Should We Publicly Shame Cheaters?

This past week has seen two shameful episodes in the Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online category.

First, Gawker published (for no apparent reason) a story about a married “C-Suite” Condé Nast executive who arranged to spend a weekend with a male porn star who then attempted to blackmail him–and, with Gawker’s capable help, succeeded*. Max Read, the now-former editor-in-chief of Gawker, justified the story thus: “given the chance gawker will always report on married c-suite executives of major media companies fucking around on their wives.”

Second, hackers are threatening to leak the user data (including credit card numbers, addresses, and listed sexual fantasies) of 37 million individuals using the website Ashley Madison, which helps people find partners to have extramarital affairs with. The hacker group claims that the reason for the attack is because Ashley Madison charges money for user account deletion and then doesn’t fully delete the information, but their demand isn’t a change in the policy–their demand is that the site goes offline altogether.

As I noted in my recent piece on the subject of Creepy People Getting Into Others’ Private Affairs And Shaming Them Online, nobody is safe when this sort of behavior is socially acceptable. Nobody. Because we all do immoral things at some point in our lives, and while some will claim that cheating is its own special category of immorality and therefore deserves naming and shaming online, that doesn’t really seem to follow from any reasonable premise. Cheating is (generally**) wrong because it’s wrong to break an agreement with someone without first letting them know that you are unable to stick with the agreement. (And being unable to stick with an agreement obviously kind of sucks for everyone involved, but I’m uncomfortable with classifying it as immoral.) It’s not wrong because sex is bad, or because wanting sex with more than one person is bad. The reason cheating gets placed in its own special category is because it pertains to sex and relationships, not because it’s inherently worse than other immoral acts. (It may be worse than some immoral acts, to some people, in some circumstances, but that’s not an inherent property of cheating.)

And I am entirely unconvinced that homophobia did not play a role in Gawker’s story, or in the (presumed or actual) interest of its audience in that story. Stories about men cheating on their wives with other men get attention in a way that stories about men cheating on their wives with other women just do not. Charitably, one could claim that this is just a man-bites-dog effect–these stories are so much more rare. But the fact that we place them in an entirely separate category from other “Men Cheating On Wives” stories suggests that same-sex attraction is, well, an entirely separate category. Who cares which gender someone sleeps with? We still do, apparently.

By far the most disturbing claim I’ve seen about these incidents is that outing cheaters is for the good of their “victims” (that is, the people they are cheating on). This is the claim that Max Read so flippantly made, and also a claim I’ve seen about potential benefits of the Ashley Madison hack.

First of all, consider that when you out someone as a cheater, you are also outing someone as a “victim” of cheating (or a “cuckold,” or whichever term you wish to use). This may not seem like a big deal, but being cheated on is also quite stigmatized to some extent–maybe not quite as much as cheating, but still. A woman who gets cheated on may be accused of being “frigid” and “failing to keep her man happy”; a man who gets cheated on may be ridiculed and considered less of a man. (That’s in the context of heterosexual relationships, but I don’t doubt that same-sex relationships are subject to some of the same gendered societal crap.) For some people, the pity may be even more difficult to deal with than the blame. And while nobody’s posting the cheated-on spouses’ names online, all their friends and family will know! Now their private pain has become quite public.

Further, put yourself in their shoes. If you’re going to find out that your spouse is cheating on you, how would you like to find out? By having thousands of people retweet an article about it? By having all your friends text you and ask if you’ve seen that Gawker piece? By having your coworker stop by your office and say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I can’t believe your partner was using that cheating site!”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many people would rather not know at all.

In fact, some people would rather not know at all in any case. It’s a common assumption that if someone is cheating on you, naturally you would want to find out ASAP so you can dump them. But for some people, peace of mind is more important. They may suspect their spouse is cheating, but as long as things are basically fine and there’s someone around to help support the children, they’d rather just not deal with finding out. That’s valid. It’s not my place to tell someone what they ought to want to know and how they ought to respond to a suspicion that they’re being cheated on. It’s not what I’d want for myself, but everyone doesn’t have to want what I want.

I think there are some cultural components to this as well. While I haven’t conducted (or read) a comparative study, it seems that a lot of Russian couples approach extramarital affairs in this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of way. I can’t imagine they’d be pleased if someone came tattling on their spouse for their supposed good. I really wish Americans–and people in general–would remember that their norms and standards are not universal or inevitable. In some other cultures, by the way, it’s also considered extremely messed-up to meddle in people’s private lives this way.

Finally, when you out someone as a cheater, you may be actually outing them as polyamorous. Anecdotally, I’ve found that there are many more people practicing consensual nonmonogamy without publicly coming out as poly than there are people who are out as poly. In fact, being accused of cheating is one of the dangers of not coming out as poly, but for many people it’s still safer than coming out, which could cause them to lose jobs, child custody, and so on.

A poly person who gets “outed” for cheating (or whose primary partner does) faces a really uncomfortable dilemma: they have to either come out (which also means outing at least one of their partners), or they have to perform the role of either remorseful cheater (with all the public groveling that entails) or jilted spouse (with all the public pity that entails).

A poly person who does choose to come out at a moment like this is likely to face a lot of backlash. People are in some ways even more suspicious of polyamory than they are of cheating–at least the latter fits into their understanding of relationships to some extent. On the flip side, people may claim that they’re lying about being poly so that they don’t have to face judgment for cheating. You can’t win.

In fact, when you put people’s private sexual lives on trial, nobody wins.

That’s because we all sometimes act immorally, and we all sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. That is not some special sort of failure reserved for Bad People; we all do it. There are times to speak up and stop people from hurting others, and there are gray areas where no one (certainly not me) can really say whether or not something should be publicized. This is neither.

If you want to prevent cheating–if that’s really such a hot issue for you–then encourage people to consider and explore alternatives to monogamy. Not all people who would cheat in a monogamous relationship would behave ethically in a nonmonogamous relationship, sure. Some people suck. Other people are trying to do their best with what they have, and they don’t realize that they have a lot more options than they thought.

So, what now? some will ask. Gawker’s gonna Gawk and hackers gonna hack. True, we can’t undo the damage that has been done and we can’t necessarily prevent creepy people from ever creeping on others and putting their personal business online.

What we can do is refuse to learn the information or act on it. I still don’t even know the name of the executive who hired the porn star, and I don’t intend to learn it. I will not look at the list of Ashley Madison users, just like I chose not to look at the nude celebrity photos that got leaked last year. You shouldn’t either. If more people agree not to look, this type of information loses its power, and those who collect it and leak it lose the power to judge and ruin others’ lives for the fun of it–or for whatever twisted moral justification they manage to invent.

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*As Parker Molloy pointed out, the Gawker story may actually have been in violation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. If Gawker wants to keep positioning itself as a source of Important Journalism For Our Day And Age, they should take note. Can’t have it both ways.

**Also really important to note, as Dan Savage and Esther Perel both have, that cheating doesn’t always happen in a simple context where one person is a “victim” and the other is the “bad terrible cheater.” Sometimes people cheat because they are stuck in awful, possibly abusive relationships, and cheating is a way they preserve their sanity. Is this rare? Maybe. I don’t know. You don’t know either, though.

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There Is No Universal Definition Of “Cheating”

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. :)