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Thank god for Ashley Madison: we need to talk about cheating

Payal Puri | Updated on: 6 November 2015, 16:58 IST

The background

  • On July 19, dating site Ashley Madison was hacked; 37 million users\' data compromised
  • It\'s no ordinary dating site; this one\'s tagline says \'Life is short. Have an affair\'
  • Hacker group Impact Team said their target wasn\'t users but the site itself
  • Claim the company - that charges 15 pounds to delete data of registered users - was actually storing this info

The update

  • 9.7 gb of data was dumped by hackers on the dark web today
  • They claim this has the names, addresses and credit card info of over 30 million users
  • Had given the site time to shut down; also demanded sister site Established Men be shut down
  • Owners of both sites, Canada-based Avid Life Media, has refuted that the data was real

Talking points

  • First examination by security researchers shows the data is legit
  • Some UK government site data has showed up in the records
  • Info released includes sexual preferences, such as bondage, threesomes, etc
  • New websites are already popping up to help users check if their data was among that leaked

There are 37 million very anxious people in the world this week - and they have one thing in common. They all bought into the tagline of a website called Ashley Madison that reads: Life is short. Have an affair.

Last month the site was hacked, making their names, addresses, credit card information, sexually explicit chat logs, and fantasies available to a group of hackers who go by the rather bureaucratic name Impact Team.

Ashley Madison is not new - the site has been around since 2001 - but then neither are affairs, which have been around infinitely longer.

Like many urban adults, I've encountered infidelity - or its more loaded phrasing, adultery - over the years. I've known people who are cheating. I've been cheated on. I've considered cheating. I've been with someone who was cheating by being with me.

Except no two of them were 'cheating' in exactly the same way.

Truth is, we no longer know what cheating looks like. To those at the receiving end, devastation understandably has no degrees - but the reality is that all 37 million subscribers to Ashley Madison's philosophy haven't committed the same 'transgression'.

Some of those who signed up have probably had no sex - real or virtual - through it. Some possibly shared their fantasies with a stranger but never met him or her. Some have a trail of explicit chats to their name. Some have hooked up for a one-night stand. Others, a series of them. Some may have ended up in two-year affairs.

Does it matter? Yes. Relationships - whether long-term partnerships or marriage - have nuances, and the flattening of the conversation around them has done more to threaten the institution than Ashley Madison probably has.

As someone who has been cheated on, I have nothing but deep empathy for those who discover betrayal - and in l'affaire Ashley Madison, discover it in the most brutal, public way possible. But if there's one much overdue outcome of the hack, it's this: we're finally talking about cheating.

To do that, we need to talk about marriage

"We used to marry and have sex for the first time," said acclaimed relationship therapist Esther Perel in her widely-watched TED talk on infidelity this March. "Now we marry and stop having sex with others. But the fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love."

Today, however, marriage is the holy grail of relationships, the one at whose door we lay a complex range of emotions.

"We turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal," says Perel.

That, in itself, is a departure from what marriage used to be: an economic arrangement rather than an emotional one. "Ironically, we used to turn to adultery," she says, "that was the space where we sought pure love. But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it."

It's also become impossible to agree on what cheating is

Commitment is black and white - and flouting it used to be, too.

Today, though, we're not quite sure what it looks like anymore.

Email, sms, Whatsapp, Facebook, dating apps and porn sites have disrupted more than our work lives - never has the definition of infidelity been so vague, and so fluid as it is now.

Is anonymous chatroom sex cheating? Is sexting? Is porn cheating? Is making a sextape of yourself and sending it to someone else cheating? How about if you still have an active dating profile on an app despite being in a relationship? What if you never actually touch another person?

It's also why estimates about how many people cheat vary so dramatically - from 25% to 75% - because no two people define it the same. When that includes two partners in the same relationship, disaster is no more than one sms away.

