Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ashley Madison

I'm sure most people have heard of this Ashley Madison site. If you haven't, the site claims that it's a place for married people to go to have discreet affairs. As I'm sure you can imagine, I think the site is truly awful and aids in gravely immoral acts. But this should sort of go without saying, so why even bring it up? Well, recently, I came across this article written by some woman who went undercover on the Ashley Madison site, pretending to be an adulterous woman looking for a relationship. What was most fascinating about the article is how the men justified their adultery. That is, what was most interesting is that I found myself understanding their reasoning.

Now, don't be confused; I don't think their conclusions are correct. But I do think their reasoning is correct. I simply think they are starting with an incorrect premise. I'll quote some of these justifications from the article to explain what I mean. What's important to note about the article is that the woman was seeking out a certain type of man. Not a man who was really looking to just screw (and she did not sleep with any of them), but men who were willing to talk and connect with her. What she was trying to do, I think, was figure out what made these men tick. And I think she did find it out, even if she didn't realize she did. Here are some quotes that are relevant to the point I want to make:
We have not spoken on the phone, but that's normal when you meet online. It doesn't matter, because he says he can imagine my voice; he says he knows exactly what it must sound like. When he is standing on the soccer field and children are moving around in a blur, he says, he slips out of the game and thinks of me, and if his BlackBerry vibrates in his pocket, he hopes that it is me.

He tells me he had a brief affair with a woman from one of his company's offices. He joined Ashley Madison because that encounter left him wanting more. Not sex, necessarily. "Everything about her consumed my thoughts, and that's when I first signed up. It was partly out of curiosity, but also largely my attempt to take my mind off her." He was attracted to my fears about losing my independence. He says they mirror his own.

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F. tells me he can't have the kind of sex he wants to have with his wife because she's unwilling, and, on some level, he doesn't want to do those sorts of things with her. He complains that she performs oral sex as if it were a chore. He says he likes it rough, and tells me he cheated for the first time a few months ago. He was in Vegas for a bachelor party, and he took a girl from the blackjack table upstairs to his room. It was wild, he says, and then puts his hand on my leg. F. is 32, tall and slim, and has been married for two years. He's been with his wife since they were just out of college. They recently had a child. I remove his hand from my leg; I tell him he doesn't look like a father. He says he doesn't feel like one. He says he did not marry the wrong woman, that he'd want to stray no matter who he was with. That's why he doesn't feel guilty. "This is human nature," he says, and he winks. I say I have to go.
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H. is an engineer in his early 30s who practices birdcalling in his spare time, and sends me pictures of his younger days, when he went boating and life was dangerous and uncharted. "Why is it I get the feeling I'm missing out on something very important?" he asks in an email. "Will I ever not feel like I'm missing something?" He is intensely curious; he thinks a lot. His inner life is full. Maybe, he ventures, he's selfish. "Either way," he says, "it's driving me crazy." 
What's terrible is that H. isn't even married yet. The woman he is thinking of cheating on is still only his fiancée. He says she's as close to perfect as any man could hope for, but it's clear he's conflicted. He believes that marriage is a path all men must travel at some point. If they've dated a woman for X number of years, marriage comes next, an obligatory stop on the endless conveyer belt. The union is doomed before it begins.
H. wants to meet me, but he's not sure he can steal time away. For now, he is content to write — to paint the picture of the moment we lock eyes across a bar. He says checking his email is his favorite time of day. He thinks of me at work, he thinks of me when he is birdcalling. He thinks of me when he is having dinner with her.
I meet G. at a vodka bar. He calls me by my fake name, and I call him by his. (There are different honesties in an affair. You may get to know a deep tumor of the married man's soul, but you won't know his real name.) He looks exactly as he does in his pictures: dark-haired and big-chinned, vaguely politician-ish. Having sworn off alcohol, he orders a water.

G. is in his mid-30s and works in finance, though he wanted to be a scientist. He lives in a big city now but grew up in a small town where he married young. He no longer believes that monogamy is tenable. I am the second woman he has met from the site.

The screen on his phone is taken up by an image of his baby daughter; he moves it aside with his thumb and forefinger to search for a book I tell him he would like. G. has trouble with eye contact, so he says to his water, "You're beautiful."

