I've gotten tons of letters over the last week about the Ashley Madison hack, including a number of letters from women who claim to be among the tiny number of female members. I'm not going to be able to respond to all of these letters—there are too many (this is just a small and, hopefully, representative sample)—but I wanted to put them out them out there because we need to hear from the victims not just about them. And most of the people victimized by the hack are afraid to speak up in their own defense or to explain their actions and choices publicly. So I'm sharing their letters here to, as one of the LWs below says, "give a voice to Ashley Madison users facing exposure." But first...
Someone who was a victim of this hack—an outed Ashley Madison member or group of AM members—has got to start organizing other victims of the hack. If you're all going to be outed... you might as well come out swinging. Call press conferences, tell your stories, defend yourselves. There are millions of you out there. You know what would instantly make news and change the narrative? Staging a protest at business that fired someone whose named turned up on the database. Act up, fight back—like gay men did back in the 80s and 90s. The stigma then around being gay and/or having AIDS was greater than the stigma now around being one of those cheaters outed in the AM hack. Gay men with and without HIV were treated like diseased pariahs—and we embraced the term. We wore "DISEASED PARIAH" t-shirts, for fuck's sake, and men with HIV got biohazard tattoos. We refused to be shamed.
If I personally knew someone who was reeling from the AM hack—someone whose info was out there, someone whose in-laws were freaking, someone whose boss had been emailed a link to his or her data—I would sit them down and make them watch "How to Survive a Plague," David France's Oscar-nominated documentary about ACT UP and TAG, and then make them read "So You've Been Publicly Shamed," Jon Ronson's book about public shaming in the age the Twitter mob. (AM members: Please pay close attention to the chapter on Max Mosley.)
Now I know the experiences—HIV/AIDS then, AM hack now—aren't a perfectly parallel. Nowhere near. People with HIV didn't wrong anyone and there's a wronged party when someone cheats on a spouse. Usually. (And people with HIV/AIDS were literally dying, not just feeling like they wanted to die.) But right now everyone swept up in the hack is assumed to have wronged someone and that's simply not the case. Not everyone who was on AM cheated, some only fantasized about cheating, and some people who cheated had grounds to cheat. And the only people who have the power to rewrite or complicate the narrative around who AM members are? AM members themselves. Which is why you motherfuckers need to stop sitting at home pissing your pants and start fighting back.
Anyway... here are the letters...
I thought of submitting this as an article to Slate with the title of "My Husband's Name is on the Ashley Madison List. I'm Angry, But Not for the Reason You Think." Sounds like a Slate title, doesn't it? But I'm pretty sure that Slate would want to publish it with my name and then I'm absolutely sure that the angry villagers with pitchforks would show up at my house; I have young children to protect so that is not an option. If I didn't have children I'd definitely go public with this, if for no other reason than to give the angry villagers and uptight religious assholes the finger, but my children don't deserve to be embarrassed for choices their parents made.
So ultimately this letter could only go to you. I realize that among you and your readers I have a friendly audience so am not exactly breaking new ground inside this forum, but I am hoping that if you publish this, it will be passed around the internet enough that at least a few people will start to see marriage, monogamy and (in)fidelity with the shades of nuance that they deserve rather than the black and white, overly simplistic treatment that they currently receive.
Four years ago, my husband and I opened our marriage. The how and why of the opening up is a separate letter (and a GOOD one, trust me), but the gist of it is that it was ME who was a CPOS, not my husband. During the fallout of my cheating, we decided to try opening our marriage. It was a long and painful and traumatic process, but in the end our marriage is better off for it. We truly love each other and our family and we plan to grow old together. We laugh and have fun with each other and have great sex in a way that I didn't think was possible after 23 years together. When we first opened up, my husband opened an Ashley Madison account WITH MY FULL KNOWLEDGE. He closed the account shortly after because we were uneasy with the cheating aspect of it, as we had and still have every intention of conducting ourselves ethically—if we even get a whiff that a potential partner's spouse is not 100% on board, it's a deal breaker for us. So the AM account was closed and we switched to OKCupid.
