Caught in the act: The ethics of watching the Ashley Madison cheating scandal unfold
By: Jessica Kean
There is something thrilling about watching a cheater get caught. It’s a story with all the good stuff – transgression, deception, exposure, betrayal. The recent hack of infidelity hub Ashley Madison promises all those pleasures, on an unprecedented scale, with the bonus thrill of vigilante justice. Like so many internet-savvy Batmen, the hackers responsible have swooped in on spooky, self-righteous wings to unveil our private Gothams.
It’s going to be a bloodbath.
Right now the internet is waiting with bated breath to see which cheating heads will roll, but as we gear up for the sport, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the ethics of the game itself.
Let’s assemble the players. There are the philanderers and their willing accomplices – those caught with their hands in the cookie jar, their pants down, their flies unzipped. There are the walking wounded, the husbands, wives, partners, perhaps even a mistress or two, who are facing fresh evidence that their lover’s eye may not have been the only thing wandering. There are the hackers, those purveyors of hurtful secrets, boldly shouting truth into the void (except the internet’s not really a void, so it might be more apt to say they’re scribbling the truth in permanent marker on our collective whiteboard). And then there’s the rest of us – no horse in the race, at least not that we know of, but getting ready to enjoy the spectacle just the same.
We’ll start with the cheaters and their spouses. At first brush the ethics here seem black and white. That’s because we like to think of monogamy as black and white. We think of monogamy as involving a simple, shared rule, a rule rarely made more explicit than the metaphors we use to declare it (metaphors like ‘exclusive’ and ‘faithful’). But scratch the surface and those monogamy rules start looking a lot messier.
It turns out not everyone means the same thing when they vow to love someone ‘to the exclusion of all others’. Don’t believe me? Next time you’re around a group of monogamous friends try asking each of them what ‘counts’. Is kissing cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is watching porn cheating? Is romance cheating? Is sexting cheating? Is fantasy cheating? I know monogamists who would answer “yes” to all the above, and monogamists who, just as emphatically, would answer “no”.
It’s worth keeping those differences in mind when we start slinging shame around. Accessing a website with the tagline ‘life is short, have an affair’ is not enough to qualify as ‘cheating’ for all people, even for all monogamous people. Perhaps, ideally, we would all be partnered up with people who shared the same intuition about fidelity’s rules, but given how frequently these things are taken entirely for granted, it’s just not always the case.
Of course, some monogamous couples are better at talking about this stuff than others. There are definitely couples who have all the details ironed out and the dotted line signed. So while some of those busted may be able to say in good faith, “I didn’t think chatting was cheating!” (and some of their spouses might find they agree), odds are a bunch of the Ashley Madison users were knowingly, deliberately stepping out of bounds.
We can probably all agree that breaking a promise, especially one that has been explicitly, earnestly made, is likely to hurt. But that’s actually about as far as we can go. The fact is, infidelity is dealt with in a range of ways by those who experience it. For some people it is an absolute deal breaker and the height of betrayal. For others it is just, well, a broken promise – to be dealt with case-by-case as they would deal with any of the other ways we sometimes hurt the people we love. For the latter, cheating might demand discussion or apology, but not necessarily tragedy.
As we’re watching the fallout of the hack unfold we should keep in mind that we never really know what the inside of someone’s relationship looks like. We don’t know for sure that promises are being broken, and, even when they are, we don’t know for sure what the personal costs will be.
We have a pretty good idea of the social cost, though. Just ask Bill and Hillary.
Which brings us to the ethics of the other players in this game: the hackers, and us. The hackers demanded Ashley Madison shut down its operation or watch its customers be exposed, painting themselves as Defenders of Monogamy, but in doing so they made themselves Enemies of Privacy. The sharing of information is another area of intimate ethics we often take for granted. Are you still with that group of monogamous friends? Ask them to imagine they knew someone who was being cheated on. Do they tell that person? What if that person is a colleague? A sibling? A parent? A friend?
We know that for some people ‘cheating’ (however they define it) will cause incredible pain. But for others it is not the ‘cheating’ so much as the finding out that’s going to sting. In our social circles we make these decisions based on assessments of the individual players. How would they feel? How would I feel? What would they want me to do? They’re not always easy questions to answer, even when we know people well.
The Ashley Madison hackers have made those decisions for us all, without knowing the people involved, and without consideration for the complex personal fall out. They’ve used the ethics of monogamy, which is not clear-cut in the first place (not even among monogamists) to trump other ethical concerns. We should think seriously about the ethics of exposing information that is given confidentially, about the politics of broadcasting people’s sex lives without their consent, and about the ethics of singling out public figures and shaming them for their private choices.
As we watch the drama unfold we should also consider the ethics of shaking up the lives of all those involved – the ‘cheaters’, their lovers and their spouses – without any sense of how those lives are shaped.
Is it even our sport to spectate?
Jessica Kean is an academic and freelance writer with research interests in queer theory, gender studies and intimacy. Her PhD, on negotiated non-monogamy and mononormativity, was awarded by the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney in 2015.