He has never eaten caviar, so we order a flight. His wife is not intellectual enough, he says, but he will be with her for life. He didn't realize when he married her that a little under a decade later he would be bored. He knew he was smarter, but she was beautiful and kind, and that was enough for him then. We talk about books, and he says his wife doesn't excite this part of his brain. "I could never have this conversation with her," he says. "She would start talking about the baby, or moving out of the city." She does not wear lingerie for him, like she used to. He expresses whole hollows of neglect.

This man is somewhat detached, but also eager as a boy. A scientist poking at his marriage in a petri dish, outlining the shape of his discontent. He didn't have sex with the first woman he met from the site, so he doesn't feel guilty.

He says that in order for his home life to move forward, he needs outlets like this: caviar and water with a strange woman on a rainy Tuesday. He never makes a move on me, but he tries to set up the same time next week. As though he were a respectful single suitor, he is taking it slow.
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Some of the men are more practiced. T. is a professor. He is well read and a little dirty ("I like illicit encounters. I like mystery and secrets, and I like some risk from which tremendously pleasurable rewards might be won. I like making out. I like burying my face between my partner's thighs…"), but mostly he is interested in the sound of his words on my screen.

The one thing all of these men relentlessly share is the desire to tattoo a swath of themselves onto a bare and willing canvas. I have not heard their best stories, like the time they scored the winning touchdown for their high school team. Their best selves are their past selves. They want to get lost in a Springsteen ballad, and I am the time-travel machine.

T. is also paranoid. "Perhaps you could tell me a little about your fantasies, or perhaps you could reassure me that you're not using me as a research subject for a book," he writes. I don't tell him he's right, but I don't tell him he's wrong, and still he wants to meet. He says he would love to get coffee next week, or "alternatively, we could simply meet at the park, and then take a room at the city's nicest pay-by-the-hour hotel — yes, I have been there, and no, it's not nearly as seedy as it sounds."

It is excitement grafted onto fear that makes T. want to meet me. Like the others, he never calls what he's doing cheating but, rather, "seeking pleasure outside of the relationship." He asks what my curfew is, as if we are teenagers testing boundaries.
When I meet K., a 28-year-old newlywed, at a dark brandy bar, it takes him a few moments to ask if I'm waiting for someone. I tell him I am, and slowly he takes the seat beside me. This is the type of bar where men know their drinks and the years of their scotch, but K. only mumbles to the bartender about Dewar's. Right away, he tells me that he's nervous, but that I don't scare him. He says the scary part is that he wants to do this.

He says that he and his young wife like to entertain their friends on the deck of their apartment on the weekends. They like to do all the things a new couple likes to do, though K. has very quickly replaced his we with an I. 
"I love to cook and go to restaurants, watch a bunch of movies, sporting events — you know, all the normal stuff that when done repeatedly would make someone sign up for a site like this."

There is a simple revelation there. Young K. has nailed it. He actually thinks an affair will help his relationship. Like G., he thinks this will be a respite. A brief cold shower to cool the need he can no longer — after only a year of marriage — ignore.

He tells me that just a few weeks ago, he and his wife threw a party. She made martinis and he grilled porterhouses. "It was a blast," he says. They did not have sex afterward because they were tired, but they still have sex a few times a week.

"I love having our friends over, but when everyone goes home, it's just us again. She's really great, she's really pretty. I just miss not knowing how my night is gonna end." Gesturing toward me and the whole of the bar, the women looking for men and the men looking at women, he says, "I miss this."
There is something haunting about these men. They are here because they no longer feel a certain strain of sexual excitement coursing through their veins, and Ashley Madison, in many ways, is a quick fix. Simply by signing up, they're back in the world of seeing a name in an inbox that makes your pulse thump. They relive the passing-notes part of early love, when futures seem flexible and bright and your life looks the way you imagined it, like you are the star of your own movie and not the production assistant on your family's documentary.

"It's amazing how much, even when you are fulfilled and happy, the spark of something like a secret kiss can illuminate just how narrow our experience is," says H., the engineer. "Have you heard the analogy that life is like a funnel? That you start off with such a wide range of possibilities, and as you tie yourself to things through the years (spouse, bills, house, kids, career), the range narrows until one day you're pretty much completely restricted at the tip of the funnel? Have you ever heard that?"
What's most fascinating to me is how normal and genuine the men seem. They speak of the old days before marriage, back when they were happy, back before they were bogged down with everything. As I said, I don't think the problem is in the men's reasoning. I think the problem starts before that, with the premise or starting point. These men, like most average men, think that the purpose of marriage is happiness. Or more specifically, marriage provides a means to have both sexual and emotional happiness in such a way as to be fulfilled for the rest of their lives. It's the necessary end to the sexual and emotional ache. It's supposed to complete them.

