An interesting moral dilemma came to my attention recently, one that involves infidelity, feminism, class, call-out culture, and free speech, and it all began with a dating app.
About a year ago, a woman I’m going to call Thea met an executive at one of Seattle’s larger tech companies on a dating app. She says this man, who I’ll call Nathan, was handsome, charming, and said all the right things. He told her he was 38, divorced, and saw his daughter as often as he could. He made much more money than she did and insisted on paying for everything. He introduced her to people as his girlfriend. Thea was totally smitten. Within two months, she says, they were saying they loved each other, and she, at least, really meant it.
Then, last June, after four months of dating, Thea was hanging out at Green Lake reading a book, when she looked up and saw that very same man—her boyfriend—walking along the path, hand-in-hand with another woman. She confronted the couple, and the man Thea thought was her boyfriend said the other woman was his girlfriend.
In her own words, Thea says she “blew her top.” There was an ugly, messy confrontation—the other woman was equally shocked—and Thea left, pissed. Later, she says, “I started thinking, if this guy is a pathological liar, maybe he's not even divorced.” So she got on Facebook, found Nathan’s supposed ex-wife, and sent her a message asking if she and Nathan were actually split up.
They weren’t. Nathan, it turned out, was cheating on at least three different women, including his wife, who he still lived with. He was also four years older than his age listed on the app. Thea then found the woman she’d seen Nathan with at Green Lake on Instagram and informed her that her boyfriend was still married. Both women, she says, blocked her on social media. She thinks Nathan, a man she now calls “the most charming, manipulative sociopath I’ve ever met,” managed to convince both of them that she, not he, was the crazy one. Regardless, he and his wife are now separated.
A couple of months later, still pissed, Thea bought the web domain of Nathan’s first and last name and made a website detailing exactly what happened. For months, the first thing that popped up if you googled Nathan was Thea’s website.
She did this, she says, to warn other women. And it worked, at least once, when a woman contacted Thea and said that she’d also met Nathan on a dating app, googled him, and found Thea’s site. She thanked Thea for saving her from this terrible, cheating boyfriend.
Nathan, of course, is very unhappy about this website. Thea says he’s harassed her, sent cease-and-desist letters, called the police (who declined to get involved), and, as of this week, took her to court.
In a hearing on Thursday, a judge granted Nathan’s request for an order of protection against Thea, which means she cannot contact him for a year. Thea doesn’t really care about that—she says her last contact with Nathan was shortly after the confrontation at Green Lake, and she has no desire to be in his life.
To Thea, putting up the website wasn’t an act of revenge, it was an act of feminism. Nathan is a man who lies to, manipulates, and uses women. She says the goal wasn’t to ruin his professional reputation; it was to warn other potential victims. “I’ve been cheated on multiple times, but [those guys] didn’t get websites,” she says. “I really think he’s so good at being a sociopath that he deserves a warning label.”
I initially heard about Thea through a friend of hers, who emailed me about a story that, in her words, concerns “free speech, privilege, [tech] elites, social networking, narcissism, using the legal system as a weapon, and female power.” And the friend was right: The story touches on all of those issues. But it’s a story that, the more I learn, the more confused I’ve become, because as terrible as this guy seems to be, I still don’t think that personal grievances over bad—but not criminal—behavior should be posted online unless it is in the public interest. And while Nathan is certainly symbolic of a type of entitled male who seems to think he can get away with treating women badly—because apparently he can—he’s also not a public figure. He may be rich, but he is not famous.
Still, I understand Thea’s desire to warn other women. Information like this is frequently passed through whisper networks as women tell each other who to avoid. Of course, there’s a massive difference between telling your friends, or even telling your ex's wives and girlfriends, and telling the entire world what someone has done. Making a website under his name won’t just impact his ability to get laid, but also his ability to make a living. And if he—or anyone else in this kind of situation—can't make a living, he may be unable to pay alimony or child support, which would not be good for either women or children.
Thea, at least, was never anonymous—her name was right there on the site—but there are websites that anonymously out cheaters, abusers, and cads. There's an industry based on public humiliation, and it works. One of these sites, called She’s a Homewrecker, doesn’t actually fact check claims that they publish, and as the podcast Criminal detailed in an episode last month, a realtor in Florida nearly lost her business, and did lose her good reputation, after being falsely accused of stealing someone else’s husband on the site. Without any sort of vetting, the potential to harm innocent people on these sites is endless. That said, Thea has plenty of evidence that Nathan did exactly what he’s accused of, and she's not making these allegations anonymously. She's stood up and claimed them.
I asked resident sexpert Dan Savage what he thinks of Thea’s site, and he said that if she had called him for advice, he would have cautioned her against it. “Her anger is justified,” he said, “but there’s a sense of proportionality missing here. She got her revenge when she called the wife. The website doesn’t just make him look bad, it makes her look vindictive.” It’s also, he added, probably going to make her less attractive to potential partners going forth, who also probably know how to use Google.
I agree with Dan. As soon as she made the website, it was Thea, not Nathan, who started to look like the nutty one. She almost turned him into the victim. Besides, I would hate to live in a world where the response to being wronged is to buy a URL and start typing. It's a terrifying prospect that everyone's dirty laundry could be aired online. Of course, part of why it's terrifying is that it happens all the time—and while the internet lives forever, people actually can change for the better. As for the idea that this was a feminist act, it may be for some people, but I've always thought of feminism as more about reforming the structures of power—including who has access to lawyers and lawsuits—than taking down any particular individual, even liars and cheats (both of which women do too).
For now, however, Thea's site is dead. On Thursday, in addition to granting the order of protection, a judge ordered to take her site down. And that is where the case gets even more complicated, because while I don’t think putting up this website was a particularly wise move on Thea’s part, when a representative of the government compels someone to take down their story, it becomes an issue of free speech. I tend to think call-out culture is ultimately more destructive for society than good, but I have a bigger problem with courts telling people what they can and cannot publish. Defamation isn’t protected by the First Amendment, but Thea has plenty of evidence that her version of events is accurate. How can a judge order her to not tell her truth?
I’ve been mulling over this story for a few weeks and I’m not much closer to knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. Is it wrong to impede someone’s ability to get a job because he’s a cheating spouse? I think, yes. His performance as a husband or boyfriend has no bearing on his performance at work. It’s a bit like being fired from your job because you test positive for drugs you did on vacation. Thea's website also has some parallels to revenge porn, which most of us would agree is unequivocally wrong. I also suspect that if a man put up a website like this about a woman, most people would see it as a Gamergate-esque form of abuse. But should a woman's—or a man’s—right to tell our own story be limited by the courts? As long as the story is true, that also seems like both a moral and a legal misstep. So I’m torn. Who is in wrong here? At this point, I’m going with everyone.