First, to state the obvious: Josh Duggar is not an easy person to like, or even tolerate. I’m not even going to take the high road here: The man is a child-molesting Christian extremist and sexual hypocrite. I personally wish him all the worst in life. I can understand the urge to dive headfirst into schadenfreude when the Internet starts humming with new reports of new facts that are, at the least, embarrassing to him and his family.
But as ugly as Josh Duggar’s history and beliefs are, I’m not celebrating the fact that he was exposed as a paid member of the Ashley Madison dating site. A lot of atheists and queers have grabbed onto the news that Duggar was seeking an extramarital affair through Ashley Madison with a grotesque glee. More than that, even. A lot of people who would otherwise insist that you have the right to choose your own gender pronoun, that you have the right to keep as many floggers and urethral sounds in your closet as you want and use them with whatever consenting adults you can find, who advocate for science-based sexual education and healthcare without shame, are taking a lot of pleasure in the mass doxxing of Ashley Madison’s subscriber base. This time, they think, all the people who have tormented them for their sexuality or gender identity finally felt what it was like.
I’ve seen enough of that online that it makes me worry about the integrity of both atheists and queer communities, although certainly not for the first time. I wish that this was some sudden epiphany instead of just another brick in the wall.
Hacking Ashley Madison: A Victory for Sexual Shame
To give you the quick tl;dr version of this: No one who thinks that our attitudes towards sexuality need to be challenged should be cheering on the Ashley Madison hackers. The doxxing of Ashley Madison’s users was not a blow for sexual freedom, but for sexual shame.
That’s the essence of what this essay will say. For those of you who think I’m already getting boring, and want something sexier, you’re free to move on to cat pictures or porn while I finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.
A lot of people feel free gloating over the hack because they swallowed the website’s marketing hook, line, and sinker. The site’s entire image was based on convincing everyone that users of Ashley Madison tended to be affluent, good looking heterosexual white men in search of a mistress that they could discreetly keep in a Park Avenue apartment. Because advertising never lies, a lot of the response has been based on the assumption that that’s exactly who was hurt when the information for approximately 37 million profiles was dumped onto the Internet for anyone to root through at will. From that, you wind up getting comments like this, from a reader of Dan Savage:
On the silver lining side … Millions of str8s are finding out just how horrible it is to live in terror of being outed for something that could cost relationships, employment, housing, etc. It ain’t easy bein’ green.1
I understand the anger, because if there’s one emotion I’m good at understanding, it’s being pissed off. But I also understand that even when your anger is justifiable, it can turn you into an asshole.
The reality of Ashley Madison, just like the reality of everything else about sex, was different from the image carved out during advertising strategy sessions. It’s appalling that so many people whose public identities are founded on being skeptical of the default expectations of sexuality and gender dumped that much-vaunted skepticism as soon as they saw a chance to score points on Josh Duggar or whatever other symbol of mainstream sexuality they discerned in that great Rorschach blot of data. I understand anger, but I also understand that you shouldn’t let it make you mean.
The reality of Ashley Madison is that although having an affair without the consent of your partner isn’t ideal, there are as many different reasons for doing so as there are people who have affairs. Not all of those reasons have to do with entitlement or privilege. Many of them just have to do with people who, like the rest of us, find themselves clawing desperately at the cages of sexual shame that our culture builds around us. Sometimes they just wind up taking the first exit that they can find, whether it’s ethically ideal or not. Any community that I’m going to consider myself a member of needs to acknowledge and have compassion for that reality.
Truth and Consequences of Doxxing
Already, people have died because of the Ashley Madison hack. Two suicides have been linked to it, one in Texas, the other in Toronto. There will probably be more deaths, and not all of them will be suicides. Some of the doxxed information belongs to people looking for same-sex relationships in Middle Eastern countries where homosexuality can be punished by imprisonment, flogging, or death. According to an article in The Inquisitr, over 50 of the doxxed accounts are for people living in Qatar, where you can go to jail for five years for being gay, and marital infidelity can be punished by 100 lashes. There are 1,200 email addresses from Saudi Arabia, where gay sex is punishable by death.
