Over the past several weeks, I’ve watched one family after another melt down under revelations of a spouse exposed by the hack of the adultery website Ashley Madison. I would love to prognosticate that the Ashley Madison scandal is the jolt we needed to set some things aright, but I’m afraid Ashley Madison is just the beginning.
In order to understand what’s next, we must understand why Ashley Madison “worked.” Why would people sign up for a service promising to match them with others looking for affairs? Ashley Madison succeeded in drawing in 32 million users because it joined original sin to modern technology.
Ashley Madison utilized digital technology to promise several things that were out of reach for would-be adulterers. The first was opportunity. Many of the users on this site were not the sorts of people who would seek out singles’ bars or airport lounges for available sexual partners. They were hemmed in, many of them, not by moral convictions, but by the inability to know where to start.
Ashley Madison promised to match desire to opportunity. In that sense, Ashley Madison was an expression of our time’s consumer culture. We are promised a seemingly endless set of options for our appetites. Why should I be limited to vanilla, chocolate or strawberry ice cream? If I want licorice gelato or avocado sorbet or salted-caramel-ginger-snap-crunch frozen custard, the market is willing to provide it. Digital technology has made the same cornucopia available for the darker appetites of the flesh as well.
Even more importantly, Ashley Madison provided this service with the illusion of anonymity. Even the advertising logo featured a woman making a “hush” sign over her mouth. The promise was that no one would ever find out about this affair. This promise of cover drew out those who wanted adultery but who didn’t want to be seen as adulterers. In some cases, these were figures who styled themselves as “culture warriors” against decadent sexual permissiveness. They wanted to still be culture warriors, and to be as nasty as they wanted to be, all at the same time. Ashley Madison promised them the cover of secrecy.