Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of conversation about who has been using the online adultery service, Ashley Madison. It seems that every day there is a revelation of an important figure having an account, or a breakdown of which government agencies or cities have the most users.
The whole phenomenon has led to an interesting discussion about privacy. The last few years have been rife with outrage about hackers leaking private information online. Whether it be celebrity nudies stolen from the Cloud or tax information taken from the IRS- society has generally banded together in angry protest, defending the right to privacy (even if simultaneously sneaking voyeuristic glimpses of J-La’s naked selfies). In my experience, that has not been the general reaction to the Ashley Madison leak. People’s private information has been unlawfully distributed to the public with humiliating consequences- lives have been ruined- yet there is very little public outrage at the loss of privacy for these individuals. So what makes this violation more acceptable than the others?
The answer that likely popped into your head is “because they were doing something wrong”. Or at least that seems to be the knee jerk response most people have- myself included (I was not above a smug giggle when I heard about that Duggar guy). It’s really easy to sit back in judgment and feel that the public shaming of AM users is justified. Comments like “well they shouldn’t have been cheating” or “anyone stupid enough to put their information online, deserves to get caught” have been a common refrain. But at least in part, the punishment we are issuing is driven by our individual values about fidelity and center on unproven assumptions.
We are assuming that the profiles represent betrayal of a victimized partner. We are assuming that users are deviant perverts. We are assuming that users are brazen and unapologetic adulterers. We are assuming that people have followed through with a sexual affair. We are assuming that the profiles are all real. (It is estimated that 17 Million accounts that are fake or inactive- as reported by Gizmodo.com). And we are assuming that we are in a position to judge.
We tend to draw very harsh conclusions about “cheaters”. I have to admit that my own biases have been thoroughly challenged by my work as a psychologist. The people who enter my office for that reason are good people who demonstrate punishing remorse and describe complicated emotional vulnerabilities. Some are impulsive and insecure, struggling to resist validation where it’s offered. Others are terrified of their sexual interests and are desperate for acceptance of something that doesn’t feel safe to share with a partner. Some are unwittingly compelled by the strength of an unsought after connection. And some struggle to reconcile dissatisfaction in their relationships. ALL of them are ashamed of their actions and are terrified of hurting their partners.
The reality is that good people can do bad things. Good people can do dumb things. People make mistakes. And some people have different values about relationships and monogamy all together. I’m not endorsing deception in relationships or encouraging infidelity. But I want to provide compassionate context to the people whose lives are being destroyed by this breach of privacy. They are people too- even that Duggar guy (shudder)- and as much as their actions might not be in keeping with our values, they are still deserving of privacy.
Tami-lee Duncan is a Registered Psychologist in Edmonton, specializing in sexual health. Please note that the information and advice given above is not a substitute for therapeutic treatment with a licensed professional. For information or to submit a question, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @SexOlogyYEG.