Ashley Madison and the problem of compulsory monogamy

Monogamy: Don't be shocked, but it's not the only game in town.
Monogamy: Don’t be shocked, but it’s not the only game in town.

If you ever doubted what a nuclear-grade hot button monogamy is in mainstream society, look no further than the fallout from the Ashley Madison hack. Last week, the cybercriminals who stole the user list of this website (which helps people in exclusive relationships arrange secret sexual hookups with other partners) made good on their threat to post all of that information online. This unleashed the worst in nearly everyone — paranoia, finger-pointing, moralizing, predation, despair, and even some possible suicides.

I’m pretty sure this deluge of the dark side of humanity wouldn’t have been so massive if monogamy was not viewed as a practically compulsory part of any committed intimate relationship.

That is: If more people viewed monogamy as an option, rather that a requirement in committed relationships, then the Ashley Madison data breach would still be painful or embarrassing for some people, and it might still destroy some marriages. However, it probably wouldn’t be generating headlines in major news venues for weeks on end, making quite so many divorce lawyers and private investigators richer, or sparking extortion attempts, shaming and guilt-tripping and witch hunts.

Nor would it be enticing millions of people (maybe even you!) to check whether the email addresses of people they know were in the posted data — even though many of those addresses were spoofed, and the vast majority of Ashley Madison customers never met anyone through that site. (I’m deliberately not including a link to that search tool, by the way. Although I appreciate coder Troy Hunt’s thoughts on how to handle public access to sensitive data breaches.)

I’m a word geek, so I don’t toss around a loaded term like “compulsory” lightly.

True, usually people aren’t monogamous because someone is holding a gun to their head (although that can happen in some extremely abusive relationships). Monogamy is technically something that people choose. However, it’s generally a Hobbson’s choice: a “free” choice where only one option is offered.

Usually, monogamy is considered mandatory and non-negotiable if you wish to deepen, or remain in, an intimate relationship. Most people don’t believe they have a choice in this: take the monogamy (or pretend to), or leave the relationship. Given how strongly most people desire and value deep, intimate relationships, this proposition (especially when reinforced by strong social norms, and even marriage law) can amount to tacit emotional blackmail. Coercion is a form of compulsion.

Making matters worse, too often people choose monogamy without knowing that there are consensual, ethical ways to be nonmonogamous. Or if they do know of these options, they often immediately discount them — thanks to misinformation and strong social stigma against consensual nonmonogamy. In fact, it’s very common for people to consider cheating (which involves conscious deception) to be less immoral and less potentially harmful than consensual nonmonogamy.

Given the social norm of compulsory monogamy for deep relationships, and how this runs counter to some of the deepest and strongest natural human drives, it’s not surprising that the operators of Ashley Madison attracted nearly 40 million users worldwide. This climate encourages deception and discourages frank discussion of desires, needs and options.

Yes, monogamy does benefit many, many people and relationships. It can be a wonder way to express love and commitment. However, when monogamy is effectively compulsory, that can thwart satisfaction and fulfillment in long-term relationships. When people feel they must accept a major restriction in exchange for meeting a basic human need, they tend to resent that. And eventually that resentment usually plays out in some form of bad behavior (not always cheating).

Despite these obstacles, more and more people are choosing nonmonogamy rather than cheating. Various types of ethical nonmonogamy — swinging, “permission slip” relationships, polyamory and more — are the most popular type way that people are stepping off the traditional Relationship Escalator. In these relationships, everyone involved knows, and consents to, the terms of their arrangement. This doesn’t always work perfectly, but neither does monogamy.

Having a more nuanced public discourse about monogamy not only would be likely to make cheating less destructive; it could also make cheating less common — and less profitable for sites like Ashley Madison, which will always exist under current social norms. If you hate cheating, then supporting greater awareness of less conventional relationship options, and less stigma against them, is a better use of your energy than wagging fingers at alleged Ashley Madison subscribers.

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