Marriage has nuances and the flattening of the conversation around it has done as much damage as cheating

If there's one common thread to the conversation about cheating in the digital age, it's that we think technology has caused a fissure.

Yet, despite all the hand-wringing around it, there's no evidence that we're cheating more because of technology - what it has done, instead, is change its shape.

We cross boundaries that were never agreed upon. We feel betrayals we didn't anticipate. And we feel them sharply, keenly - because they're so explicitly there for the seeing.

Affairs are as old as marriage. "Infidelity, in fact, has a resilience marriage can only envy," says Perel with biting humour. But never before have we had such intimate access to a partner's betrayal.

And that, possibly, is the true havoc technology has wreaked on our relationships. Now you don't just discover the hurtful - but bland - reality of an affair. You discover its nuances. You can be privy to its intimacies, its rhythm. Every bantering text, every loaded Whatsapp message, every explicit desire shared, every intimate touch exchanged.

You can obsess over the details that have always made up infidelity - but that you couldn't access. How he made her feel. How she touched him. Where they did it. The names they call each other in bed. The table they had sex against. That she does with him what she refuses you. You push a knife deeper into yourself with every detail you demand and receive. And you destroy your ability to heal with every byte of information.

But all cheating is not the same

Cheating can be simple - and it can be far more complex. The cheater is always wrong, because they have deliberately reneged on a commitment - but "the victim of the cheating is not always the victim of the marriage," as Perel points out.

The circumstances of each marriage and each partner makes every act of cheating different. There are philanderers, and chronic cheaters, and drunk cheaters, and those are fairly straightforward. But there's also neglect cheating. There's revenge cheating. There's I'm-desperately-unhappy cheating. And there's also I'm-in-a-happy-marriage-but-I-still-cheated cheating.

This last is one of the most complex realities of infidelity, and one that intrigues psychologists and relationship therapists most. Why do happy people cheat?

We no longer know what cheating looks like. We cross boundaries we never agreed upon

Conventional wisdom about cheating is built around two possibilities: one, that your marriage/relationship lacks something, or second, that you have no moral fibre - whatever morality is.

But there's something else at play in society today. We fetishize desire - for things, for places, for a different life, for more. We believe we deserve more - and maybe we do - but more is not a finite entity. It's not a destination. You don't arrive at its limits. And that's telling, on our marriages and our relationships. As Perel points out, "earlier, we divorced because we were unhappy. Now, we divorce because we could be happier."

And because we deserve more, and we don't know how much more really is, walking away rather than working things out has become the default. We live in a time of more greys than ever - but our reactions are increasingly black-and-white.

In an interview with Catch, celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, who recently opened up about being gangraped two decades ago, argued for her right - and that of anyone in the same situation - to stay silent rather than speak up. "I didn't want to spend my life being framed as a victim. But it's ironic that once you face something like rape or abuse," she said, "society develops conventions for you. But the person who goes through that experience has the right to heal in the way that works for them. For some, that's silence."

Perel has encountered the same with infidelity. "Today, staying when you could leave is the new shame."

There's no correct answer - because there's no one answer.

Hillary Clinton, arguably the world's most publicly humiliated wife, chose to stay and has been the subject of debate ever since. It would have been no different had she left. Many of the men and women outed by the Ashley Madison hack - 2.75 lakh of its user base is from India, incidentally - may have to confront their own version of a Clintonian hell soon.

Let's hope they don't let society make up their mind for them.

First published: 23 July 2015, 14:48 IST
Payal Puri @payalpuri

In a 19-year career Payal has been, among other things, editor of Cosmopolitan India, executive editor of a travel and design magazine, and worked briefly in lifestyle TV. Prior to joining Catch as Editor-at-Large, she was executive director of THiNK, a cutting-edge ideas event in Goa. She has a borderline manic enthusiasm for red wine, all things digital, Goa and chewing her nails, in no particular order. At Catch she oversees all things fun, features and lifestyle, including the site's internal Slack channels, which she runs like a personal fiefdom.