From those clever “and the Christians thought the gays were cheapening marriage” tweets, to the “adultery capital of the world” news reports, Ashley Madison – a site renowned for putting a monthly fee on infidelity – has been hacked.
For the uninitiated, flick on the telly during the witching hour and you’ll see them hocking their wares; one notable pitch had sleazebags singing about stepping out on their shrews. The same site had a starring role in last year’s odious cyberspace diatribe, Men, Women & Children, with Ashley Madison being the tool Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) used to cheat on Adam Sandler’s character and to indulge in her BBC fantasies.
So what’s shocking here? Why are we getting our knickers in the proverbial damp twist? The seemingly sky-high subscriber numbers of “37 million”? Because if that’s the gob-smacker, now’s probably a good time to take a pause.
Match.com – the world’s most heavily-trafficked online dating site – runs a television commercial in the US boasting that 25,000 people sign up with them every day. Every day. Ta daa! Welcome to the world of creative data manipulation.
The extent to which these newbies are real people with real credit cards as opposed to bots, catfish and Nigerian princes is, in fact, impossible for mere mortals to determine. This membership-veracity issue extends to the flesh-and-blood realness of users of Facebook, Instagram and very likely Ashley Madison too.
Ashley Madison’s high subscriber numbers – kind of like Clover Moore’s legion of Twitter followers – is hardly revealing data on its own. At most we have a simple statement about site popularity and testimony to a widespread interest in cheating; by no means the same thing as an endorsement of it, nor a reflection of changing attitudes towards it. On the contrary, in fact: cheating wouldn’t stay sexy if it lost its illicitness.
And even if we pretend that all of those Ashley Madison subscribers are hot-and-horny humans, best we don’t too quickly assume that they’re all actually married. After all, one of the world’s most effective lubricants is the breathy phrase, “we really shouldn’t be doing this”. It works because ordinary people are aroused by the idea of extraordinary sex.
Most of the men being called “daddy” in the bedroom aren’t, thankfully, our real dads, and I suspect a swag of those “undersexed housewives” and those my-wife-doesn’t-understand-me husbands aren’t all married. Ashley Madison undoubtedly houses many a moony singleton just as sites like Match.com are notorious for their already-shacked-up “singles”.
Fake profiles and fake marital statuses aside, the most interesting thing to emerge from this brouhaha is the very unique ways the internet has reshaped our intimate lives and redefined what we’re considering as sex. Our last few decades online have treated us to a buffet of sexual opportunities able to be experienced in our rattiest pyjamas and sandwiched between ordering our groceries online and downing a TV series in a single sitting.
Ashley Madison is a by-product of this reshaping and redefining.
Browsing the wares on Amazon.com doesn’t make a person a customer. Signing up to Match.com doesn’t guarantee us a vibrant dating life. And amidst all of the marriage-is-an-institution-in-decline breast-beating, signing up to Ashley Madison doesn’t make a person an adulterer.
Aside from innovations like aiding us in keeping in touch with all those kids who hated us at high school and facilitating anonymous death threats made to filthy feminists, the internet has let us dabble in the sex that we’re curious about, that we’re titillated by. We get to watch representations of it, talk endlessly about it and experience such sex vicariously. Without the mess or the illegality, without the reputation-ruin and the sabotage to our intimate lives.
In this case it’s infidelity. So we sign up to a site like Ashley Madison. We exchange messages. We flirt with gay abandon. We may go so far as to fall a bit in love, in lust, and imagine a life away from domestic drudgery. And for a whole lot of people, imagination is where it will end. After all, the truly debaucherous stuff happens far more regularly between our ears than legs.
I’m living in the US at the moment. Life away from home, away from the cafés I’ll want to return to and away from faces I’d feel awkward about bumping into again, I decided to put a profile up on Fetlife – the Facebook for kinky people – to see what cyberspace hurls. Dick pics, basically.
Amongst my many Fetlife lessons, I’ve realised – alarmingly – that I’m quite a bit more vanilla than I thought. I’ve realised that a cock shot accompanied by the line “I own 16 laundromats” is a perfectly innocuous introduction compared to the others that have reached my inbox. I’ve realised, most notably, that people are far more inclined to gasbag about dirty, dodgy and deviant sex than they are to actually organise an offline date, time and position.
I’m positive the same dynamic is playing out on Ashley Madison.
While questioning the continued relevance of marriage, the definition of cheating, of whether coupling exclusively for life is possible and whether our partners are sufficient to stoke our libidos in perpetuity are all worthwhile debates.
Equally so is considering the internet, and especially sites like Ashley Madison, as a pressure valve, a lark, and an opportunity for identity play without the trauma and anticlimax of a physical affair.
July 23, 2015
© Lauren Rosewarne