sex with someone who is not your partner does not – in isolation – make anyone a despicable human being. Browsing an internet site, fantasising about what might be, does not make you a monster. And contacting someone for what you’re hoping will be commitment-free sex, does not negate your right to privacy.
That’s not a popular opinion. But it’s the truth that we are begrudgingly beginning to accept now that the detritus of the Ashley Madison hack bobs around us – marriages destroyed, children separated from parents, people shamed in public and yes, now likely, lives lost.
When it comes to infidelity, our culture is wilfully blinkered. The stats might tell us that as many as 72 per cent of people in relationships cheat and our very own instincts and personal experiences tell us that it’s true, but still we cling to denial like it’s Rose’s floating door.
We idolise marriage and commitment, berate ourselves if we fail to achieve it within an ordained time-frame, but we are completely unwilling to admit the realities of the long-term relationship.
And the realities of many long-term relationships is that, even with love and work, and good intentions, sexual passion ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes.
And sexual passion is a powerful driver. One that can motivate even a loving spouse, a doting parent, to seek excitement.
We would rather not look at that straight on. We would rather not talk about it. We would rather pretend that passion is eternal and anyone who thinks otherwise is a deviant. They are not Us. They are The Other.
Ashley Madison made us look. And the leak of Ashley Madison’s database meant that we couldn’t hide.
To paraphrase Esther Perel, the psychologist and famed author of Mating In Captivity, all of those 33 million people signed up to Ashley Madison can’t have been pathological.
Those people were probably not even dissatisfied with their current relationships. As Perel says, “Unhappy people divorce. If you are choosing to stay, there must be a lot about the relationship that is working.”
Watch this TED talk with Esther Perel that explains why happy couples cheat. Post continues after video.
But with this leak, we couldn’t hide from the fact that our preferred narrative about modern relationships – you meet someone of your preferred sex, they complete you in every way, you get married (if you are legally able to do so), have some children and stay deliriously in love until you both drop dread – is not the reality with which most of us live.
We couldn’t hide from the fact that people who are considered decent and loving might want to have sex with people other than their partners.
We couldn’t hide from the fact that people might want to stay married to the person they love and still want to have sex with people other than their partner.
We will freely admit that for many people in long-term relationships, sex is no longer the single most powerful bond – just sit with a group of mothers giggling about how infrequently they are “getting lucky” these days – but we are very happy for sex to be the thing that smashes it all apart.
If your partner is “caught out”, then nothing else matters. Not your children, not the home you have built or the history you have shared, not the intimacy you have created and the storms you’ve weathered. Infidelity trumps all of that.
That’s giving sex too much power. And that’s giving a dirty little website with a healthy marketing budget and no taste too much power over the things in our lives that are the most precious.
So far, the Canadian police have not revealed the identities of the people who reportedly took their own lives after having their privacy massively compromised by some self-righteous hackers who have appointed themselves the guardians of marital morality. We can only imagine their torment.
But there are worse things in life than someone looking online for extra-marital sex.
We should not be afraid of Ashley Madison. Its customers are not demons and it didn’t invent infidelity.
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