We've learned two things from the Ashley Madison hack-a-thon:
- "Internet security" is an oxymoron—like working vacation, compassionate conservatism, science magic, free speech zone, and the one true religion.
- You can make a lot of money pretending to offer men a chance to meet strangers for extramarital affairs.
What we have NOT learned is that tens of millions of men actually want to arrange extramarital affairs with virtual strangers.
That's because we don't know how many men joined AM specifically to get laid (yes, of course many did), and how many joined for other reasons. These could include:
"I wonder who might pick me."
"I wonder who's available."
"It's so much fun pretending I'm available."
"I wonder how it would feel to be young, handsome, and single."
"I wonder what a horny woman sounds like."
"I just want to talk about my sexless marriage with someone."
It turns out that both groups—the "I wanna get laid" crowd and the "I wanna talk or imagine" gang—were systematically cheated. Of five million supposed female members of AM, over 99% of their profiles were fake, manufactured by the site to lure male (i.e., paying) customers.
Surprise, surprise—a business model that exploited sexual desire, arousal, curiosity, loneliness, and dissatisfaction was wildly successful. AM swindled virtually every customer who was shopping for real sex, and virtually all customers who were pining for validation, conversation, or information (about women or their own marketability).
It's easy to scorn customers who were cheated while they participated on a website for cheaters. Poetic justice, some might say.
I disagree—the two are completely unrelated. We expect that people who crash while driving drunk should get quality medical care, right? And we expect that convicted criminals should be treated in a civilized way while jailed, right? (Parenthetically, let's remember that virtually none of the 31 million male members actually cheated via AM; we can say that many tried, which would make them akin not to convicted criminals, but rather suspected criminals—who, in America, have tremendous legal rights.
If any good comes out of this mess (besides CEO Noel Biderman losing his job, along with, one hopes, everything else he values), it would be the two cultural conversations it launches: one about internet privacy, the other about sexual fantasy and infidelity. However, the question is NOT "why do 31 million men want to cheat," but rather "why are so many men inhibited from talking about sexual or emotional issues with their partners?"
The topics involved range from "I don't feel attractive anymore" to "you don't seem to desire me much" to "how am I supposed to live without oral sex for another 25 years" to "can't we pretend X or Y before or during sex" to "I don't think this monogamy thing works for me." Whether they want to cheat, flirt, talk, listen, or masturbate, every one of AM's 31 million actual members has something to say to his partner at home.
The fear of data exposure is a dystopian new twist on guilt and the fear of being known. But if that gets some of these 31 million men talking more honestly with their partners, it will be a step forward after all.
Mark Twain once groused that "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." Ohio has proven once again that no one's freedom is safe when conservative politicians are up for reelection.
Within a few weeks, Ohio's legislature is expected to criminalize any abortion if the pregnant woman's intent is to avoid having a baby with Down syndrome.
Of the six million pregnancies each year in the U.S., fewer than 20,000 are carrying a fetus with Down syndrome. Some 2/3 of those pregnancies will miscarry, leaving a maximum of some 6,000 Down's pregnancies in America continuing to term (and thus potentially to abortion). But even assuming that all 20,000 Down's pregnancies are viable, Ohio (with 3.6% of America's population) would have about 720 of them.
That's what this law does—it criminalizes abortion for these 720 pregnancies.
It's an election year after all. Governor John Kasich is running for president, and 2/3 of the legislature is endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee.
Of course, Ohio isn't the only grandstanding U.S. legislature. In 2013, North Dakota criminalized abortion because of fetal genetic anomalies, including Down syndrome. Seven states ban abortions if the reason is gender selection; Arizona's law even forbids abortion when the doctor knows "that the abortion is being sought based on the sex or race of the child, or the race of a parent of that child."
Arizona passed this law without a single example of gender-selection or race-selection abortion anywhere in the state. The law prevents something that doesn't exist. So one imagines Arizona criminalizing abortions taking place on February 30; banning abortions if the father is Elvis; and not allowing abortions if the mother is married to a kangaroo.
