This article was originally published on Ekklesia in November 2011
On 6th January Jon Kuhrt was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 on the You and Yours programme about the Faithfulness Matters campaign
In January 2010, I was driving close to where we live in South London when my five year old son asked; “Daddy, what’s a ma-ree-tal affair?” I looked up and saw the huge billboard for a website promising “instant excitement” by cheating on your partner. Its location? Right outside a busy shopping centre.
I complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). A few days later, the ASA wrote back, rejecting my complaint. The advert “did not offend against widely held moral or cultural standards”. Put simply, I think the ASA were wrong in their judgement.
This is how the Faithfulness Matters campaign started. Of course affairs will always happen but what is so offensive is that large companies are willing to promote and profit from encouraging people do something so destructive.
In raising concerns about such issues, it’s easy to find yourself caricatured as a regressive conservative or a naïve puritan. That’s not my background or approach. I’m on the political Left and most of my work has been with homeless people, including a number of years working in Soho with people involved in the sex industry. And it is this that is the crucible of my concerns about private companies profiting from relational deceit.
Campaigning about adverts is intrinsically difficult because you inevitably end up giving the product more publicity. The people behind the websites know this and courting controversy has become part of marketing strategy. We learnt that it is more important to focus attention on the larger companies that profit from the websites rather than simply the website itself. These are not small operations – they require sophisticated software and complex systems to operate and cannot run without partnering closely with large corporations.
Global Personals are one such company. They are a successful on-line dating company based in Windsor and run by CEO Ross Williams. They run hundreds of legitimate dating websites which bring people together – but they also choose to operate sites like Marital Affair which help break up relationships.
Understandably, companies like Global Personals do not want to be too closely associated with the more controversial enterprises. They want to make money, not public ethical judgments. This aspect of their work is potentially toxic after all, and that it could infect other parts of their business.
So this is the focus of the Faithfulness Matters campaign – to challenge the idea that cheating can be marketed and encouraged for profit – packaged and sold as yet another product from which to make money. It is commodification – the expansion of profiteering into areas that previously have not been subject to markets. The commodification of sex is of course nothing new – sexualised images sell just about everything and sex itself has been bought and sold since the beginning of time. But this goes further. It is a new trade in cheating and lying.
We have seen a very wide range of people get involved in our campaign. It’s because many of the members see the connection between a concern for families and relationships and the fight for social and economic justice. This is a connection too easily lost when we operate within the tired silos of liberal and conservative division – silos which disable a truly radical approach to the problems our country faces.
Our response to these affairs websites should not be rooted in the shallow soil of contemporary moralism. Rather, we need to root our concerns and actions in a radical understanding of what it means to be human: that personhood is fundamentally about relationships with others. Christian theology suggests that our core human identity is found not simply in us as individuals, but when we are in relationship with others. This is rooted in all humanity being made in the image of relational God. A God who is also in a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The liberal victories for personal freedom over the last 200 years have been one of humanity’s greatest achievements but we must recognise and resist the confusion of good liberalism and bad libertarianism. This libertarianism fuels the commodification of everything, however destructive or unethical. We should resist it and not allow the narrative of ‘rights’ and ‘choice’ to eclipse the need for trust, mutuality and faithfulness in our society.
You can find out more about the campaign at www.faithfulnessmatters.net