Ashley Madison data theft shows more nuanced conversation on monogamy is needed

WP AM storyWhen news broke on July 19 that the user database of the website Ashley Madison had been compromised, public moralizing kicked into high gear. Some people were eager to know whether their spouse had stepped out on them; and people who had cheated (or even just been curious about cheating) worried that they might lose all that they hold dear.

Does cheating hurt people? Well, lying often hurts people, as does depriving people of their right to consent in their own relationships. Still, the Ashley Madison data breach highlights that many people simply will not be monogamous, despite strong social pressure and practical risks.

People need better choices than monogamy vs. cheating. This is why we need greater awareness of ethical, mutually consensual alternatives to monogamy — and, for that matter, alternatives to other hallmarks of the traditional Escalator approach to intimate relationships, as well. Because one-size-fits-all social norms rarely suit real human relationships.

Fortunately, there are many, many ways to have mutually consensual, happy and healthy loving relationships.

Here’s what happened: Ashley Madison is an online dating and social networking site for people seeking to engage in clandestine intimate connections — presumably in violation of the agreements of their ostensibly monogamous relationships. Cybercriminals calling themselves The Impact Team published a some user records online to prove that they had at least some of Ashley Madison’s data. They threatened to release more if the site’s owner, Avid Life Media, didn’t shut down Ashley Madison and a similar property, Established Men.

The cybercriminals offered this rationale for stealing the data: Ashley Madison was charging extra for a “full delete” feature that would permanently delete all user data — while reportedly not actually scrubbing credit card purchase data (which can reveal identity).

…Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, the cybercriminals (whose ethical compass is clearly spinning like a top) said of Ashley Madison clients: “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion.”

Because when cheating is involved, apparently anyone can feel entitled to judge. Such is the (generally unquestioned) power of the social norm of monogamy.

I’m not trying to condone the choice to deprive one’s partner of informed consent. Personally, I strongly value consent, and that’s the main reason why I choose not to participate in violating relationship agreements (my own, and others’). But life and relationships are complicated, and people stray from monogamy and other promises for many reasons. I’m not inclined to sit in judgement of others’ personal choices — but I would like people to know that they do have lots of choices. And some relationship options can make the issues of cheating moot.

Strict adherence to the premise that sexual and romantic exclusivity is the only appropriate, ethical or good way to have intimate relationships (especially significant or long-term relationships) sets many, many people up for substantial bad behavior, pain and strife.

Yes, many people enjoy monogamy, benefit from it, and consider its tradeoffs negligible (or at least worth the effort). But the price tag of compulsory or presumed monogamy is vast.

Some costs of compulsory monogamy include:

  • Contentious and costly divorces — where blame holds a dollar value, thanks to legal codification of social norms.
  • Feelings of betrayal and guilt that come from lying to people you love (or being lied to).
  • Fear of exposure by people who may have only considered cheating (which is true for many people who explore services like Ashley Madison).
  • Strong social stigma against people engaged in ethical and consensual nonmonogamy, as well as fear of stigmatization simply for questioning compulsory monogamy. This can to social and family ostracizing, loss of jobs and housing, child custody challenges, and other concrete dire consequences.
  • Reflexive villanizing of people who may not be violating their own relationship agreements (the narrative of blaming the “homewrecker”).
  • Greater pressure, strife or disaffection in relationships where exclusivity only creates or amplifies problems.
  • Potentially reduced access to love, affection, sex, support and resilience in winner-takes-all exclusive relationships.

Monogamy can indeed be wonderful and work well. After all, nearly half of married men and women do not cheat on their spouses. Therefore, since monogamy is so naturally appealing to many, and since cheating can be so destructive, there should be no need to browbeat and threaten people into complying with monogamy — or to ostracize, shame and punish people who choose to explore different (but ethical) paths.

We need to have a more nuanced public conversation about monogamy — and about all key aspects of traditional intimate relationships.

If you object on moral grounds to services such as Ashley Madison, that’s a good reason to promote awareness of ethical alternatives to monogamy (and other hallmarks of traditional relationships). Why not encourage people to choose monogamy (or not) consciously, with full awareness of their relationship options? Why not equip people with information to support clear, frank conversations about monogamy and other commitments and desires early in relationships? Why not admit that people always change over time, and empower them to create resilient relationships which can adapt to inevitable change?

My forthcoming book, Off the Relationship Escalator (due out late 2015) is intended as a tool to start these conversations. It clarifies the traditional Escalator model for intimate relationships (which many people never consider consciously), and explores five key ways that relationships can diverge from these social norms. It’s filled with quotes and data from over 1000 responses to my survey on unconventional relationships: polyamory, swinging, open relationships, asexual relationships, partners who choose not to live together, and more. (Sign up for updates on the availability of this book, and learn about other ways to support this ongoing project.)

The real ethical problem with cheating is not that it violates monogamy, but that it violates consent. If you value consent, then you probably believe that people who enter into significant commitments (such as a life partnership, or even just sexual exclusivity) should have enough information about how their relationship really works to choose whether they want to enter, or remain in, a relationship. Consent is just one of many values that matter in relationships and life, and not everyone makes it a top priority in every situation. We all have hard choices to make, sometimes.

Consent in relationships means not just knowing whether your partner has other partners (if that matters to you), but what your options might be to form or adapt a relationship which suits and serves the people in it. Consent is not just about information, but respect, negotiation and collaboration. Ultimately, this is more practical than shoehorning real human beings into a uniform relationship template.

Compulsory monogamy only makes the owners of Ashley Madison more money. Just as the moralizing “just say no” approach to preventing drug abuse, and abstinence-only sex education have proved to be abject failures in the face of human nature, assuming that monogamy is the only way that love and sex should work ultimately undermines relationships, families and individuals.

Whenever social norms contradict common aspects of human nature, they create a black market — and there will always be entrepreneurs and extortionists ready to exploit such opportunities. Prohibition and stigma aren’t the only ways to combat social problems; sometimes society can redefine what “a problem” is, to devise less costly, more constructive solutions.

…By the way, both compromised websites (Ashley Madison and Established Men) are still operating profitably as of this writing. People are unlikely to stop cheating just because it’s risky. However, Ashley Madison has removed the fee for their full delete feature. (It’s still unclear how “full” this delete feature actually is.)

In the big picture, it is safe to assume that any relationships or sexual preferences which rely on secrecy (whether due to active dishonesty or mere stigma) are facing greater opportunities and risks, thanks to technology. In May, the sexual/fetish hookup site Adult FriendFinder was similarly compromised. And a few years ago, users of the kink social network Fetlife began facing greater privacy risks — in that case, thanks to a tech-savvy user who disagreed with the site’s security practices. Meanwhile, the online porn, sex webcam, and escort industries continue to boom.

These services won’t stop existing because human beings insist on following their desires for love, connection and sex. That’s just reality. Traditional relationships and mainstream sexual preferences aren’t the right or best choices for everyone.

Shining a light on fully consensual relationship options might help relieve the pressure of ubiquitous social norms — so we can relax more, figure out and find what works for each of us, and worry less about how we’re “supposed” to love.

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