Is ‘Digital Cheating’ Cheating?

Ashley Madison hack forces tough questions

Several weeks after the Ashley Madison hack that exposed the personal data of millions of adulterers, it’s a reasonable time to reflect on some lessons learned.

Tens of millions of married men were paying for a fantasy, according to data analysts who surveyed the hack. The number of actual female site users was negligible.

Whereas 31 million men had signed up for an account, only 5.5 million women had created profiles; however, upon further examination, only some 12,000 women listed were determined to be possibly authentic accounts. The accusation — unproven, but evident — is that the Ashley Madison staff had created thousands, if not millions, of fake profiles to lure men to the site and collect subscription fees.

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At the end of the day, it seems, this wasn’t a site where actual hookups were occurring for the most part, but where married men, by and large, were indulging a fantasy even if their intentions were more concrete.

Adultery is not a modern phenomenon and hardly limited to men. However, it’s arguable that “digital cheating,” which we’ll define as engaging in fantasy relationships without necessarily acting on it, is relatively new. Even before the dawn of the Internet, men and women could indulge fantasies through sexualized entertainment — peep shows, strip clubs, phone sex — without engaging, per se.

Is digital cheating really cheating? Or is it technology addiction?

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However, the digital age has changed everything, of course, because the object of a cheater’s lust no longer even has to exist, as the analysis of Ashley Madison’s fake profiles suggests.

Indeed, society is already experiencing some version of Spike Jonze’s dystopian 2013 film, “Her,” where humans engage with robots to fulfill the void humans have never been able to fill for one another throughout all of human history. The fake profiles created for Ashley Madison weren’t robots, of course — they were avatars — but the effect was the same: Humans substituting technology for authentic connection with other humans.

Therein lies the true conundrum — the question: Is digital cheating really cheating? Or is it technology addiction?

Most people would say all cheating is the same. On the one hand, divorce lawyers are bracing for “Christmas in September,” as one Los Angeles attorney suggested. Whether a spouse actually followed through with his or her indiscretions, certainly paying for an Ashley Madison subscription is evidence of intent.

Cheaters, however, may have even more work to do in the long run.

In many cases, however, couples are turning to therapists, family counselors or other mentors for support. The intent to cheat may have been evident, even if the act didn’t manifest itself.

One famous YouTube personality, Sam of “Sam and Nia,” was implicated in the hack, and admitted that he had opened an Ashley Madison account two years prior. The couple gained web fame, in part, on a more heart-tugging note by sharing their pregnancy news and, subsequently, mourning the pregnancy’s end via YouTube.

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In a response video entitled “Forgiven,” the couple explained to their followers that they sought counseling from church mentors at the time of Sam’s indiscretion. Though Sam insists he never “met face-to-face” with anyone from the site and never cheated on his wife, the matter still had to be resolved.

Digital or not, cheating is cheating. It doesn’t only create victims of spouses, it cheats the cheater, too, by enabling him to believe he can create an authentic connection with a partner without necessarily involving physical intimacy and daily, interpersonal interaction. Even in unromantic relationships, it’s easier to keep friends you don’t interact with on a personal level every day. Once friends connect offline, they discover dynamics that alter their friendship status over time.

The appropriate response for outsiders is to lend compassion to the spouses who were betrayed, first and foremost — as one site, Bloom, is doing by offering courses and therapy to support victims of “betrayal trauma.”

Cheaters, however, may have even more work to do in the long run. After all, they have to address deeper issues of personal integrity and inauthenticity that led them to cheat — and lie about it — in the first place. Once an individual can admit experiencing a void, he or she can acknowledge the shortcomings of “digital cheating” to fill it. Only then can couples start to heal and connect with their loved ones more meaningfully.

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