The Ashley Madison’s hack with its subsequent flow of headlines is a delicious example of human’s hypocrisy.
Hackers stole and released almost 10 gigabytes of data, including the names, addresses, and credit card information of over five million unfaithful users, mostly men looking to hook-up with women (or their ghosts). All hell broke loose: public shaming, spinoff crimes, extortions, and possible suicides.
In this case, though, the public doesn’t seem to care much about the gravity of the crime and the long-term consequences of the hack. The victims are cheaters, mostly male, and they deserve it all. It’s a poetic karma in full force, right? Wrong, I say.
As difficult as it is to side with Ashley Madison’s adulterous tricksters, I suggest taking a step back. Why do people cheat?
Monogamy, esteemed across cultures, is quite the endeavor for humans who, sweaty and guilty, are fairly bad at it. At best, as nicely put by Daniel Engber, humans are monogamish. We like the idea of the one and only but struggle with commitment.
According to sociologist Eric Anderson, monogamy’s cultural deference is maintained through myths sustaining the belief that an exclusive relationship is the only acceptable form of coupling.
Except it isn’t.
The notion of monogamy is not supported by global anthropological records. Not genetic monogamy, meaning “I’ll reproduce only with you, honey. I promise. My genes are all yours.” Not social and sexual monogamy, “I’ll live with you and have sex with you only till death do us part.”
Historian Walter Scheide explains that while individual bonding and mating arrangements are predominantly monogamous, most societies condone social and genetic polygamy. In other words, there are people who like to settle down with one person at a time, but can’t resist the temptation of sleeping around with others. Other species aren’t doing much better. In The Myth of Monogamy, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton demonstrate that sexual monogamy is painfully rare in mammals.
Are these intellectualized excuses for cheaters?
Perhaps, but I like to think of them as additional opportunities to recognize the magnitude of human sexuality that, complex and multifaceted, transcends mechanical behaviors and simple explanations.
There is more than lust to extra-marital affairs.
An in-depth look at the experience of unfaithful people often promotes empathy.
Take a test. How often did you side with on-screen cheating lovers in committed relationships? Here’s a brief list to start from: Falling in Love, Revenge, The Piano, The Bridges of Madison County, The English Patient, Titanic, Unfaithful, and Little Children.
It seems as if most of these fictional cheaters had arguments. Truthfully, people have sex outside of their primary relationships for all sorts of reasons: transitory struggles, illness, sexual compulsivity, mutual agreements, emotional or physical turmoil, etc.
After interviewing 120 young men and drawing on research from hundreds of other academics across the biological and social sciences, the central thesis to my research is that cheating is a rational response to the irrational expectation of monogamy. — Eric Anderson
In his book, The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating, Mr. Anderson explains that cheating is less risky to the stability of a relationship than — gasp — honesty.
Perhaps people don’t cheat for insufficient love or to hurt on purpose. And perhaps unfaithful partners decide against discussing sexual needs and desires to avoid hurting the spouse, losing intimacy and breaking up.
Little did they know, a bunch of hackers had different plans for them. By exposing their adultery, hackers, on top of damaging the administration of Avid Life Media for purported lies to customers, jeopardized the emotional health, the privacy and the safety of millions of families. A tremendous human cost.
As much as I enjoy seeing preaching conservatives, anti-marriage equality champions, and beam-in-the-eye religious charlatans go down, the hack remains an unfair treatment and a terrible crime. Knowledge and beauty should defeat disloyalty and bigotry, not the law of retaliation.
Sex and love are not the same entity. Sometimes they match effortlessly, which is a great feeling. Sometimes they don’t. With compassionate respect for the pain of those who experienced the damaging consequences of adultery, I call for understanding of the unfaithful.
Intimacy, vulnerability and sense of belonging are among people’s more powerful and mysterious experiences.
The moment we fail to acknowledge the complexity of human sexuality, we all become cheaters.