Ashley Madison hack: In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream

The leak from an adultery website provokes both puritan relish and liberal disquiet

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The Independent Online

The attempt to impose a privately held and/or sacramentally ordained set of moral values on society at large is a relatively unusual sight in the Western world these days. Naturally, you can still be stoned to death for coveting your neighbour’s wife in certain Muslim jurisdictions, but the steady decriminalisation of marital infidelity has been a feature of European and (latterly at any rate) American law for several centuries. Even the mid-17th century English Puritans had trouble in making adultery a capital crime, and the last execution in the UK, sometime in the mid-1650s, involved defining what the unfortunate adulterer had done merely as a felony.

On the other hand, more restrained (and extra-legal) versions of these attitudes – involving mass demonstrations of moral outrage and public rebuke – are only just beyond the rim of living memory. Richard Llewellyn’s perennially best-selling novel How Green Was My Valley (1939) contains a frightening scene, almost certainly witnessed by the young Llewellyn himself, in which a teenage girl who has given birth to an illegitimate baby is hauled up before the elders of a Methodist chapel and harangued for her folly as a scandalised audience of Sunday worshippers clicks its collective teeth in disgust.

As it happens, this public upbraiding is interrupted by a small boy, Llewellyn’s narrator Huw Morgan, who leaps precociously up to inform his elders of the scriptural passages that enjoin only he who is without sin to cast the first stone. No such scruples, alternatively, seem to have troubled the group of hackers known as the Impact Team who last Wednesday dumped a cache of financial and personal details – sexual fantasies included – of the 37 million users of the Ashley Madison website, an organisation which, in a description that deserves some sort of award for most imaginative use of euphemism, bills itself as “the premier dating website for married people”.

The Impact Team, it turns out, are not only opposed to Ashley Madison’s activities; they also disapprove of its companion site Established Men, which promises to connect beautiful young women with rich men “to fulfil their lifestyle needs” (top marks again to the copywriter here, for making prostitution sound like the readers’ offers page in Vogue). Their disapproval, so far as one can deduce, is both moral, in that people shouldn’t be encouraged to cheat on their other halves, and commercial-cum-legal, in that they allege that Avid Life Media (ALM), the sites’ owner, is retaining data they had previously promised to delete. “We have explained the fraud, deceit and stupidity of ALM and their members,” these ethical terrorists insist. “Now everyone gets to see their data.”

About 1.2 million of “they”, it transpires, are UK residents, one or two of whom, it should be pointed out, claim they have never been near the sites and are the victims of a smear campaign. For its own part, ALM has denounced what it describes as “… an act of criminality. It is an illegal action against the individual members of, as well as any free-thinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities. The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves moral judge, juror and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society.”

A third bouquet here to whichever press-release compiler came up with the adjective “free-thinking”, which, with a stroke of the key, manages to connect these extra-marital dalliance-seekers with all those 19th-century pioneers of genuine “Free Thought”, the divines who preached unorthodox sermons or the radical parliamentarians who jibbed at the oath of allegiance.

The really fascinating aspect of ALM’s position, alternatively, is the assumption that runs quietly beneath it. As nearly all the press coverage attracted by the case has been anxious to stress, ALM’s selling points have been its discretion and its promise of anonymity, all of which seems quietly to acknowledge that everyone on board is keenly aware that, however legal, free-thinking and so forth, all those rich men looking to help their lady companions fulfil those longed-for “lifestyle needs” are clearly up to no good. They just don’t want to be found out.

It takes a case like the Ashley Madison debacle to expose some of the confusion – or, rather, the deliberate suppression of what one really feels – that exists about certain aspects of sexual morality here in 2015. A quarter-century’s experience of being married and watching other married couples in action suggests to me that most people strongly disapprove of adultery. At the same time, the reasons for this dislike stem not so much from the idea of two people not married to each other having sex but from an awareness that the spouse who throws over his, or her, other half has dishonoured a promise and that, in the majority of cases, a great deal of avoidable pain will be caused both to a grieving adult and some small children dimly aware of the howitzer blasts periodically resounding over their heads.

Nearly every middle-aged married person, consequently, will be a regular participant in what might be called the adultery conversation. They come round in our house as regularly as the death-bed scene in a Victorian novel: Wife: “Oh my God! Did you know X has left Y?” Self: “But I always thought they were … Who for?”  Wife: “Z, apparently.” Self (gloomily): “And how old are the children?”  Wife: “Oh, I think Kirsty’s just taking her GSCEs.” That, of course, is the end of Kirsty’s GSCEs. X, by the way, in my experience, is almost invariably a man and behaves with maximal gracelessness.

How, in a supposedly tolerant and permissive age, when anything anyone does south of the criminal code is a matter for conscience alone, are you supposed to respond to this kind of thing? It is not that we are all secret hypocrites who would like to behave badly if we could get away with it. However disgusted he may be by the public shaming of How Green Was My Valley, Huw Morgan acknowledges that the deacon responsible for it is a genuinely “good” man, whose benevolence extends to paying the school fees of the children of the poor. He just happens to believe that, for the cheery adulterer, hellfire awaits.

But this is not a point of view one can decently hold any more, or, in most cases, would even want to. And so, in the great majority of wife-abandonments, extraordinary care is taken by the onlookers not to adopt sides or to be seen to make a judgement. You stand on touchlines next to men whose sorrowing wives sit grimly at home alone with the gin bottle; you politely ask, “And how/where is dad?” of seething teenage boys whose existences have just been thrown into turmoil by the departure of one of the two bright paragons in their lives. And rather than wondering what is the point of having beliefs if they are never publicly proclaimed, you resolve to learn a lesson that the stiffer kind of bygone English moralist usually forgot, which is that, by and large, moral change is effected by example rather than kicking up a fuss.

Consequently, l’affaire Ashley Madison inspired in me a curious kind of Orwellian doublethink: straightforward puritan relish at the sight of folly rebuked, coupled with pained liberal disquiet at the thought of so many private lives made unexpectedly public. That such things happen is a result of the odd disjunction between what so many of us secretly believe about “moral issues” and what we publicly allow ourselves to say – a gap that, on this evidence, will eventually lead to trouble. ALM may huff about the “thieves” who “force their personal ideology on citizens around the world”, but my hunch is that there will be a great deal more of this. The internet, after all, is quite as open to the puritan as the doughty, wife-betraying free-thinker.