So here we are four years later and you can guess the ending—my beloved husband's name is now on the Internet and he could be potentially branded as a cheat and a liar. But he's neither of those things. He's a good man—a doting father, loving husband and a hard worker. But the angry villagers with pitchforks and Internet trolls don't know any of this, nor do they care that there could be literally dozens of reasons why a man's name is on that list other than that he's a CPOS. So many shades of gray here, but the angry villagers and trolls are too closed-minded or sheltered or ignorant or repressed or in denial about their own lives or just plain hateful to see anything but black and white.
Do all these men deserve to have their lives ruined and reputations trashed? Even for the ones who were trying to cheat or actually did cheat? Does the punishment of lifelong shame and humiliation REALLY fit the crime? Do I deserve to lay awake at night, wondering who at my kids' school has seen this and if my kids will be shunned or taunted because of it? Does my husband deserve to worry that his boss will see it and fire him? My husband and I are good people. We don't deserve this.
So to anyone who is gleefully searching the Ashley Madison database, or gossiping about a neighbor whose name is on the list, or feeling smug and holier than thou right now, I want to share this quote from Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Someday it will be you or someone you love fighting that battle, and you're no better than any other human being who is flawed and imperfect or misunderstood. No one ever knows what goes on inside someone else's marriage other than the two people in that marriage, and if a man or woman cheats on their spouse, the one and ONLY person they should have to answer to is that spouse.
And thank you Dan, for all you do to call out the hypocrites of the world.
Lots more after the jump...
I'm writing you because I have spent the last 48 hours reevaluating the dumbest decision he's made in his life. I'm one of those idiots who, in a momentary lapse of judgment joined Ashley Madison two years ago. I did talk to some people. I did not, however, have a single ounce of intent to follow through on anything. I even had my "limits" marked as cyber/chat only.
Yesterday morning I couldn't take the stress anymore and told my wife of three months about my indiscretion. She actually took it in stride, telling me that she believes I never did anything. Hearing her forgive me gave me a feeling of relief I've never felt before. I fully admit I was walking down a very dangerous path, but the mere thought of hurting her was more than enough to make me turn back. However, not only is my email searchable, but with the way this information has been propagated it seems I will forever be linked to this. It's almost as if my entire existence has an asterisk attached to it now.
What initially was relief that my home life will seemingly make it through this has metastasized into even greater feelings of shame and fear. I may never know who in my social, familial, or professional circles has searched for my email address and what that will do to our relationships going forward. I realize that this is all still very fresh and new, and hopefully this anxiety will alleviate with time, but right now I am full of a guilt that is actually physically affecting me.
I am not a scumbag. I am not filth. I am not someone who "should kill himself." I'm broken inside and want nothing more than to live the life I've always wanted to—a private one—and I don't know how that can happen going forward.
Love your podcast. I agree with you on the Ashley Madison stance. My wife and I used it (we are in a well-adjusted open marriage) to meet singles and couples. Since the hack we’ve been preparing for questions from nosey family or friends that suspect our alternative lifestyle but never could get proof—we found our email addresses in the first dump of data. In any event, I thought this article would be of interest to you and your readers/listeners. Someone took the time and effort to prove what my wife and I found out in less than a week about AM—she was one of the only real women that responded to men. She got 5,000 emails in the first two days and all tolled received close to 20,000 in the month we were on the site. It just got to feel creepy and depressing reading all the sob stories from these seemingly deprived men.
I just want to add my thanks to you for taking the time to give a voice to Ashley Madison users facing exposure. I'm a woman, a mother, and a former AM user. It sounds like an AA meeting opener—but it was a kind of addiction for a while.
I have been in a sexless marriage for ten years. With three children, I'm still quite young & good looking. I'm the sole earner, and with small kids and no hope of a love-life at home I started to get desperate. A "discrete" cheating site seemed worth a try. How convenient, tick the unticked box. No strings!
