Everyone loves a good revenge story. That might be why the Internet is currently celebrating the hacking disaster facing the extramarital hookup website Ashley Madison. Although the hack has left the site's nearly 40 million users vulnerable, with their personal information potentially exposed, people on social media seem positively cheery about it:
The problem of publicly shaming cheaters. Given Ashley Madison's mission to help married people cheat on their spouses, plenty of its users were probably low-key jeepin' behind their unsuspecting partners' backs. And in light of the fact that trust is a universally agreed-upon necessity in healthy relationships, that's kind of shitty.
The truth is, nobody deserves to be lied to, and being cheated on by a trusted partner can be a genuinely traumatic experience. In fact, one 2006 study reported that women who had been cheated on experienced symptoms similar to those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But one thing that's also becoming more and more universally agreed upon is that cheating is complicated, and it reflects all sorts of private realities that anyone outside the relationship can never truly understand. After all, if there's anything to be learned from last week's Gawker scandal, in which a prominent married media executive was outed by an anonymous male sex worker whom he refused to help with a legal dispute, it's that publicly shaming people who might be experiencing marital problems in their personal lives is both cruel and unnecessary.
A question of ethics: The shaming of Ashley Madison users falls squarely into the Internet's tradition of publicly shaming unfaithful spouses. From websites that allow jilted exes to post the full names and contact information of their former partners, to a 2013 viral photo of a man overheard bragging about his affairs on a commuter train, the Internet provides us with an ideal platform for publicly chastising those who've wronged us.
"The only people who really have the right to make moral judgments about cheaters are the people they're cheating on — at least if we're talking about private figures," Mary Anne Franks, law professor at the University of Miami and board vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, told Mic.
"The public isn't wrong to find infidelity distasteful and worthy of condemnation, but it's important not to confuse that with a personal right to expose and denounce the activities of strangers."
Infidelity is not uncommon. If Ashley Madison's enormous user base is any indication, extramarital sex is not some rare occurrence perpetrated only by the most evil among us. In fact, studies have confirmed that infidelity is a common problem for many real-life couples. Research from the Kinsey Institute suggests that a whopping 10 to 15% of women have engaged in extramarital sex, while 20 to 25% of men do the same. Other sources have estimates as high as 72%.
For some couples, membership on a site like Ashley Madison might not necessarily even mean that any trust has been broken. For the estimated 4 to 5% of us engaged in consensual non-monogamy, hooking up with someone online could be perfectly in agreement with personally defined, pre-established boundaries.
Even if Ashley Madison users are violating their partners' boundaries by signing up for the site, it's those couples' issue to grapple with, and nobody else's. Because even for those who have been unfaithful to their spouses, the consequences of a public shaming can be far worse than the crime of infidelity.
"The information that the hackers are threatening to expose includes financial information, home addresses and, according to some reports, nude photos," Franks told Mic. "That kind of information can lead to criminal victimization, stalking, violence, and the upheaval not only of the individual's life, but the lives of innocent family members and friends." And that's certainly not worth celebrating.