This past week has seen two shameful episodes in the Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online category.
First, Gawker published (for no apparent reason) a story about a married “C-Suite” Condé Nast executive who arranged to spend a weekend with a male porn star who then attempted to blackmail him–and, with Gawker’s capable help, succeeded*. Max Read, the now-former editor-in-chief of Gawker, justified the story thus: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”
Second, hackers are threatening to leak the user data (including credit card numbers, addresses, and listed sexual fantasies) of 37 million individuals using the website Ashley Madison, which helps people find partners to have extramarital affairs with. The hacker group claims that the reason for the attack is because Ashley Madison charges money for user account deletion and then doesn’t fully delete the information, but their demand isn’t a change in the policy–their demand is that the site goes offline altogether.
As I noted in my recent piece on the subject of Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online, nobody is safe when this sort of behavior is socially acceptable. Nobody. Because we all do immoral things at some point in our lives, and while some will claim that cheating is its own special category of immorality and therefore deserves naming and shaming online, that doesn’t really seem to follow from any reasonable premise. Cheating is (generally**) wrong because it’s wrong to break an agreement with someone without first letting them know that you are unable to stick with the agreement. (And being unable to stick with an agreement obviously kind of sucks for everyone involved, but I’m uncomfortable with classifying it as immoral.) It’s not wrong because sex is bad, or because wanting sex with more than one person is bad. The reason cheating gets placed in its own special category is because it pertains to sex and relationships, not because it’s inherently worse than other immoral acts. (It may be worse than some immoral acts, to some people, in some circumstances, but that’s not an inherent property of cheating.)
And I am entirely unconvinced that homophobia did not play a role in Gawker’s story, or in the (presumed or actual) interest of its audience in that story. Stories about men cheating on their wives with other men get attention in a way that stories about men cheating on their wives with other women just do not. Charitably, one could claim that this is just a man-bites-dog effect–these stories are so much more rare. But the fact that we place them in an entirely separate category from other “Men Cheating On Wives” stories suggests that same-sex attraction is, well, an entirely separate category. Who cares which gender someone sleeps with? We still do, apparently.
By far the most disturbing claim I’ve seen about these incidents is that outing cheaters is for the good of their “victims” (that is, the people they are cheating on). This is the claim that Max Read so flippantly made, and also a claim I’ve seen about potential benefits of the Ashley Madison hack.
First of all, consider that when you out someone as a cheater, you are also outing someone as a “victim” of cheating (or a “cuckold,” or whichever term you wish to use). This may not seem like a big deal, but being cheated on is also quite stigmatized to some extent–maybe not quite as much as cheating, but still. A woman who gets cheated on may be accused of being “frigid” and “failing to keep her man happy”; a man who gets cheated on may be ridiculed and considered less of a man. (That’s in the context of heterosexual relationships, but I don’t doubt that same-sex relationships are subject to some of the same gendered societal crap.) For some people, the pity may be even more difficult to deal with than the blame. And while nobody’s posting the cheated-on spouses’ names online, all their friends and family will know! Now their private pain has become quite public.
Further, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re going to find out that your spouse is cheating on you, how would you like to find out? By having thousands of people retweet an article about it? By having all your friends text you and ask if you’ve seen that Gawker piece? By having your coworker stop by your office and say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe your partner was using that cheating site!”
I wouldn’t be surprised if many people would rather not know at all.
In fact, some people would rather not know at all in any case. It’s a common assumption that if someone is cheating on you, naturally you would want to find out ASAP so you can dump them. But for some people, peace of mind is more important. They may suspect their spouse is cheating, but as long as things are basically fine and there’s someone around to help support the children, they’d rather just not deal with finding out. That’s valid. It’s not my place to tell someone what they ought to want to know and how they ought to respond to a suspicion that they’re being cheated on. It’s not what I’d want for myself, but everyone doesn’t have to want what I want.
I think there are some cultural components to this as well. While I haven’t conducted (or read) a comparative study, it seems that a lot of Russian couples approach extramarital affairs in this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of way. I can’t imagine they’d be pleased if someone came tattling on their spouse for their supposed good. I really wish Americans–and people in general–would remember that their norms and standards are not universal or inevitable. In some other cultures, by the way, it’s also considered extremely messed-up to meddle in people’s private lives this way.
Finally, when you out someone as a cheater, you may be actually outing them as polyamorous. Anecdotally, I’ve found that there are many more people practicing consensual nonmonogamy without publicly coming out as poly than there are people who are out as poly. In fact, being accused of cheating is one of the dangers of not coming out as poly, but for many people it’s still safer than coming out, which could cause them to lose jobs, child custody, and so on.
A poly person who gets “outed” for cheating (or whose primary partner does) faces a really uncomfortable dilemma: they have to either come out (which also means outing at least one of their partners), or they have to perform the role of either remorseful cheater (with all the public groveling that entails) or jilted spouse (with all the public pity that entails).
A poly person who does choose to come out at a moment like this is likely to face a lot of backlash. People are in some ways even more suspicious of polyamory than they are of cheating–at least the latter fits into their understanding of relationships to some extent. On the flip side, people may claim that they’re lying about being poly so that they don’t have to face judgment for cheating. You can’t win.
In fact, when you put people’s private sexual lives on trial, nobody wins.
That’s because we all sometimes act immorally, and we all sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. That is not some special sort of failure reserved for Bad People; we all do it. There are times to speak up and stop people from hurting others, and there are gray areas where no one (certainly not me) can really say whether or not something should be publicized. This is neither.
If you want to prevent cheating–if that’s really such a hot issue for you–then encourage people to consider and explore alternatives to monogamy. Not all people who would cheat in a monogamous relationship would behave ethically in a nonmonogamous relationship, sure. Some people suck. Other people are trying to do their best with what they have, and they don’t realize that they have a lot more options than they thought.
So, what now? some will ask. Gawker’s gonna Gawk and hackers gonna hack. True, we can’t undo the damage that has been done and we can’t necessarily prevent creepy people from ever creeping on others and putting their personal business online.
What we can do is refuse to learn the information or act on it. I still don’t even know the name of the executive who hired the porn star, and I don’t intend to learn it. I will not look at the list of Ashley Madison users, just like I chose not to look at the nude celebrity photos that got leaked last year. You shouldn’t either. If more people agree not to look, this type of information loses its power, and those who collect it and leak it lose the power to judge and ruin others’ lives for the fun of it–or for whatever twisted moral justification they manage to invent.
*As Parker Molloy pointed out, the Gawker story may actually have been in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. If Gawker wants to keep positioning itself as a source of Important Journalism For Our Day And Age, they should take note. Can’t have it both ways.
**Also really important to note, as Dan Savage and Esther Perel both have, that cheating doesn’t always happen in a simple context where one person is a “victim” and the other is the “bad terrible cheater.” Sometimes people cheat because they are stuck in awful, possibly abusive relationships, and cheating is a way they preserve their sanity. Is this rare? Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know either, though.
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