And we hear this all the time. This is usually how marriage is framed. It's about reaching some special level of happiness that unmarried people can't reach. We get companionship and sex (though, with fornication so popular, it's surprising this even matters anymore) and maybe two kids (any more would just be too difficult). This is supposed to be fulfilling in ways that single people can't realize. So we spend our entire lives trying to attain this goal. And we do! Wedding bells, gifts, a honeymoon. But as it turns out, wives get fat, guys stay horny, and kids are annoying. It's just not what it was supposed to be. And the guy feels ripped off. Because nothing is meeting his expectations. And this is the exact sort of justifications you see in the article. The guys are just trying to find meaningful happiness, and they feel like the marriage thing wasn't going to be able to do that. And since making a wife unhappy and putting the kids through trouble is hurtful, it's just better to cheat (find happiness) and keep it secret.

This is a perfectly rational decision, even if it's a horribly immoral one. If the thing you entered into isn't giving you what you expected it to give you, and the only reason you entered into it was because of the expectation of that result, why in the hell would you choose to respect it? Just like any contract. You would find another outlet to reach that happiness you were supposed to reach in the marriage. Why on earth would a person sacrifice for something he doesn't even believe in? Because of pointless social pressures? Because the world says it's wrong?

And I do find the modern world's desire to keep the old way around completely silly. The modern world says that "cheating" is just bad because it is bad, without any real justification as to why it's bad. "It hurts the significant other!" is usually the justification, but I'm never really impressed by this, especially when we're talking about discreet, secret adultery. The other (and more promising) justification is often that it's "breaking a promise," but this is sort of a silly argument to make to someone who was confused about the starting point. He promised thinking that marriage was about happiness. The whole vow, he thought, was predicated on mutual fulfillment, not restrictions that actually inhibit happiness. No, the implication is that adultery, by its very nature, is wrong, but our society is a society that does not believe in natures in the first place. Especially actions that do not necessarily harm other people. Murder, rape, sure; the harm is necessarily related to the wrong. But adultery? The hurt only comes (at least for the person cheated on) when the truth comes out. Non-harm wrongs? Supernatural wrongs? What are we, puritans?

Traditional societies had two important ways of justifying adultery as immoral, I think. And marriage followed these justifications. That is, societies either made marriage "sacred" so that cheating was a sort of divine wrong. Or they tied it to some sort of philosophy. And this philosophy usually followed from the reality of the world. When you have sex, you make babies. Society can't get along with bastards all over the place. Cheating ruined societies because it ruined the family, which was just simply necessary. So it was both religiously and socially proscribed by necessity. (I do not think these are the only reasons marriage is good; I just mean that marriage and by consequence the restriction on cheating followed these social principles.)

But today, both of those things are more or less meaningless. Religion is becoming overwhelmingly irrelevant, marriage isn't "sacred" (what could this even mean to the average person), and we've spent the majority of the 21st century trying to fix (with its own disastrous results) sexual consequences. When the average secular, somewhat reasonable, man, then, faced with an unhappy marriage and a midlife crisis considers the prospect of cheating, it makes sense for him to think cheating is okay. He's not trying to hurt his wife (which is why he's keeping it secret; what she doesn't know can't hurt her), and if it's not necessarily immoral, what, exactly, is the problem? Throw in a little bit of utilitarian thinking, and it would be a mistake not to cheat. What is he supposed to do? Feel suffocated and sexually frustrated every day? For the rest of his life? Is this meaningless old social construct really enough to sacrifice the rest of his life's happiness for?

Again, I want to emphasize that I do not think that these men are correct. In fact, I think they are incredibly immoral. But I understand their reasoning. And I think their reasoning speaks volumes about the modern world. The writer of the original article seems a little oblivious to this. But then again, maybe she's not interested in writing a critique on the modern view of marriage. But it is a sad thing. When I see modern weddings, with little hints of traditional justifications, I feel like I'm in another world. It's a big joke. The homosexuals are fighting for a dying idea. Soon enough they're going to be handed over a corpse and forget why they were fighting in the first place. 

And then, how the article ends:
Outraged? Worried? After reading this story, you might want to check his browsing history or grab his phone. Normal? Sure. But don't do it, says Scott Haltzman, M.D., author of The Secrets of Happy Families. "Instead, use this article as a starting point to talk about your fears and ways to keep things fresh," he says. Haltzman's tip: Try something — anything — new together, regularly.
Really.

