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Ashley Madison leak exposes a prurient and uncaring society


Ashley Madison website screengrabDistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!' warns Nietzsche. 'Out of their countenances peer the hangman and the sleuth-hound.'

The Ashley Madison hack provides an excellent illustration.

There are, by some accounts, 37 million names listed in the leaked database. Even excluding bots and duplicates and horny teenagers, that's a remarkable figure, a quantity suggestive of an immense pool of unhappiness, especially when you factor in the partners and children of the straying spouses.

One response to the hack, then, might begin with an inquiry into those miserable relationships. Why are so many ordinary people seemingly so discontented with their marriages? What might be done to alleviate the wretchedness both of those who cheat and those who don't? What does the evident attraction of a site like Ashley Madison (which seems to have been run as a fairly overt scam) tell us about society, about intimacy and sexuality more generally?

But those aren't the questions dominating the media.

On the contrary, the leak has been greeted with unabashed glee by the press, with even the most respectable outlets offering links so readers can more easily paw over the files.

Most notoriously, two radio DJs informed a listener that they'd found her partner's name on the list, in a segment that recalled (entirely predictably) The Simpson's episode in which Bart plays, in slow motion, film of Lisa telling little Ralph that she doesn't love him.

'If you look closely,' he says cheerfully, 'you can actually pinpoint the exact moment his heart breaks in two.'

Well, quite.

In response to Wikileaks' release of field reports from the occupation of Afghanistan, the American authorities declared that Julian Assange had 'blood on his hands'. That claim thereafter shaped the coverage, with many outlets questioning Assange's journalistic ethics rather than analysing the new revelations about torture and civilian deaths.

Will the Ashley Madison leak result in deaths? The question doesn't seem to have crossed anyone's mind. Yet we've already heard from a terrified Saudi man, who used the (supposedly) anonymous site to find gay partners — and now fears execution for sodomy. (We might note that, as well as criminalising homosexuality, Saudi Arabia also considers adultery a serious crime, as does Pakistan, Somalia and Taiwan.) More prosaically, how long before an aggrieved man responds violently to the discovery of his wife's name on the list? Will any of her blood be on the hands of those who saw the leak primarily as a chance to sell newspapers?

The blithe disregard for such questions suggests the kiss up, kick down culture prevailing in the media and seemingly internalised throughout society as a whole.

We're increasingly acclimatised to the wealthy and the powerful facing no sanctions whatsoever for their wrongdoing, even as the poor are ground into the dirt for minor transgressions.

The mention of Wikileaks provides an obvious illustration. Chelsea Manning will spend the rest of her life behind bars for revealing the almost genocidal consequences of the Iraq invasion. By contrast, George W. Bush, the war's instigator, is currently campaigning to install his brother Jeb in the White House. The only man jailed in respect of the CIA's torture program was the agent who blew the whistle on what was taking place, while, here in Australia, our elected representatives remain entirely unpunished (and largely unrepentant) for what seems to have been a systemic looting of their entitlements budget.

That's the context in which the Ashley Madison data has been received.

The vast majority of those listed are not public figures, and thus their attitude to the Seventh Commandment should be nobody's business but theirs and their family. But, of course, that's the point. We know we can't bring to justice the genuinely powerful — but we can give a good kicking to a suburban husband with a wandering eye, precisely because he's so ordinary.

On the one hand, the schadenfreude about the cheaters' exposure masks a certain projection, a barely-disguised envy for their imagined antics (hence the prurience of the coverage). On the other, it suggests an underlying masochism, in which we feel Ashley Madison's clients deserve humiliation because they're no-one special.

By way of contrast, last month, a quite different hack revealed America's National Security Agency's to be performing regular surveillance on cabinet ministers in Japan, a supposed ally. It was a revelation of major political significance, further proof of the utter amorality of the security state — and, naturally, it received almost no coverage at all.

Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.



Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, marriage, family, relationships, security, sexuality



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Existing comments

I joined that site in 2007. I'd been with my wife for 17 years. We had no love life. It was killing me, so much rejection, not feeling like a man.

I paid for three months but only lasted a few days. Guilt got to me. I didn't message anyone and the few I got were probably from scammers.

Two years later my wife asked for a divorce. I begged her to give us another chance. I suspected there was another man, which proved to be true. It started over a year before she asked for the divorce. It was devastating. I thought she was too good and pure to have a sex drive like me, but it wasn't that she wasn't into sex, she wasn't into me. She had some very tall younger man of a different race.

I've been with my current wife for five years and things are great now.

With 95% of the users being male and so many fake accounts, I doubt many on that site actually had affairs. Women don't need sites like that to cheat. They just need husbands who don't mind them going out and going on girl trips with friends.

SomeGuy | 25 August 2015  

Brilliant piece. Couldn't agree more.

Aqua | 25 August 2015  

Great article.

Cathy | 26 August 2015  

Thank you

GAJ | 26 August 2015  

Thanks Jeff, nice observations! Raises old questions that some of us are chatting about over the back fence ... Social media/hacking nexus can be an anonymous vehicle to do unquestioning damage - such an easy story for 'traditional' media.

Jan | 26 August 2015  

I loved your article. Thank you.

TINA ALI | 26 August 2015  

Thank you. Your comments make me even more determined to continue to speak out wherever I am in defence of the vulnerable against the powerful

margaret | 26 August 2015  

"... even as the the poor are ground into the dirt.." Says it all for me. Great article - thanks!

Paul | 26 August 2015  

This is the era of public shaming (Jon Ronson). The phenomena of pulling down everyday people who transgress. Many times the person has unknowingly breeched a social code, or let sip a flippant remark that is taken too literally. Anything online is open to scrutiny. The people who choose to go on the Ashley Martin site may have been promised anonymity but this is a mirage in today’s world. It is playing out like a movie plot line. Big brother is stalking everyone.

Jenny Esots | 26 August 2015  

So true, Jeff. I didn't know about the surveillance of Japanese cabinet ministers but I'm hardly surprised. The media's focus on the trivial and the least powerful surely props up the status quo.

Anna | 26 August 2015  

Mr. Jeff Sparrow: Thank you for sharing your insightful wisdom and compassion Do not little minds delight in the failure of others? See the motes of imperfection in another's eyes while oblivious to the beams of imperfections in their own. Hope you have a few moments of serenity today in our dystopian, barbaric world. Reid

D. Reid Wiseman | 27 August 2015  

A point that Jeff doesn't make explicitly is the fact that people involved in running such sites are making money from others' misery. Of course, this aspect has also been ignored by the mainstream Press, driven by the need for advertising revenue. The more salacious coverage will generate a healthy set of figures to put to advertisers, as people seek entertainment. The distinction between the AM site and much of the media covering its leak is permeable, to say the least.

Penelope | 28 August 2015  

A telling article - but just one small point: the reference to the "seventh commandment" is obviously meant to be to the commandment not to commit adultery, but I always thought it was the 'sixth' commandment. What Bible are you reading from?

SMK | 29 August 2015  

Thank you for the article Jeff. It succinctly illustrates the complicity mainstream media have in supporting the ruling elite while at the same time undermining ordinary people.

David | 01 September 2015  

I really like the way you think and write Jeff Thank you

Lindy Patterson | 14 November 2015