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I Know Several Ashley Madison Users. They’re All Women. And They Don’t Deserve Your Scorn.
Jeremy Adam Smith | Photo: Rob Chandanais/Creative Commons | August 26, 2015
Cheating is only one part of the truth.
Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of Ashley Madison? Do you know anyone who signed up for the website? It turns out that I personally know five people—all women, who all live in the Bay Area. They can't speak up for themselves for fear of repercussions, so I'm going to try to tell their stories.
But first, the facts. My friends have a lot of company. The website—whose tagline is “Life is short, have an affair!”—specializes in connecting married people for illicit liaisons. Last week, hackers dumped the Ashley Madison account information of 28 million men and 5 million women on the Internet. “They’re cheating dirtbags,” wrote the hackers.
According to an analysis by the site 24/7 Wall St, San Francisco actually had the lowest proportion of Ashley Madison users among the nation’s 22 largest cities, with less than one percent of the city’s population signed up. The winner—Austin, Texas—had six times that figure. But take heart, San Francisco: According to a heat map created by the Spanish company Tecnilogica, members in San Francisco are somewhat more gender balanced than elsewhere: 27 percent of users were female, almost twice the international average of 15 percent. The numbers get even more equal when you sort by age: Women and men in their 30s are searching for extramarital partners in roughly equal numbers. Score one for gender equality! Pretty soon we’re going to know exactly how many people in the Bay Area were actively looking for side-action. In many cases, we’ll know exactly who they are.
AM (as members tend to call it) isn't the only nonconformist dating site to have been recently hacked. Someone broke into Adult Friend Finder as well, and dumped user info on the Internet. AFF isn't for cheating spouses; it's for swingers, aka consenting adult couples looking for like-minded folks. The AFF hacker also put on the robes of righteousness in his or her typo-laden proclamations (verbatim quote: "it is a pervo website / they owe my guy money / had it coming clause / pay up or be fucked"). When news of the AM hack broke, the torches and pitchforks came out on social media. “Karma’s a bitch,” wrote a Facebook friend. “Now you know what’s it’s like to have your trust betrayed.” He later deleted the status update, but the spike in public shaming has had an impact. There are Southern cities and national news sites combing the data for government employees, and it’s safe to say that people will lose their jobs. As of this morning, we know of at least two people who reportedly killed themselves after being exposed by the hack. Social media reactions have not been sympathetic. “So people are killing themselves over the #ashleymadisonhack its your own damn fault [sic],” reads one typical tweet. “I bet you would still be at it if you didn't get caught.”
This kind of viciousness is what makes me want to talk about the women I know who signed up for Ashley Madison. Who are they? Every single one of 33 million human beings exposed by the AM hack has a story. Here are five.
Three of the women I know signed up with the full knowledge and consent of their male partners. They weren't cheating; they had open relationships. (As one said to me: “I want to take my pussy for a run around the block before we have kids.”) They were looking for people who were also in committed relationships, who wouldn’t pose a threat to their marriages. In other words, AM isn't exclusively a site for "cheating" spouses; it should be more properly considered a site for married people who want no-strings-attached sex. (Yes, it’s true: women like sex, including kinky sex, sometimes with multiple partners.)
But many are on AM to cheat, of course. What about those two other women I know, who were cheating on their husbands? In one case, the husband suffered from very serious depression. The marriage had become sexless and emotionally dead. Should my friend have just soldiered on, stiff upper lip and all that? Or perhaps, if she couldn’t, should she have just walked out on him? Would that have been the "honest" thing to do?
Honesty is a good thing. But honesty isn't the only thing. I can't divulge the details here, but I will say that a lot of people depended on this couple staying together. Breaking up the home would have had catastrophic consequences for an extended family. My friend was trapped, and my friend has a right to live. She tried lying to herself first, telling herself that she was OK and happy and a good wife and could tough it out. Then she started to fall apart, and, yes, she had a series of affairs with men she met on AM who gave her some rare moments of pleasure as well as shoulders to cry on. In this way—this “wrong” way—she survived and stuck it out, and her husband climbed out of his hole, and today they seem pretty happy...albeit with a secret.
Guess what? Families have secrets.
The other friend was financially dependent on an abusive husband. Should she have left him? Well, she did leave him, actually. Cheating revealed to her that the marriage was dead and it was time to go. Cheating was, in fact, an act of courage, and a wrong step in the right direction. But she couldn't have moved out without relatives who were willing to give her and her daughter a place to live. Had she not had that option, she might have stayed in place for years and years, making dinner for, and enduring sex with, a man who showed no interest in their child and never missed an opportunity to put her down. It's five years later, and they're all much happier now, including the ex. He knows the truth; everyone does. Truth is a process. Life has zigs and zags.