EDIT: I want to add this after reading over what I wrote. What I said above makes it sound like I mean two things that I don't necessarily mean. One, that marriage has nothing to do with "happiness." Marriage has a lot to do with happiness and, obviously, if someone feels happier around another person, that should certainly weigh heavily in his decision to marry that person. I am simply criticizing the view that marriage is designed solely or even mostly as an avenue to attain happiness, completely separate from its actual purpose: to facilitate in the creation and raising of life that is aimed toward truth (including truth about the divine).

I would not doubt for a second that marriage makes a person better or more fulfilled. There are just obvious examples of when it doesn't. Happiness fades, life gets boring, marriage just isn't working. If your view is that marriage is not doing what it's supposed to (and in fact is doing the opposite), it makes you reevaluate really seriously what marriage is. Since the modern world does not really provide a sufficient answer to this inquiry (beyond the "self-fulfillment" and "happiness" the person already isn't feeling), I'm simply saying that it's understandable why a person would cheat in this world. And would do so through a simple, secret website.

Two, it almost sounds like I think everyone eventually will start cheating, etc. once everyone sees that it's all pointless. I do think that cheating and even divorce will continue to rise, but what I'm really speaking to is the modern view of marriage as it is. I think cheating is just part of that view, for those who are unwilling to buy into the status quo that cheating is always wrong. What I actually think we'll see is a decrease in marriage altogether.  It's simply not worth it for a lot of people, as it often leads to serious, serious stress unhappiness. I hear this from friends all the time. They can't think of a real reason to get married beyond the weird, unexplained social and parental pressures. Marriage will just become increasingly irrelevant, a relic of the past.

And I also don't mean to imply that a person is  irrational for not cheating if he is secular or doesn't buy into the natural purpose of marriage. Goodness exists, even when people don't have all their ducks in a row. There are good moral intuitions, social pressures can be positive, and honesty matters even when it's not clear why. In fact, if you are thinking about cheating, do not do it. It is a betrayal of no doubt the highest good in your life, even if you feel depressed or unfulfilled. I definitely don't want people thinking, "Well, these are some pretty decent points; why do I care about marriage?" I want the opposite. I want people to realize that this modern view of the world has very serious consequences and that if we keep it up, it will only get worse.

10 comments:

  1. And I do find the modern world's desire to keep the old way around completely silly. The modern world says that "cheating" is just bad because it is bad, without any real justification as to why it's bad.

    I sometimes wonder if the 'moderns' do this partly out of sheer stubbornness. The more intellectual non-moderns point out what logically and naturally follows if such and such suppositions are discarded, the less intellectual ones repeat echoes of this without understanding it, so the moderns reply 'Just watch! That won't happen! Slippery slope argument!' And then follows a whole lot of sacred blind-eye-turning towards natural consequences and excuse making.

    However, on the flipside, I recently read an article suggesting that deeply religious people who are married DO get some kind of more intense sexual satisfaction, so hey. There's that. That may actually support your point in another way - that marriage works better with proper expectations. But 'proper expectations' talk would spook the hell out of a lot of people.

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    1. I like to refer to "improper expectations" as "Madame Bovary Syndrome" and no I don't mean an addiction to shopping. Emma married Charles with the "improper expectation" that married life would be exotic and exciting like a page in one of her romance novels. And when married life turned out be a little too...routine for her tastes she felt justified to seek excitement elsewhere. I agree the only way to prevent Madame Bovary Syndrome is for couples to have vision of their marriage grounded on reality, not grounded on the scenes of a romance film or family sitcom.

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  2. Ugh. I don't know why I even bother to read the comments section on articles like that. They only serve to infuriate me for hours on end. All I see are accusations of the article being "feminist propaganda" and the like. What utter nonsense !

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  3. @ Joe K

    You got a Master's in Theology, right? I seem to remember you mentioning that a while back. I'm about to start an MA in Theology myself, and I was wondering if you could give me any advice.

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    1. Yes, that is correct. I have an MA in Theological Studies, with an emphasis in biblical languages. I can give you any advice you'd like! If it's personal and you don't want to have a conversation on here, just e-mail me at beatushomoblog at gmail.com. Do tell me on here if you do that, though, because I always forget to check that e-mail. Talk to you soon!

