a sad state of affairs

I’m too tired to post anything thoughtful tonight – so my answers to the remaining two questions will have to wait until tomorrow and the next day.

In the meantime, I give you this article about Noel Biderman, the man who founded the website ashleymadison.com, which caters to married people (presumably heterosexual) who want to hook up with other married people in order to cheat. The interviewer is clearly out to nail the guy as being a jerk; Biderman manages to wiggle out of it most of the time. If nothing else it’s an interesting study in judgmental interviewing techniques.

As for me, I’m left musing. I do agree with Biderman that on some level, blaming a website for an affair is like blaming the hotel room it happened in; and it’s really easy to demonize a guy who’s making a fortune off others’ infidelity, which makes me hesitant to do so without thinking about it some more. If I compare demonizing Biderman to demonizing sex workers because many of their clients are married men, or demonizing bathhouses because married straight guys (not to mention monogamously partnered gay ones) may go there behind their spouse’s back, it starts to stretch the blame game awfully thin. Any product or service that might create the possibility of sexual arousal and/or privacy might conceivably be used by a cheater. Does that mean we should judge them all as ethical travesties?

At the same time, just because such products and services cannot be blamed outright for infidelity – there’s a demand for sex outside of marriage that will exist regardless of any product or service that comes along – does that make cheating spouses an ethically clean market to target? I don’t think it’s quite that simple, either. Sex workers and hotels cater to lots of clients that aren’t cheating spouses, and as far as I’m aware they don’t generally make a point of seeking them out or even asking whether or not the client is cheating before providing their services. But there is something at least somewhat different about setting up cheaters as a specific target market and blatantly offering a service that makes their (generally un)ethical choice easier.

I dunno. I don’t have lots of good things to say about cheating; I do think it’s wrong on many levels. But at the same time I recognize the sheer humanity of it, and I further recognize that our culture is set up to encourage that option as the most available one for people in a dissatisfying partnership. Our culture encourages a strong investment in gender binaries and all sorts of stupid, and supposedly natural or typical, behaviours that are supposed to come with those binaries; and it doesn’t encourage good communication in relationships at all. There’s shame attached to the idea of getting counseling, and it’s hard work. There’s shame around cheating too, but there’s a certain tacit approval too – even an admiration – of people who dare to do something as exciting and titillating as find an erotically satisfying clandestine relationship with some devastatingly sexy “other woman” or “other man.” In some ways it’s as close to excitement, relationship-wise, as most (heterosexual at least) people are likely to get; marriage is widely reputed to be the beginning of the end, the height of boredom, the ball and chain, and nonetheless the situation you’re supposed to seek out at all costs, be ashamed if you can’t find, and be happy with for the rest of your life. It’s no wonder people decide to let off some of the pressure by boinking their office mates.

In short, the institution of heterosexuality doesn’t leave much in the way of choices. Some people stay faithful; some start swinging; a tiny percentage gravitate toward polyamory; and lots have affairs. Until the whole sad institution – marriage, yes, but I’m talking about heterosexuality as a whole – gets revamped, and until the dominant culture’s contradictory values fade and some sort of wholeness really starts to take hold, I can’t really muster up much of an indignant feeling toward Biderman. It seems to me that he’s more of a symptom than a cause, and more of an unfortunate scapegoat than a Pied Piper.

2 thoughts on “a sad state of affairs

  1. Thanks for posting this! As a critical look Ashley Madison is one of the parts of my dissertation chapter about the adultery industry I have struggled with many of the same thoughts (especially the juxtaposition of AM to sex work). While I share the same thoughts as you about the embeddedness and even sometimes promotion and celebration of adultery in heteronormative culture, for me that is what makes it all the more problematic. While there are alternative options out there, an industrialized take on adultery is doing all it can to prop up the status quo–check out the Alibi Network for another similar venture. On top of this, what really gets to me about AM’s approach is the way the site and its advertising targets women. In their rhetoric, the site is about women, their power to free individuals who make their choices in a modern world and who are, finally, claiming their equality of rights with men and doing what men have been doing for ages: cheating. The sight sells itself as “For Women Seeking Romantic Affairs and the Men Who Want to Fulfill Them” but this is pure rhetoric. Their own numbers indicate that their major clientele is men (70 percent), and since, when you join the site, the only categories are Single/Attached Women Seeking Men or Single/Attached Men Seeking Women, attracting women willing to engage in adultery is key to their business model. Add to that their vast array of sexist, fat-phobic ads and you get the true measure of AM, imho.

  2. Thanks for the added perspective, Nathan. I totally get where you’re coming from, and your critique sounds spot-on. I think my perspective is just tinged with a feeling of shrugging my shoulders – really, while AM brings up a bunch of interesting thoughts in a fairly unique way, ultimately I feel like it’s just a drop in the bucket when you look at all the many forces that are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. I don’t much like the site, but I don’t really have the energy to get really riled up about it either. But hey, for those who do, go for it – it’s certainly deserving of the critique, you won’t find me disagreeing on that!

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