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Our shared affair: The sexual shaming behind the Ashley Madison hack

The hacking of Ashley Madison, the infamous adultery-focused dating website, and the release of the names and identities of its many users, has, not unexpectedly, prompted more than a little schadenfreude out in the world. It’s been the subject of jokes, “told you so”s on social media, and a sense among many that a kind of divine retribution — karma, if you like, or some grand proof of the Just World Hypothesis — had taken place, punishing the cheaters and destroying a seedy website all in one fell swoop.

From the start, however, I was worried. Nothing about the news gave me pleasure; releasing private information to the ever-undulating audiences of the internet is a supernova in action. It is an expectoration of elements that combine and reform in strange, sometimes unpredictable ways, rippling ever outwards to fill a vacuum. A hostile data dump with personal information attached, in other words, always has unintended consequences. This is what makes the phenomenon of doxing so incredibly dangerous: you crowdsource punishment, fueled by righteous outrage, while you wash your hands of the whole affair as others seize on and use the data you’ve released into the digital wilderness.

And with reports coming from the Toronto Police that two men who used the site have committed suicide, it behoves us to take this even more seriously.

In an interview with Vice Motherboard, the hackers, who call themselves The Impact Team, spoke to their motivations for the hack:

We watched Ashley Madison signups growing and human trafficking on the sites. Everyone is saying 37 million! Blackmail users! We didn’t blackmail users. Avid Life Media [the parent company of Ashley Madison] blackmailed them. But any hacking team could have. We did it to stop the next 60 million. Avid Life Media is like a drug dealer abusing addicts.

It is unclear what they meant by using the evocative rhetoric of “human trafficking” — searching for information on the matter merely brings up multiple references to this interview. Avid Live Media also owns Established Men, which facilitates “hookups” between men and women; the hackers accused this site of facilitating trafficking as well, but offered no further details.

While they also claimed not to be blackmailing users, they imply that they were somehow protecting these “addicts.” That’s difficult to square with the Impact Team’s manifesto which says of the Ashley Madison users: “Too bad for those men… They’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.” This, naturally, leaves the users (of all genders, it must be added) open to the remorseless elements of an online mob furtively poring over the now numerous copies of Impact Team’s data dump.

Through summoning such a mob, the full weight of social opprobrium will be brought down onto Ashley Madison’s users, heedless of distinction or circumstance. What we are currently witnessing is a perfect storm created by long-running societal narratives about heterosexuality, marriage, and monogamy, which lock much of the general public into imagining that such a site could only be used for one purpose with one narrative — the “dirtbag husband” cheating on a long suffering (female) spouse.

In truth, of course, there are a wealth of stories behind the site, some of which have begun to surface in the form of emails and social media messages that practically read like SOSes.

Troy Hunt, a developer at Microsoft, created a tool for Ashley Madison users called “Have I Been Pwned?” which, despite its silly name, is an attempt to safely help users see if their data had been released out into the world, to be buffeted in the winds of rumor, scandal, and shaming. He received a torrent of confessional emails from AM users as well, which he sympathetically samples here in an act of profound decency.

Membership on the site is being treated as de facto guilt when some “users” are actually people whose emails were stolen; some were single; some were just curious and left after a single visit. Others had affairs that they’d since put behind them. Still others were engaged in consensual partnerships with multiple people, including their spouses — and, of course, here it is where our social lack of understanding regarding polyamory comes to the fore.

But other responses he received echo the dark glee on social media (besides a gaggle of tediously unfunny “lol Ashley Madison is such a slut!!!11” jokes):

“JUSTICE for all the good people getting cheating on. Im glad the list has been exposed.. I don’t care if other innocent people that weren’t cheating were exposed that’s the risks you get when signing up for this crap online TOO BAD.”

“The chickens come home to roost. I’m glad someone is providing some true justice in the world. It sucks to be cheated on and I hope everyone on that site feels like shit and loses someone who truly cared for them.”

I remind you now of the ongoing investigations of suicides linked to all this. What is truly “coming home to roost” here is the profound moral illness propagated by the false notion that social media swarming of individuals constitutes an exercise in “justice.” Justice must restore and rebuild on the wreckage of injustice — it cannot merely be another wrecking ball. What good is truly served by this punishment, or the equally unsettling zest for it? Worse, we fail to grow as a society by failing to interrogate our understanding of what is sexually possible by projecting a sitcom narrative onto this hack; queer and poly relationships are invisible, and we do not ask whether sometimes “cheating” can be acceptable. Finally, we also fail to ask how, even the case of the most reprobate users on the site, this data dump will hurt innocent spouses and their children.

Is this chuckling outing of a man signed up to the site, to his wife on live radio, really the shape of justice? Is the possible execution of this young, gay Saudi man justice? Or the risk posed to gay and bisexual users of AM’s “Down Low” site?

A public carnival of shaming will solve nothing here. I do not even consider adultery a “social problem” as such, but to the extent that some instances of infidelity are signs of personal problems, this hack and subsequent media festival will likely only exacerbate them and thus do real harm to people’s lives. We must not allow ourselves to be complicit in this.

This is all the more urgent as serious ethical questions are raised by the revelation that several right-wingers, many of whom advocate against women’s equality and LGBT rights, were users of the site. I took no pleasure in such revelations, however. Aside from being eminently predictable, they do next to no good for our communities. What queer homeless youth does this revelation house? Does it magically transport a poor woman in rural Texas to her nearest abortion clinic? Does it #SayHerName? Much ink is spilled over whether exposing right-wing hypocrites is worth our time and energy, or on whether it is moral. Allow me to spill a little more to say that in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t — and is, in truth, merely a punitive action meant to hurt someone who has hurt us.

Inhumanity, however, should not beget more inhumanity.

Ashley Madison is indeed a terrible site, but not because it facilitated infidelity. If the hackers were right about one thing, it’s that AM was a ramshackle, borderline scam mercilessly taking advantage of its users. The hack has exposed the site as lacking even basic safeguards for user data, collecting an eighteen dollar fee from users to permanently delete their data and then failing to do so, and even creating sockpuppet accounts on the site to pad numbers. The comic fumblings of the site’s founders — up to and including an execrable film script for a tie-in movie (yes, really) and plotting their own hack against a rival — should remind us that the site itself is no loss.

But AM’s erstwhile users are another matter: what should concern us is that the tools being marshaled against the victims of the Ashley Madison hack are the same ones used every day against marginalzsed people who suffer from online harassment daily. If we allow ourselves to be lost to the bottomless temptations of this hack, then we merely prop up, reify, and justify that sinful machinery of online mobbing.

For now, it seems to me that if feminist philosophy leads us to any definite conclusion, it is that we need to have more adult and complex discussions about sex that leave all people, regardless of gender, free agents rather than porcelain wedding cake dolls locked into roles few of us play any longer. It is fitting to end, I think, with comments from Christine, a woman who replied to a nasty commenter on Glenn Greenwald’s excellent and humane essay on the AM hack:



Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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