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  4. Joe,

    This may seem like a strange question, but, out of curiosity, as a gay man, do you wish that you were simply born a woman (besides wishing that you were simply born straight)? Do you identify and feel attached to your gender? Do you, for example, simply feel like a woman trapped in a man's body?

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    1. As a "gay man" myself I feel compelled to answer your question even though it was really meant for Joe. While I constantly find myself wishing that I had born straight, I don't really find myself wishing that I was born a woman.

      I have a times wished that I was woman, not because I would then be allowed to be with men, but because I've always found that in some respects women are better off. For instance, despite the fact that women lack a lot of opportunities because of their gender, they are not bound by society to keep check with your emotions.

      There are many times that I've wanted to ball my eyes out, but I had to resist because "men don't do that." Is that at those times that I wish I had been born a woman. But as far as feeling like a woman trapped in a man's body? No. For the most part I like being male and I don't feel wrong for being male, although sometimes I wish I could have been born with the sexual drive of the majority of males in the world.

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    2. I believe I did a post (or started a post) on this a little while back. I can't remember. I know I've written the phrase "a gay man is not a woman" at some point in my life. Ah, I found it. It's from an unpublished post. I'll try to finish that up some time in the future.

      Anyway, in answer to your question, I have thought about this issue quite a bit. Whiterose above me basically answered it, but I'll elaborate. I have never wanted to be a woman, and I have never felt like a woman trapped in a man's body. That said, if you recall the (somewhat contentious) post I did a little while back entitled "What Makes a Homosexual Gay?" I go in to more detail about how I often feel like I think effeminately. You can find that here: http://beatushomo.blogspot.com/2013/03/what-makes-homosexual-gay.html.

      I tried to articulate what this gender issue might mean in that post. I do want to make clear, though, that a homosexual generally does not feel like a woman. In fact, a lot of homosexuals do not like women even a little bit and would want nothing more than to not be them. Transsexual desires are as foreign to me, I think, as they are to anyone else. The idea of wanting to remove my penis or have a vagina or any other thing is mindbogglingly absurd to me.

      This isn't to say that I don't believe transsexuals really have these desires. I certainly do. But I think it's a different sort of disorder. But no, I am absolutely attached to my gender. I have certain feminine qualities, no doubt, but if I were given some magical option of suddenly being a woman tomorrow, I would absolutely not take it. The only benefit I can think of is that I would get to have sex with a man. But it would be all wrong. My sexual desires are absolutely related to male sexual release, not female sexual release (without getting too graphic). The idea of having sex with a man as a woman makes genuinely no sense to me.

      What I do feel like (something you didn't ask directly) is a man with a disorder. I feel much closer to a man who has any other paraphilia. It's less about identity and more about desire. (I would imagine transsexualism is more about identity and less about desire.) When I hear stories about men who are aroused by strange things (anything out of the spectrum of human female), I feel a lot of empathy for them. I have mentioned this before.

      At the same time, if the paraphilia is really strange, it confuses me in that I have no idea where it could possibly come from. That is, I think that my sexual desires make sense in that women have similar desires. I think male homosexual (probably prenatal) brain development probably has a lot of similarities with female heterosexual brain development. I'm no scientist, but this rings true to me. So, in a lot of ways, my disorder is a normal sort of disorder. One that is out of the spectrum of what normal humans desire is really true odd to me.

      Anyway, I've gone on a tangent. At any rate, I hope this helps. The answer is no, I do not feel like a woman trapped in a man's body or otherwise. I know of very few homosexuals who do feel this way. I definitely feel like a man, and I enjoy very much being a man.

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    3. That was pretty interesting. Thanks for both your replies, Joe, White Rose.

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  5. I wish I could comment intelligently on this article but you've essetially covered most of what I'd be concerned with.

    I miss seeing your posts on R/Catholicism.

    Specifically there are a few 'not-trad', whatever the hell that means, Catholics of the "marriage is a private matter, just as long as the church's sacrament" stays in tact.

    I believe you already did a post dealing with legalese and the secular state and how according to Natural Law, if you follow from natural law, Marriage is a particular kind of 'thing' and thus needs a particular kind of civil law. Or so I think the jist of your post was. If it wasn't clarify ?

    Oh and one last thing. Thomist/Aristotelian Christian position...in a Aristotelian Christian society would smoking be made illegal? Just a question.

    You do a lot more than you know and I've been trying to spread your blog around, and I admire how you take all these ridiculous "Oh he's horribly sexually repressed/unhealthy/unnatural talking 'puppet' for the Church" in stride.

    -Spader

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