Supporters of the Arizona race-selection abortion law note that a high percentage of abortions are being sought by minority women, who are disproportionately poor. Apparently, they don't realize that reducing health care options, sex education, and contraceptive availability for poor people leads to more unplanned pregnancy. Anti-choice legislators are against abortion almost as much as they're against reducing unplanned pregnancy. Maybe they don't know where babies come from.
The Arizona law raises an interesting question. If a Hispanic couple wants an abortion, will they be challenged as wanting an abortion because the fetus is Hispanic? After all, it's not a White, Black, or Asian fetus they'd be aborting. And what about a White couple who wants an abortion—when they know darn well the baby they don't want is White? Are these "abortion because of race?"
Arizona, Ohio, and other states can, of course, make the experience of a simple abortion as miserable as possible for residents who have the nerve to pursue a legal medical procedure. And states can throw a fit and just invent reasons that people can't have abortions.
Sex-selective abortion has indeed created complications in India and China, both dramatically different cultures from America's. Some American legislators seem to have their states confused with these two ancient societies, historically tormented by radical gender- and racial beliefs.
Ohio and other state legislatures, to their eternal frustration, can't simply make abortion illegal. Their phony "conservative" Republicans want to shrink "Big Government" just small enough to fit under people's bedroom doors.
Nothing could be more modern than the rise and fall of Ashley Madison: millions of world-wide members linked by a single website, the central promise of cyber-confidentiality, millions of phony profiles generated by algorithm, and the whole thing brought down by hackers—exposing not just the criminal business behavior, but the email addresses and IP information for millions of accounts, both real and fake.
This ultra-modern story is also a reminder that the human heart hasn't changed. I'm not talking about the good old-fashioned greed of unethical businessmen. I'm talking about the customers. People still want to connect. People still find it difficult. People still have trouble talking to their mates about sex. People still want what they can't have.
People still fantasize about infidelity; some pursue it, and some indeed do it. Some do it out of lust, some out of anger, some out of despair. Some do it because they want what comes after the sex: a hug; a note that says "you're great;" the feeling of belonging, or of being desired. Some do it, as Olympia Dukakis told Cher in the film Moonstruck, because they know that one day they're going to die.
Most of all, people still lie about sex.
As a 30-year resident of (and therapist in) Silicon Valley, I hear every single day that the internet has changed everything. And I have a front-row seat for the latest ways that people use technology as part of dating, mating, and long-term coupling.
I hear about Grindr, Tinder, Match.com, and yes, Ashley Madison. I know about meetups, flash mobs, and Group-on. I know people continents apart masturbate together on Skype, and I seem to hear about sexting every week. There's an amazing amount of information on line about everything from clitorises to sexual side effects of drugs to the number of calories in semen to whether olive oil is a good lubricant.
Caitlin Jenner's story—which many people find personally liberating—would be just private gossip without the internet. So would Miley Cyrus's self-declared "pan-sexuality"—which, again, many people find personally meaningful.
- People are still wondering if they're normal
- People are still getting pregnant unintentionally
- People are still inhibited talking about what they like in bed, and hesitant to say what they don't like
- People still insist on sex, or withhold sex, as part of marital politics
- People still have sex when they'd rather hug
- People still lie about their past experience
- People still want sex to be "natural and spontaneous," even though nothing else in their lives is.
- People still look at porn. For the same reasons they always did
- People still think men and women are "opposite" sexes, whose perspectives are inevitably different.
- People still have sex because they're lonely. Many people still feel lonely during and after sex.
- People still have sex—or join Ashley Madison–because they want to feel young.
- People still regret what they see in the mirror, and lose their appetite for something that could soothe them.
So has the internet changed anything about sexuality?
Only this: our obsession with the constant, intense, novel stimulation of the internet has rendered real sex with an actual person a bit less all-compelling than it used to be. We actually have to remember to pay attention during sex now—since it doesn't grab us like colorful, noisy websites do, and since it doesn't promise us the entire world every moment the way our smartphones do.
Actually, sex does make that promise. It can even deliver on that promise—but only if we pay attention. And in the age of the internet, that's a big if.