Ashley Madison is the world’s largest website dedicated to facilitate people to be unfaithful to their partners. Their strap-line sums it up: Life is Short. Have an Affair. But over the last few weeks the hacking of their database by a group called the Impact Team has been front page news. The group threatened to release all the information into the public realm unless the website closed down its operation.
Noel Biderman, the CEO and founder of Ashley Madison refused to do this, so the Impact Team carried out their threat and have published the massive files on the web. According to reports, as well as containing names, emails and bank details of millions of subscribers they also contain details on their sexual preferences and explicit photos.
‘A tsunami of unhappiness’
A number of people have contacted me since this story broke, including the BBC, because of a campaign I started a few years ago against a similar UK-based website and especially the adverts which appeared on billboards. It is clear that some media outlets were looking for people who would give them a judgemental ‘reaping what you sow’ type of message.
But I don’t think we should be judgemental towards those affected. Rather, I think we should just be deeply sad about the situation that is being unveiled. As one commentator put it recently, this information will ‘unleash a tsunami of unhappiness’ across thousands of households as the behaviour of spouses and partners is disclosed. Trust will be irreparably broken and many people will be damaged.
Websites like Ashley Madison are toxic: they lure naïve customers in by selling a false world of beautiful people enjoying carefree, commitment-free sex and then going home to their families with no harm done.
But the reality is far more ugly. Unfaithfulness destroys families and ruins lives. It creates poverty and mental health problems. It deeply scars the children affected. And more often than not the whole premise of websites like this are deceitful: so many men waste hundreds of pounds, being strung along by a huge number of fake female profiles which are designed to keep them parting with their cash.
Humans, and especially men, will always be willing to pay money to chase sexual gratification. And whole industries, whether on the streets or on-line, will always emerge to profit from these tendencies.
It reminds me of when I used to be a manager of an emergency shelter for young homeless people in Soho, central London. A number of the female residents were involved in selling sex – but most also were adept in the equally dangerous practice of ‘clipping’. This is where you make a deal with a potential customer but use some form of distraction to run off with their cash without giving any services in return.
Often they would run back to the shelter and frequently our night staff would have to deal with extremely angry men who chased after them demanding their money back. In response to their protests, our staff would suggest that the men could always phone the police to report a crime. Funnily enough, this advice was never appreciated.
The brokenness of our world
The Ashley Madison debacle is compelling example of the radical brokenness of our world. It shows how corporate greed capitalises on personal weakness and compounds wrong-doing.
In his brilliant book Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes about this brokenness. He argues that it is impossible to use the word ‘sin’ anymore because it is so indelibly linked to an archaic judgementalism.
The replacement term he suggests is ‘The Human Propensity to F*** things Up’ or the HPtFtU as he helpfully abbreviates it:
‘What we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s’.
Reconciliation and forgiveness
This is exactly what we are seeing unveiled in the Ashley Madison situation. There must be so many people who feel they have screwed up, feel angry, embarrassed and deeply ashamed and wish like anything that they could turn back the clock and not have got involved. There is little better examples of the HPtFtU in action.
It is this tendency within humanity which creates the source from which all injustice, selfishness and suffering in our world flows. Whilst we should not look down on others, we need to be honest about this reality. This is our human condition.
But this is not the end of story, the final word. For there is another, more powerful source from which forgiveness, reconciliation and healing love flows. The best thing we can do is point to God’s grace and help those who are broken find it for themselves.