As I write this, the media frenzy surrounding the leak of a reported 32 million user accounts from the adultery website Ashley Madison has subsided into the background hum behind Donald Trump and the U.S. elections, the Pope’s visit to Cuba and the United States, and the apparently shocking news that Volkswagen diesel motors produce exhaust emissions.
For the last half of August, however, news of the leak gripped the news cycle like a convulsion of schadenfreude, as newsrooms, chat shows and legal offices everywhere nearly squealed in anticipation of an avalanche of famous names and sordid stories. And for a moment some of us had a thought that we’d likely dismissed as mere optimism years ago: Is it possible that adultery is still a shameful thing?
As an appetizer before the feast began, details of Ashley Madison’s business were revealed. As a Toronto-based company, the Canadian media had the easiest access, and the Financial Post ran a feature examining the corporate culture at the company. The leak was inevitable, said the director of network operations; online since 2002, the website was running on layers of ancient code, some of it written by programmers who’d long since left the company.
Office life was hardly dismal, and ex-workers described it as “a fun place that cared about its employees.” Except, of course, for the angry phone calls from wives who blamed the site for their husband’s infidelity: “People would get their children to call in and say things like, ‘You’ve ruined our family, I hope you’re happy, my mommy’s crying, it’s all your fault.’ That’s a little sobering.”
None of the employees interviewed would allow themselves to be named, citing a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement they signed with the company. Another Financial Post piece speculated about whether showing up among the leaked names would be grounds for dismissal, as a helpful guide for management and HR executives.
Summary firing was to be avoided, the story counseled, since verifiable links between an account and a computer user were difficult to establish, but companies with family values images might have concrete grounds, as would those with employees liable to be blackmailed for confidential information, or senior executives whose sudden and unwelcome media attention could embarrass the company. It was nice to see that moral choices still had quantifiable consequences.
The most shocking revelation, apparently, was that there were far fewer women than men registered on the Ashley Madison site – just 15 per cent according to one early estimate – and while the company dismissed this claim, it was also revealed that quite a lot of the message traffic from “female” accounts to male inquiries was handled by “bots” that generated come-ons encouraging male users to ramp up their site participation – and spend more money.
“It’s designed to take advantage of horny guys with tunnel vision,” said one ex-customer service employee at the site, who told the Financial Post that they’d quit over “well-being concerns.”
When the leaked data had been combed through by journalists and “forensic investigators” it didn’t, apparently, yield the anticipated treasure trove of celebrities and political marquee names. Josh Duggar’s account added one more – probably unnecessary – black mark to his name, and weeks after the leak it broke that Todd Christie, brother of New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, had an affair with someone he met through the site.
Closer to home, a floor-crossing Liberal MP lost the nomination race in her riding and then discovered that her e-mail had turned up in the Ashley Madison leaks. She denied joining the site, claiming that it was an easily copied public e-mail, and since there are many fake accounts and spoof names in the data leaks, the story died on the vine.
There were real casualties from the leaks, however. Two possible suicides were being investigated by Toronto police after the leaks were published, and a New Orleans Baptist pastor and father of two named John Gibson became the public face of private shame over the site’s scandal, leaving a suicide note expressing his regret after previously suffering from depression and addiction.
Whatever moral lessons might be learned from the Ashley Madison leaks are hard to read, and there’s nothing like a consensus of opinion. Writing in the Daily Signal, Ryan T. Anderson echoed a sentiment popular on the right: “It was heterosexuals in the ‘60s and ‘70s who began to live as if marriage should last only as long as the romantic feelings last, replacing ‘as long as we both shall live’ with ‘as long as we both shall love.’ If what makes a marriage is merely consenting adult romance, then there is no reason why marriage has to be permanent or limited to two persons, much less sexually exclusive.”
Writing from the left on the Feministing website, Katherine Cross wondered that “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.” Though Cross didn’t bother mentioning any of their names, she claimed to “take no pleasure in such revelations” even though she considered them “eminently predictable.”
“What queer homeless youth does this revelation house?” Cross demands. “Does it magically transport a poor woman in rural Texas to her nearest abortion clinic? Does it #SayHerName?”
And no, I haven’t a clue what she meant.
I never imagined that a site like Ashley Madison wouldn’t be hacked one day – there is no such thing as perfect security on the internet – but when it happened I wondered to myself that there was a measurable public sentiment that still regarded adultery as wrong, even if we can’t, as a society, bring ourselves to use the word “sin” in public any more.
As the story lived out its brief life in the news cycle, however, my pessimism returned, as it appeared that guilt and shame didn’t seem so hard to live with as getting caught, and that this story was just another predictable opportunity for both sides of the ever-polarized political spectrum to use it to try and score points of the straw men they’ve made of each other.
This didn’t take away from the tragedy of the women putting their crying children on the phone with Ashley Madison’s customer support workers, or John Gibson, who couldn’t stop himself slipping from the sin of adultery to the far more deadly sin of despair. Ashley Madison might not survive their data leak, but I’m sure some competitor will take their place, advertising superior and wholly illusory security that will populate their site with men and women, real and imagined. Far from the world of fantasy, however, morality still exists, and our poor choices linger far longer than headlines.