The long-awaited data dump of private information for 32 million users of Ashley Madison, a dating website specifically aimed at married people looking to cheat, has arrived, and the internet is gleeful. Despite somber warnings from some corners not to celebrate a security breach on this level, the pleasure at seeing cheaters and attempted cheaters get their comeuppance appears to be winning out on social media, where divorce jokes abound. As all this unfolded, I immediately started drafting a self-righteous piece explaining the dangers of glass houses and stone throwing.
And then I was stopped short by a headline at Gawker.
“Family Values Activist Josh Duggar Had a Paid Ashley Madison Account,” the headline reads, and of course I clicked. The details are a wonderland of schadenfreude, a pure shot of serotonin to the brain at pondering what must be going on in the head of this sleazy little sex scold as he tries to figure out how to explain to his permanently pregnant wife why he felt the need for some non-procreative sexytimes with a “Stylish/Classy” woman with “Natural Breasts” who “Dislikes Routine.” (UPDATE: Duggar addressed the news on the family’s website Thursday afternoon, writing that he was “the biggest hypocrite ever.”)
I luxuriated in the knowledge that this would probably be enough to derail his fundamentalist family’s attempts to get another TV show, where they disingenuously hold themselves out as “counselors” for sex abuse victims, even after they concealed the fact that their son was himself a sex abuser.
So maybe I’m the one who needs a lecture about not throwing stones. But maybe not. True, Josh Duggar absolutely deserves what’s coming to him after he has spent his entire adult life fighting the rights of gay people and women to choose how to live their own lives. But it’s also true that nearly everyone whose personal data was leaked is a private citizen whose choices aren’t the world’s business. Adultery — or, in many of these cases, attempted adultery — matters to your partner, your family, your friends, maybe to people in your direct community. But it shouldn’t matter to anyone else.
The hacker who stole this data is likely an insider from the company who has some weird, garbled excuse about this being a protest against company abuses against its users. The hacker or hackers argue that the company is harming customers by not having a functional “full delete” option that is supposed to be there for people who decide, for obvious reasons, to abruptly get rid of their account with no traces of it left. But if user privacy were really a concern, it’s hard to imagine that the best way to address it is by putting user information out in public for everyone to read.
It’s hard to shake the sense that one reason a person might choose to out a bunch of cheaters is because they are a group of people who have few defenders. For some reason, most of us can easily empathize with the cheated-upon party, imagining ourselves in the role of the person enduring this level of betrayal. But there’s very little pity for the cheaters of the world. Or, if there is, it’s hard to express it openly without immediately drawing suspicion that you are also a cheater.
Well, I’m no cheater. I have neither the time nor energy for the high personal dramatics of cheating. I don’t feel much pity for cheaters, as a general rule. It’s a shitty thing to do and you deserve to pay a price for it.
But — and this is critical — the price you pay should be proportionate to what you did. Cheating isn’t the public’s business in most cases, because it’s not a violation of the social contract. Cheating is breaking a personal promise to another person to honor a monogamous commitment. If you break that promise, you can’t be surprised if you’re dumped. Or your parents and children find out. Or that your ex, who is well within her rights, tells all your friends what you did. Those are appropriate, personal consequences for breaking a promise.
It’s not like domestic violence or rape, which are often kept quiet but are, in fact, the business of everyone else in the larger community because violence is a violation of the social contract. Or even just creepy or harassing behavior. When you harass someone, you really don’t deserve a modicum of privacy. These behaviors are about maintaining basic order and setting a standard for how we treat people, regardless of who they are. It’s about ensuring that we all have a right to safety that other people can’t violate.
But cheating is about violating a deeply personal agreement between two people. If the person you’re with doesn’t care if you sleep with other people, it’s not cheating. It’s all about an agreement that you decide between yourselves, and like all such agreements, the only people who should care what you do are people who your behavior directly affects. It’s not the business of the world at large.
Unless you’re Josh Duggar, of course. Or anyone else who fights publicly to use government interference to mess with the private sexual choices of consenting adults. If you fight for the government to limit or ban gay people’s marriages or women’s reproductive choices, then your sex life is our business. If only there were a way to do a targeted search of Ashley Madison data for that, while leaving everyone else alone.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.