Late last week, Gawker posted an item about a "C-suite executive" at Condé Nast, a married father of three (a married-to-a-woman father of three [I'm old enough to remember when we didn't have to clarify those things]), who made arrangements to spend a weekend with a gay male escort/porn star/conspiracy theorist. The porn star figured out who the executive was—the brother of a former Obama administration official—and threatened to out the executive if the executive didn't use his political connections to assist the porn star in a dispute with the porn star's former landlord. (It's complicated.) The executive gently refused, paid the porn star his full weekend fee ($2,500), and canceled the booking. The porn star promptly handed over their correspondence to Gawker, which published the whole thing. After enduring howls of outrage from left, right, and center, Gawker's management—over protests from its editorial staff—decided to delete the post.
In what terms did Gawker's editorial staff defend the post while it was still up? Max Read, Gawker's editor-in-chief, posted this on Twitter:
I was in the air pretty much all day on Friday and unable to get on Slog, but I was able to tweet my thoughts before the boarding doors closed: "Problem with @Gawker's rationalization: we don't know if this 'C-suite executive' was fucking around on his wife... Some marriages are open, some husbands are bi, some wives allow for outside contact if husband makes an effort to be discreet... And even if he was fucking around on his wife—unless the guy is a moralizing public scold and it proves political hypocrisy, it's not news."
But Glenn Greenwald said it best:
What’s significant to me is the unstated premise of Read’s claim: that the wife of this CFO is a victim. Read is posing as her chivalrous defender: he only published this article to avenge the wrong done to her. There’s even the strangely sexist formulation to his vow: Gawker, he declares, will always “report on married executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.” What about when the cheating executives are women and the spouse is a man? He doesn’t say. His self-proclaimed mission is to protect this little lady from the harm that has been inflicted on her. This is far and away the most common justification cited for sniffing around in the private, sexual lives of people: we’re just upset for the victim-spouse.
But even if one wants to pretend that the sentiment is genuine, the logical flaw is glaring and obvious. Max Read has absolutely no idea what this CFO’s wife knows about what her husband does, nor does he have any idea what agreement or arrangement they have governing their marriage. Nor should he know, because it’s none of his business.
Long-term marriage between two complex adults is a very complicated dynamic to navigate. People invent all sorts of ways to manage that. It’s of course possible that the CFO’s wife thought she was in a rigid, life-long monogamous relationship with a purely heterosexual male and is shocked and betrayed to learn otherwise, but it’s also very possible that she was well-aware that he isn’t any of those things, and the spousal agreement between them permits this flexibility on one or both of their parts. It’s possible the wife is a victim of his private behavior, but it’s also very possible there are no victims and he did absolutely nothing wrong.
Everyone left, right, and center was in violent agreement with Greenwald on Friday: What Gawker did—outing this nobody—was wrong, marriage is complicated, there may not have been any victims here (other than the guy who was outed), and even if the wife in this case was being victimized by her husband's conduct, it's still nobody else's business.
Which brings us to today's big adultery news. From Business Insider:
Extramarital affair website Ashley Madison has been hacked and attackers are threatening to leak data online
Around 37 million people will be extremely nervous Monday after the extramarital-affair website Ashley Madison was hacked and the details posted online. The Canadian-based site sells itself with the slogan "Life is short. Have an affair." Data security expert and blogger Brian Krebs revealed the hack on his site, Krebs On Security, saying a group calling itself The Impact Team was behind the hack and said it had stolen user databases, financial records including salary information, and other records... The group is threatening to release all customer records, including sexual fantasies, credit-card details, and real names and addresses, unless Ashley Madison and Established Men are taken offline permanently.
The news about the Ashley Madison hack is also generating a lot of outrage—but it's not directed at the hackers who are threatening to out not just one guy for cheating on his spouse, but 37,000,000 people who may have cheated on their spouses or may have merely contemplated cheating on their spouses long enough to create an account at Ashley Madison. People are furious this time with the cheaters, not the outers. Here's what I'm seeing in Twitter:
Finding it extremely difficult to feel any compassion for Ashley Madison users
— Beautiful Bobby (@TheRobertCaron) July 20, 2015
When I tweeted this...
I got a lot of pushback like this from my followers:
Now, I know that Gawker is a news site that does journalism (yes, they do journalism), and that as journalists they're held to a higher standard—by themselves and others—than a bunch of anonymous hackers. But the violation is exactly the same: People who may or may not have been cheating on their spouses are going to be outed, their lives could be upended, their children could be traumatized. "But they're cheaters!" screams the internet. "Cheaters are terrible people! Cheaters deserve to be exposed!" This would be the same internet that just a few days ago was overflowing with a nuanced understanding of infidelity where a wealthy, politically connected white man was concerned.
That seems like a weird, possibly classist disconnect to me.
Long-term marriage, like Glenn Greenwald says, is a complicated dynamic, and people invent all sorts of ways to manage that complicated, long-term dynamic—and, yes, cheating is one of the ways people manage that dynamic. It's not ideal, it would be great if everyone who felt compelled to cheat could either negotiate an open relationship or end the one they're in now, but sometimes cheating is the least worst option. Slogging through the Savage Love mail for the last 25 years has convinced me of this: There are a lot of people out there who have good cause to cheat. Men and women trapped in sexless marriages, men and women trapped in loveless marriages, men and women who have essentially been abandoned sexually and/or emotionally by spouses they aren't in a position to leave—either because their spouses are economically dependent on them (or vice versa) or because they may have children who are dependent on both partners.
Take a woman who has two children with special needs, who has been out of the workforce for 15 years, and who is financially dependent on a husband who decided five years into their marriage that he was "done with sex" but refuses to allow her to have sex with anyone else. The marriage is good otherwise, she and her husband have an affectionate, low-conflict relationship, their kids are happy and well cared for, but sexual deprivation is driving her out of her mind and threatening both her marriage and her children's health and security. What would you advise this woman—whose letter, coincidentally enough, came in today's pile of e-mail—to do? I would advise her to do what she needs to do to stay married and stay sane. (And until this morning I might have advised her to join Ashley Madison.)
It's easy to see cheating as a morality play with clearly identifiable victims and victimizers. But as Esther Perel says: "The victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage."
And sometimes a discreet affair saves a marriage that should be saved.
Marriage is complicated, cheating is complicated. You know what's not complicated? Outing. That executive Gawker outed last week didn't deserve it, and the members of Ashely Madison being outed today don't deserve it either.
UPDATE: Max Read and his second-in-command both resigned this morning.