The Ashley Madison set need a literary lesson in how to swing

The hacking debacle belongs not to the post-Bloomsbury age of absolute erotic candour but to the Victorian era of guilty, covert thrills

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The Independent Online

Philip Larkin came late to the party. Sexual intercourse – or its ubiquity in British cultural life – did not begin in 1963. Rather, one day in 1908, “The door opened” to a Bloomsbury house, “and the long and sinister figure of Mr Lytton Strachey stood on the threshold.

aHe pointed his finger at a stain on Vanessa’s white dress.

"Semen?" he said.

“Can one really say it? I thought, and we burst out laughing. With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us.”

Messy. As this episode from “Old Bloomsbury” shows, Virginia Woolf was no mean comic writer. Even at this epoch-defining moment, tongue pokes slyly into cheek. Whatever the exact chronology, an ideal of sexual frankness took root not just in London WC1. Scandal by scandal, reform by reform, it seeped into the national conversation. Amid the twilight of other gods, erotic profession and performance became not just a mystery cult but a fully fledged religion. Prophetically in that 1922 memoir – written, crucially, for her pals and not the public – Woolf remarks: “We discussed copulation with the same excitement and openness that we had discussed the nature of good.”

Next week, the BBC drama series Life in Squares will open another chapter in the British obsession with Bloomsbury’s supposedly sex-crazed writers and artists, that has shown little sign of detumescence since Michael Holroyd published his landmark biography of Strachey in 1967-68. By putting everything on show, stubborn stains and all, the Bloomsberries – so the myth runs – helped to nurture faith in the value of exposure. Lately, the confessional abandon of the online world has pushed this creed to new and, to its detractors, alarming heights. For good or ill, Western folk now let it all hang out – from chatroom to smartphone – to a degree that might even make a Strachey blush.

Really? Consider the virtual panic of the month. Hackers have broken into the Ashley Madison website, a Canadian-based facilitator of extramarital relationships. They threaten to blackmail its 38 million actual or prospective adulterers. As ever with online sensations, blanket coverage drapes the facts in fog. Have these hackers, the “Impact Team”, released 2,500 sets of client details, or just two? Do they menace furtive philanderers to punish sin? Their brimstone-and-hellfire curse on victims as “cheating dirtbags who deserve no discretion” suggests as much. Or did they in fact want better, safer adultery, and unpick the virtual locks because the “paid delete” service failed to do its job?

Fantasy, and terror, tumble through that compromised screen. As James Fenton put it in his poem about fatal longing, “A Staffordshire Murderer”: “Every fear is a desire. Every desire is fear.” Most net users grasp that personal details uploaded into this infinite data-processing lab will go straight under an analytic spotlight. In almost every case, only algorithms will ever get to read them; in theory, humans can as well. Could this edge of fear sharpen arousal? Just as the adulterous roués of old jumped into wardrobes to avoid husbands coming prematurely home, and cottagers in public lavatories played cat and mouse with coppers, the frisson of potential discovery can pique excitement. In this light, the Ashley Madison debacle belongs not to the post-Bloomsbury age of absolute erotic candour but to the Victorian era of guilty, covert thrills.

After all, hitched folk swarm through many other dating sites, having taken the elementary precaution of lying about their marital status. The swift success of Ashley Madison – with 1.2 million customers in the UK – hints at the lingering appeal not of unbounded hedonism but what you might call the classical discipline of adultery. Count Vronsky seeks Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina… Mme Emma Bovary WLTM Rodolphe Boulanger. Alongside the formality of affairs in the style of a 19th-century novel comes the risk, or even promise, of a shattering revelation that will break and then rebuild a life.

Reuters reports that, in its native land, Ashley Madison has 189,810 registered users in Ottawa alone: a city with a total population of 883,391 (2011 census). That consumer reach – one hesitates to call it penetration – ranks as the highest in the world. Ottawa, take note: not Rio de Janeiro or Las Vegas. In places where puritanical traditions run strong and deep, shame and secrecy may still function as the ultimate aphrodisiac. In truth, Bloomsbury’s sexual searchlight probably never reached as far as Orpington, let alone Ontario.