When you sign up to AM, you fill in a form with your profile summary and preferences. Checking boxes about kinks is even a thrill when you sleep alone and are tied to someone through a life commitment. I put in my details: fake name—but honest enough and went to bed. Holy Jesus: I woke up to find hundreds of replies from men. Hilarious user names, cock pics, the worst lines. But some really genuine and heart warming messages from people who knew what it was like to be in my situation. Who also had all the boxes ticked but one. Who didn't feel they could leave. It was such a rush. I wasn't alone. Empathy. Solidarity. And a possible SHAG!
First encounters were thrilling. Getting dressed up, secret rendezvous, fantasies played out. Early on I did even meet some people, I am ashamed to say, just to be polite. As a woman on AM you feel a bit of pressure to be grateful for the attention. As a woman you have no idea that men pay to be on the site. As your recent FAMM mailer stated—it is an awful website, technically. The signs of shoddy IT development should have been clear. I wished often I could connect with other women on there and share stories, but unless you are bi or gay, you only can search men.
Over that year I learned a lot. To trust my gut about a person, to be less naive about believing that all I wanted was sex. After some strong connections and making a few close friends, even love (oops: strings!), I realized that what I really missed was intimacy, lying naked and laughing, and having someone I didn't have to have secrets from. We were in the same boat.
Overall I'm grateful. Exposure is much less scary than living a lie. And this mess might get us all a bit more aware and brave to be honest and break our marriage stalemate.
At the expense of sounding like a shill, I'm not sure what all these men are talking about with Ashley Madison. I'm a man and I've been on there 3.5 years, and in that time have met many interesting women. It took some effort to meet women I clicked with but I would expect to have to do that on any dating site. In the time I've been on there I've had one relationship that lasted nearly two years, a few shorter ones where it became obvious it wasn't going to work out, and countless first dates/second dates trying to figure out the same.
Often a conversation would go dead when a woman would simply stop writing back but I learned to take that in stride—it just seems to be the online etiquette. Some women were explicitly or tacitly looking for a sugar daddy but they rarely came into my orbit (perhaps because I specified in my profile that I respected those arrangements but wasn't looking for that type of arrangement myself.) What accounted for my success on AM? Beats me. I was just honest about my situation (DADT, very much in love with my wife), what I was looking for (on-going, dating/girlfriend type relationship), and was always respectful. I found the site to be far tamer and less out-there than Adult Friend Finder, for instance, which seems to cater to a raunchier crowd.
Thank you for understand and speaking out against the judgmental glee that has overwhelmed the Internet regarding the Ashley Madison hack. It made my heart feel so much better to read your words. My name was on that list (note: this is a fake email address, and a fake name... I learned my lesson), and I have been suffering ever since it was leaked.
I signed up five years ago. It was a time when my relationship with my wife was emotionally and sexually deficient. In fact, she had had two extramarital affairs herself during this period of time. Now, when it comes to Ashley Madison, I never actually cheated or even chatted with a real person because, as it turns out, the site is a complete scam.
Anyways, I have been fighting depression, anxiety, self hatred, and suicidal thoughts since the leak. All I read about is how evil, heartless, and morally lacking me and everyone else on the list are. It is really getting to me. Reading and hearing over and over and over and over about how horrible I am is causing me to believe it myself. I can barely sleep, and when I do, my dreams are nightmares where all my friends, family, coworkers, and everyone else gossips, laughs, and hates me because I got doxxed.
The mental breakdown caused by the leak keeps getting worse. Now, to clarify, I did tell me wife about it, she understands and really doesn't give a shit, but the hack itself and all the public shaming has destroyed me, and any faith I had in the ability of the human race to evolve past these puritanical (and mostly religious) ideologies of sex and relationships. It's hard to live with yourself when the entire population of the world thinks you're a scumbag.
All and all, I have been an absolute wreck, and it was wonderful to read an article that wasn't telling me how awful of a human being I am. So, Thank you Dan Savage. You are a good human.
My final thoughts/venting: Ashley Madison took advantage of good human beings in times of their lives that were difficult. The hackers seemed to understand that, but they punished the victims to get to the perpetrators. This doxxing was wrong and it will always be wrong, no matter who was on that list. We are the victims. It is as bad as punished drug addicts to get at the cartels.