That's a human truth that the self-righteous busybodies like to ignore. To put this outbreak of moral espionage in perspective, go back three or four decades, and imagine some self-appointed watchdog publishing the names, addresses, and sexual preferences of the members of a gay and lesbian organization. The public would especially want to know the names of government employees, teachers, librarians.... lives would be ruined. To which a certain kind of person would have replied: But they were deceiving us all by pretending to be straight!
I'm not suggesting that a cheater is the same as a swinger is the same as a gay man, though certainly a person can be all three. I am saying that morality evolves, and so does our sense of who deserves empathy, compassion, and acceptance. In retrospect, it's clear to most thinking people that gays and lesbians stayed in the closet because they feared serious, life-changing repercussions; we understand that the shaming and homophobia created lying. Today in San Francisco, we tend to look back with sympathy on the closeted gay men who left their wives and children at home to cruise in the Castro or the Golden Gate Park. (And in fact, it is gradually becoming clear that many men were advertising themselves as women on AM in countries where homosexuality is illegal and even punishable by death. Those people are now exposed to persecution.) We tell ourselves that today we live in more civilized, more liberated, more compassionate times.
But do we?
I know lots of people in the Bay Area who have nonconformist sexual arrangements of all kinds; it’s part of our quaint local culture. They’re sadists and masochists and polyamorists and cross-dressers and orgy-goers and more. This might be why San Francisco, despite its libertine reputation, had the lowest percentage of AM users among America’s major cities. The city’s social freedom may also explain the relatively high female-to-male ratio. There’s no need to lie when you can just be yourself. My anecdotes suggest that at least some San Franciscans just used AM openly as a dating site.
But the nonconformists I know don’t reveal their true selves on social media. Why? Mainly because they’d face a lot of judgment from people outside their Bay Area social circles. For evidence, look no further than the puritanical reactions to the AM and AFF hacks. This righteousness, this dancing with glee over every violation of privacy, creates a climate of fear. And the shaming—or more specifically, the lack of compassion and empathy—creates un-truths.
But, I can hear some hypothetical reader saying, but… cheating is bad! Yes, cheating is bad. Cheating is awful. When you lie to someone who trusts you, you split his world in two without him knowing, and if he finds out, the consequences can be traumatic. I have two other friends whose husbands left them for women they met on AM. One of those friends suffered profoundly. I don't really know the details. I do know that her old life was destroyed—but she did get a new one. She went back to graduate school, took lovers, and forgave her ex-husband.
What about my other friend, this victim of male perfidiousness? She cheated on her husband first, long before AM existed, early in the marriage, and they both developed a pattern of infidelity that they were never able to break. (Yes, believe it or not, marriages sucked and broke up over lying and infidelity before there was an Internet.) She was on AM, too. Her husband just fell in love with someone before she did.
She told me recently that she remembers her own cheating years as “humiliating,” as a kind of “nightmare.” This gets at another truth that the allegedly truth-loving moralists resist: Cheating is bad for the cheaters, because it's soul destroying. Living a double life in sordid pursuit of sex eats away at your sense of self. And I would not wish on my worst enemy the experience of falling in love with someone who isn't your spouse. In that circumstance, you can remain completely "faithful" to your spouse and yet lie to them every day just by coming home.
Which brings me to my last thought. Lying isn't the only way to kill a marriage. In fact, honesty without kindness or empathy or balance can become a marital weapon. In one of the bad marriages I have described, the husband pummeled his wife with "truth" every day. Of course, it was only one part of the truth, the truth of her struggles and faults, which all of us have. He never reflected her strengths or triumphs back to her, and she stopped seeing them herself. She lied to him, yes. But to my mind, his failure was much worse: He refused to see his life partner as a whole human being.
In that light, is it really so terrible that she signed up for Ashley Madison? Is it really "justice" for the AM hackers to expose her suffering, her mistakes, her inmost desires? There are serially cheating sociopaths on AM, of course, and screwed-up evangelical hypocrites like Josh Duggar. But I share the stories of these women to put a human face on the mountain of suffering that is represented by Ashley Madison. My friend was exposed along with all the sociopaths and hypocrites, all of them in the same boat. Are we really fit to judge her? Is our morality so narrow, our imaginations so depleted, that we want to hurt her even more with our "honesty"?
Yes, she had an affair. But there is more to her than that. There is also love and kindness and hope and regret. There is more to all of us than our worst, most desperate moments.
Jeremy Adam Smith writes about the science of a meaningful life for the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. His coverage of racial and economic segregation in San Francisco schools has won numerous honors, most recently the 2014 Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting and John Swett Award from the California Teachers Association. You can follow him on Twitter.