16 million private records leaked online, including credit card transactions linked to email addresses, dates of birth, telephone numbers – the work of hackers yet again. Not nice, this is true; but context counts for a lot in such cases. Imagine if these were the private records of genuine paedophiles or active members of ISIS; the evidence of wrongdoing could put plenty behind bars that society would be better off without. Despite the criminal intrusion, many would probably regard the release of that kind of information into the public arena as justifiable.
What of Ashley Madison, though? I know it sounds like the name of some upmarket 80s porn star, but for those not in the know, Ashley Madison is the infamous dating site whose tagline happens to be ‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ With a sexy (if self-consciously provocative) logo consisting of a slender female finger held against glossy lips lifted straight from the pages of ‘Vogue’ and reminiscent of the misleading images once used to promote 90s telephone chat-lines on late-night TV (Altogether now, ‘If you’re sat around at home/make new friends on the telephone’), Ashley Madison could be said to have been asking for this kind of thing ever since it began. Thanks to the efforts of a hacking group calling themselves Impact Team, users of the site now find themselves exposed to the unpleasant prospect of blackmail – that is if their extramarital sexual fantasies (also amongst the hacked info) haven’t already reached the notice of their previously oblivious spouses, of course. Sympathetic? Err…
Potentially serious consequences could await Ashley Madison users of the gay inclination, especially if they live in those countries that have yet to warm to homosexual acts, and that is genuinely awful. However, it is difficult in general terms to react to news of this leak without three little words forcing themselves out of the mouth – ‘Serves you right’.
Infidelity within marriage or a long-term relationship is a wrecking-ball smashing into the carefully laid foundations of that union; whatever the outcome once all is out in the open – forgiveness, divorce, reconciliation – nothing is ever quite the same again and the damage can be effectively irreparable. Many affairs spring from conjugal unhappiness on the part of the perpetrator, but just as many spring from the desire to have one’s cake and eat it. Ashley Madison’s open invitation for anyone already spoken for to indulge in a bit on the side poses several questions, one of which concerns suggestibility. Partners have been cheating on their other half ever since Eve was seduced by a serpent, so Ashley Madison can hardly be held responsible for inventing the concept, but how many of its users were seeking an affair before becoming aware of the website and how many had never considered doing so until stumbling upon it?
Bit of a moral minefield, this. Some affairs can lead to a positive outcome, possessing the ability to facilitate freedom from the moribund bonds of a marital mismatch, whereas others skim the surface of domestic contentment before sending out devastating ripples in a myriad of directions that affect lives the guilty party failed to take into account when he unzipped his pants or when she dropped her knickers. The cheated-on partner suffers, but so do the children, as do the parents, as do the in-laws, as do joint friends. The latter are forced into taking sides, leaving one spouse suddenly blacklisted by those they could once count on for social comradeship. The ramifications of a reckless fling as soon as the clandestine cover is blown can last years.
A dating website that encourages such behaviour, without once pointing out the possible legacy of indulging, could be accused of profiting from future misery that it utterly absolves itself of. One of the founders of Match.com, Trish McDermott, says that Ashley Madison is ‘a business built on the back of broken hearts, ruined marriages, and damaged families’, an opinion refuted by Ashley Madison’s CEO Noel Biderman, who denies the site promotes adultery or puts ideas in heads that aren’t already there. It goes without saying that many users of ordinary dating sites aimed at single people are married or engaged in a relationship of many years’ standing, so it could be argued at least Ashley Madison is being honest and open about the intentions of its users. At the same time, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that Ashley Madison is tapping into the current mainstream vogue for sexual activity that flirts with the dark side of eroticism (see also, the ‘Fifty Shades’ phenomenon).
Anyone emanating from a household in which one parent cheated on the other, permanently breaking the marriage in the process, or indeed has been cheated on (both applicable to me personally) will find it very hard to feel any degree of sympathy towards those whose most intimate personal details are now accessible at the click of a mouse. If their relationship was in an irreversible state of mutual decay when they gave Ashley Madison a go, then yes, it is unfortunate and unpleasant; if, however, they were simply greedy and fancied an extra slice in secret, I can’t really say I’m especially sorry for their worldwide exposure as lying, cheating shits.
People enter into relationships for various reasons – loneliness, lust, desperation, unexpected pregnancy, and occasionally, love – and if the latter remains intact on the part of the partner who embraces adultery, even in the form of a one-night stand, then his or her notion of love is clearly missing the factor that makes true love: the absolute absence of a craving to be intimate with anyone else.