A gay man from Saudi Arabia wrote on Reddit about his own reasons for using Ashley Madison: “I was single, but used it because I am gay; gay sex is punishable by death in my home country so I wanted to keep my hook-ups extremely discreet,” he said.
I could go on. There are volumes upon volumes more examples that demonstrate the harm caused by dumping those names. But the point is that I shouldn’t need them. We should be far past this. In an interview with Vice Magazine’s Motherboard site, the hacking team claimed that their motives were noble. According to them, “We did it to stop the next 60 million,” from being defrauded by parent company Avid Life Media. But even when you’re talking about saving 60 million, 37 million is still a fuckload of collateral damage.
We should not need to count up suicides or executions to see the deliberate cruelty in exposing those names. We should recognize it immediately because anyone who’s wrestled with being kinky or queer or trans or any other kind of non-normative identity has no doubt experienced that same cruelty to some degree or other.
How Ashley Madison Leads to the Rentboy.com Shutdown
I can’t help seeing Ashley Madison’s reflection in the news of the other big sex site that was brought down recently. Earlier this week, the NYPD and the Department of Homeland Security staged a massive raid on RentBoy.com, the biggest site for male escorts in the country. Make note of those agencies again: The Department of Homeland Security busted a site for male escorts.
RentBoy.com isn’t the first bust of its kind, but just the latest in a long tradition. Last year, the feds raided and shut down MyRedbook.com here in the Bay Area. The consequences were disastrous for sex workers both financially and in their ability to keep themselves safe from violent clients. Shortly after the MyRedbook bust, I talked to the late activist Shannon Williams about the consequences, and why MyRedbook was needed:
“[T]here was a whole section of [MyRedbook] that was chat rooms and forums,” says Shannon Williams, a sex worker who is also active with SWOP-Bay. “Some for clients, and then a whole bunch for sex workers. And that’s really important for sex workers because the vast majority really work in a very solitary way. They work alone, they don’t tell anyone in their lives, so their friends and family don’t know and other people don’t know. They may hold down straight jobs and they’re just moonlighting in the sex industry, so no one knows what they do, they’re very isolated. As you can imagine, for the kind of work it is, that’s an unhealthy way to work, and it’s lonely. So Redbook, and a site that was linked to it called MyPinkbook, created a community for these sex workers who didn’t have community in real life.” The community didn’t just give emotional support to people who couldn’t find it anywhere else; workers also exchanged information about dangerous clients and tips about how to keep themselves safe from predators and law enforcement. They were also able to screen clients based on references from people who had seen the client before.”
What the Ashley Madison hack and the raids of RentBoy and MyRedBook have in common is that they are all cases of policing sexual morals with the excuse that it’s for the good of the people who are hurt most in the end. The hackers claimed that it was to protect consumers against a fraudulent company with shitty security; the feds claimed that they made their busts to protect the sex workers themselves against exploitation. Neither of those groups are happier or safer in the end.
The other similarity is that all of those events expose the same failure of integrity in supposedly “progressive” communities. People are allowed to dispute the worth of sex work and the rights of sex workers to a degree that we would never tolerate if the issue were the legitimacy of abortions or labor unions. We are allowed to shame people sexually as long as at least one of those exposed is a religious hypocrite.
Shame isn’t a thing that we’re for or against. More often, it’s a battle over where we’re going to wind up in the hierarchy of shame. Establishment gay organizations try to quietly guide leather daddies and dykes into the closet when the money is around. Kinksters try to avoid associating too openly with the sex workers. Strippers and pro-dommes often disassociate themselves from the full-service sex workers. Regardless of orientation or occupation, too many atheists just want to strut around and look down on the peasants who haven’t left church or become polyamorous. The fact is that for all our pretensions about being sex-positive, a lot of the time, we’re only positive about our own sexuality, and to hell with other peoples’.
I come to bury Josh Duggar, not to praise him. But I think that the burial can be accomplished without shoveling dirt over 37 million others as well.
At the risk of being snide, it’s hardly surprising that you’d get this from a follower of Dan Savage. I’ve seen no sign that he’s encouraged this specific response to the RentBoy bust, but he’s sowed the seeds for years, and this blithe dismissal of shaming is at least in part his legacy. ↩