You might even consider the Ashley Madison users now quaking in their suedette brothel-creepers as ethical traditionalists. As any first-year theologian will tell you, to flout a commandment is not to disbelieve it. Even the site’s motto – “Life is short. Have an affair” – summons up the ancient memento mori imagery of skull and grave. Its allure surely belongs with a pre-Strachey mindset of agonised transgression.

One of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov launched a thousand clichés when he asked, aghast, “Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?” I like the neat upending of that over-familiar notion by the philosopher-psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: “If God doesn’t exist, then nothing is permitted.” Only law gives sin meaning; only forbidden fruit has much taste at all. Perhaps password-controlled cyber-dalliance – a hi-tech version of Renaissance “courtly love” – pays the same sort of tribute to matrimony as hypocrisy does to virtue.

So that’s what the grown-ups get up to online. What about the adolescents, who occupy – according to that mouldy old chestnut – the stage of life between childhood and adultery? With teenagers, a delusion that networked sociability means total transparency has taken firm hold. Even hard evidence may struggle to dislodge it. Of course “over-sharing” youngsters do throng the web. So do even more skilful, self-conscious cyber-navigators. Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and Harvard University has undertaken the most nuanced study of teenage life online. Aptly, she called the resulting book It’s Complicated.

Boyd reports: “The idea that teens share too much – and therefore don’t care about privacy – is now so entrenched in public discourse that research showing that teens do desire privacy and work to get it is often ignored by the media.” In contrast, she found that “teenagers have not given up on privacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by people who hold power over them”. Boyd unveils a range of online survival and camouflage routines. It turns out that what appears to be a confessional bedroom splurge can often hide as many clandestine codes, tricks and bluffs as a Tudor cryptogram.

Context is all. Thus the girl with a protective migrant mother who puts her daughter’s devices under surveillance posts the lyrics to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. Her mates will read it, as Mum cannot: “Help, I’m being crucified!” Trends in social-media use – away from Facebook, say, and towards Snapchat – signal a growing sophistication about self-display. From “subtweeting” to “social steganography”, Boyd reveals the strategems that allow supervised youngsters to conceal or reveal – as and when they choose.

These savvy teens speak an online patois of masks and feints more fluently than most adults can. For their unwary seniors, the philanderers’ embarrassment this week stands at the far end on a scale of shame. It also takes in boorish tweets, cringe-making party pics and those drunken rants that, with luck, no HR manager will ever see. Networked media have intensified – though they did not create – a chronic confusion between private and public selves. Not only do online citizens treat the net simultaneously as a place to strut and a place to hide – but they also sometimes try to do both at the same venue.

Would Virginia Woolf have blogged at WordPress? Maybe not, although you can imagine her sister Vanessa posting on Instagram, and Strachey, bitchily, dabbling with Twitter. As for John Maynard Keynes, there would probably have been no stopping him: “Wrong again, @George_Osborne. #austerity still sucks. Invest for growth. Get real, #imf. Off to ballet with @timfarron.” Within reason: even if the criminal law had then allowed, Keynes would hardly have trumpeted his affairs with Strachey or Duncan Grant across Facebook. That Bloomsbury candour disguised a wary clannishness. It set a tall fence between the frankness due to initiates and the façade that outsiders saw.

Behind Ashley Madison – and other portals into online intimacy – lies the fallacy that they offer membership of some virtual Bloomsbury group: adult, trusting, loyal, discreet. But no anonymised herd of 37 million randy Andies and Mandies can ever work like the Cambridge Apostles. At best, the user’s desires become fodder for robotic data-harvesters; at worst, utter nakedness beckons. In an age of still-strict taboos, the Bloomsberries cultivated the art of drawing a line between freedom among friends and discretion in society. Their libidinous heirs – or the reckless grown-ups, at least – command no such skills. Online, it seems, those clever teens know best when to open, and shut, the gate between the secret square and the common highway. Semen? Scrub it.