Ashley Madison was a terrible website for terrible people, or another demonstration of technology’s ability to liberate us from oppressive social norms. Either way, you’ve probably heard at least a dozen hot takes about the website being hacked and the private (whatever that means) details of its users being leaked on the ‘dark web’.
The website was established to provide a way for people to have affairs. The userbase was overwhelmingly male, but the response to the hack appears to be predominately from a female perspective. Perhaps this reveals something about the gendered nature of the contemporary conversation about sexual ethics: do we respond better to women moralising this way or that about relationship issues?
The leak asked us to reflect on our attitudes towards infidelity, online dating, and the role of technology in our sexual lives. In order to understand the hot takes circulating the chatter-sphere, you have to interrogate how the authors are characterising the users. Are these cheating scoundrels who deserve everything they get? Are they innocent bystanders using technology to escape unsatisfying love lives? Are they Afghan refugees using a website to find visa sponsors among the Anglophone unfaithful? Are they women as risk of domestic violence? Once you’ve established that point, we then have intuitions about how the public should, in the author’s mind, respond to the issue. Perhaps the hackers have brought about just punishment. Maybe the hackers have ruined a completely innocent way for people to escape loveless marriages. Maybe the hackers have provided cuckolds with information they need to realise their partner is awful. Maybe the hackers exposed women to domestic violence (more on the domestic violence issue later). And what about the partners of people who were using the site? Victims, or happy participants in an open relationship?
And this is where the hot takes go bad quickly.
There are no analytical tools available to discuss the Ashley Madison affair sensibly. No matter which position you take on the issue, you are wrong. There are so many dynamics involved, so many social intuitions, and so many different ways to characterise the protagonists that every position must, from some perspective, be wrong. We don’t have the public intellectuals that we need to lead the discussion in a dispassionate way, only the usual blowhards who reckon they’re a bit deeper than everybody else.
Thus we get to the domestic violence angle which is easily one of the worst of all the takes on the issue. The argument is that some women might have been using the website to have affairs because their husbands are abusive. By revealing the details of the unfaithful women, the hackers put them at risk.
This is an angle that pops up almost routinely in public discussions at the moment. While it is absolutely a good thing that domestic violence is on the national agenda, the ‘What about domestic violence?’ has become the go-to position for people desperate for a controversial hot take. When Sydney introduced lock out laws to close venues at a certain time, various people had hot takes claiming that this would cause more domestic violence. If the abusive partners weren’t out getting hammered at licenced venues, they would be home beating their wives. When discussion cropped up about reducing the incarceration rate for drug offences, people again popped up with ‘This will cause more domestic violence.’ At some point, we are going to have to address the social evil that is the cause of domestic violence (toxic concepts of masculinity). Hackers hacking dating websites, closing venues at 1am, and reducing incarceration rates for drug offences are not a cause of domestic violence.
But back to the main meal. Equally bad was radio stations calling up the partners of people revealed to be using Ashley Madison’s services for Schadenfreude-rich entertainment. The users of the site needed to be punished and the way to do that was to punish the partners of people who had been cheated on so that everybody could feel bad about themselves while the radio audience tut-tutted with glee.
The take that seemed the most popular amongst the liberal-lite was the one where we don’t shame anybody for their personal choices because those choices are personal and who are we to shame them? In the messy world of human relationships, we shouldn’t be judgemental because to judge is to oppress. Shame is no longer a valid way to regulate social behaviour, and the hurt one person does to another is a private matter between them. No place for rough music in the ultra-permissive modern world; we’re singing from the pro-market hymn sheet. It’s a really weird take to espouse because it depends so entirely on an anti-social view of the market’s role in human relationships. If a person wanted to cheat on their partner, it was a private matter and we shouldn’t judge them for it. If a person wanted to create a website to facilitate people cheating on their partner, it is a business matter and we shouldn’t judge them for it. But the whole case for deregulation of various marketplaces is that social attitudes will set the limits of the market, and those social attitudes depend on shared notions of outrage. If you take away those notions of shame, then the model of self-regulation collapses. Take it a different way: there were three people involved in Ashley Madison’s transactions — the company, the user, and the partner of the user. Let’s take what is the most likely scenario: men attempting to cheat on women who were unaware of the infidelity. Both the company and the user of the site are collaborating on the humiliation of the partner. By expressing outrage that the site exists, we collectively show that there’s a limit to market interference in human relationships (facilitating the humiliation of a third party, encouraging the humiliation of a third party). If society as a whole looks on this scenario and condones it, what does that say about us as a society? If we don’t express some level of disquiet about the existence of Ashley Madison as a website, then we are saying that there are no limits to the market’s role in sexual relationships. If there’s a profit to be made in encouraging cheating, we should allow companies to profit free of complaint.
And then we have people trying to escape the need to call it one way or another by musing sanctimoniously about the nature of privacy, either that we need a tort of privacy that would compensate users for the hackers’ exposure, or that the public needs to recalibrate its concept of privacy when dealing online.
Not one of these positions is good.
The only position that can be taken is sorrow. What on Earth is wrong with us as a society that we’re in the position where we need to discuss the ethical merits of releasing a database of people who signed up for a website that facilitates infidelity? What the fuck has gone wrong with us that the website exists, that people would use it, that people would hack it, and that people would call up the partners of people exposed on the website for FM radio entertainment? The whole thing is utterly rotten, and we are all the worse for having to live in a world where this situation has eventuated.