First off, Dan, you promise to keep me anonymous, right? (Shit! Where have I heard that before?) Ya, I'm on the list. And I didn't "register but not use it," I wasn't "curious," someone else didn't "use my email address." I put up a profile and met attached men. I'm a woman. I'm real.
My story: I'm a middle-aged female. Straight but situationally flexible. I left a long term monogamous marriage about six years ago. I spent the first couple of years pulling myself together and thinking about what I wanted. I decided that in a perfect world all my relationships would be open, and I would never be in a monogamous relationship again. And it works for me! I use the communication skills that I've learned since my marriage ended and I'm actually clear now about my expectations and what I'm looking for. I now have guy friends that I do certain things with, and I look forward to getting together and spending time. I'm typically "dating" maybe three guys at the same time, but it's all extremely casual. Maybe one of the three would be married.
I have wrestled with the ethics of what I do and here are the conclusions I arrived at: I think that sexuality and relationships and marriages are complicated. I don't think it's as simple as happy/unhappy or good person/bad person. I don't judge people who are looking to step out on the side.
You'd think that I would have lineups of single guys outside my door, considering all the guys who don't want strings. Except—surprise! Strings ARE what they really want. When they realize I actually do date and sleep with other people while seeing them, a good portion of the guys opt out. Women who used the site are perceived as home wreckers. But I don't consider myself to be a home wrecker—or a slut that gets off on someone else's guy, and I'm not looking for my next husband. I'm single and I'm happy and I am determined to stay that way.
The married men I met on AM didn't want their marriage to end. The reasons that they cheated with me were varied and complex. But they all loved their wives and kids. And I actively support that. I don't engage with men who are angry, who dislike their wives or their marriages, or who are really depressed and sad. I offer the possibility of a secret friendship that includes sex that will never be anything more. I will care about their family from afar. I will never "fall in love" or make any time demands. I'm not a home wrecker—quite the opposite.
I know that people who hate cheaters will gag on what I'm saying and call me terrible names and think that I'm really a bottom feeder. I've read a couple of times that women like me are nothing more than "cum buckets." I know, I know—don't read the comments. But sweet baby jesus, people can be awful.
I’m a fan of yours, Dan, but I disagree with you on one thing, and that’s cheating. I hope you continue to read. I understand the use of cheating as sometimes the “least worst option” to maintain a marriage or partnership. I’m not entirely disputing you on that; however, as you stated in podcast 456, the “victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage [Dan here: I was quoting the amazing Esther Perel]” but that doesn’t mean that they’re not entitled to make their own informed decisions. Maybe I feel this way because my mother is a nurse, but when someone is cheated on, their partner opens them up to a new host of issues—sexually transmitted infections being first and foremost. If there is an understanding between partners where extramarital encounters are encouraged or understood—that’s great. I assume that the two adults in that scenario have talked about STIs, boundaries, and protection.
If cheating—or lying/omitting/willfully neglecting to tell a partner about an “outside” encounter is at play, I feel there is an aspect of inherent selfishness that needs to be addressed as two peoples’ health is jeopardized. It is not simply the “cheater” who takes on this responsibility, but the unknowing partner as well. The cheater, as you may or may not know, may still be fucking their primary partner.
Have I been cheated on? I honestly don’t know. I do want to convey the idea that the person who is being cheated on—perhaps the person who makes a relationship so unbearable that they nudge, push, send flying! a partner into cheating—is not so unworthy or unintelligible as to make an informed decision about their relationship and whether or not they wish to continue in it given all the information.
When you spoke about the Ashley Madison hack and the backlash received from readers—how it was so unlike the response from the Gawker expose about the “married C-Suite executive”—it really brought to mind why I "side eye" your advice sometimes about cheating. Ashley Madison markets their services as a secret. It’s taboo. It’s adultery in the most “my spouse has no idea I’m fucking another person behind their back” sense of the word. That’s the cause for the backlash. Whether or not Ashley Madison promotes consensual extramarital interactions is beside the point. They doomed themselves with their sexy “you’re getting away with something secret” advertising. And that’s, frankly, hurtful to the unknowing half of a partnership—emotionally and often physically.