Ever since I’ve come out of the tail spin of adultery I have been seeking the answer to this question. Of course, initially, my focus of attention was narrowly focused; i.e. my husband’s behaviour and all the myriads of questions that I sought answers to from him. From here my attention widened to a broader range of resources; other personal experiences, books written by ‘experts’, literature etc., but this has all been a result of me digging to find ‘stuff’. Information has come in from many directions but it has been, in the main a very private matter. Bottom line – the causes and explanations have remained elusive and have not assuaged my gnawing need to comprehend the world I live in. I really do feel as if I have fallen into a rabbit hole and entered a ‘Nastyland’ where betrayal and deceit continuously and consistently devastate married lives.
Why is there not more of an outrage?
I find myself, once again, returning to a favourite of mine; George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist who studies the way words influence people politically. I consider his style of analysis a useful tool to consider the words used when adultery is discussed publicly. Might it be possible that the words we read/hear set a trap to draw people into a particular worldview of adultery? A world view that suggests its inevitability? A very private and personal matter? An aspect of the human condition? For Lakoff, the process of trapping via language is termed ‘framing’. “Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary – and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.”
So what are the ideas being carried and evoked within the wider public discourse of adultery?
Well first, we have the statistics, the bloody statistics. We seem to be bombarded by this ‘scientific evidence’. Perel refers to a range of them in her TED talk, reminding us that it depends on the definition of infidelity. The stats spit out a varying array of percentages which cannot be confirmed but suggest that up to 75 % of men and 60% of women have committed adultery. Who commissions this research? Who participates? What type of questions get asked?
Adultery leading to divorce might provide a more accurate set of data. Interestingly, in the UK, adultery as a reason cited for divorce is actually dropping. “Warring couples are only half as likely to cite adultery as the cause of a marriage breakdown than they were 40 years ago, but claims of unreasonable behaviour have rocketed, analysis of more than 5m divorce cases has shown.” Research that The Guardian looked at “found that while in the 70s, 29% of marriages ended because of adultery, the latest figures show only 15% of divorces were down to infidelity.” Perel didn’t mention this. The truth is, we will never really know how often people commit adultery or under what circumstances. Equally, we can never know how faithful people are either.
However, I am anxious that these data are used to help frame the debate around adultery by implying that monogamy is unnatural and that vast numbers of married people habitually cheat on their spouses. This frame can then be used to justify adulterous behaviour both for the adulterer and for all the money spinning businesses that feed off of adultery,eg web sites like Ashley Madison. This belief prompts the suggestion that we betrayed spouses should ‘lighten up’ and take a more continental approach to our husbands having a mistress; we should just get off their backs and let them screw around a bit! With no data that I’m aware of that concerns itself with the pain and trauma for these continental betrayed spouses are we to suppose that they either accept their partner’s infidelity with a certain panache or stoically accept the natural Mediterranean order of things?
Anyway, the statistics are a smoke screen. Even IF every other person in the world is committing adultery it remains a dishonourable act, engendering rotten behaviour rooted in a morass of secrecy and shame that unquestionably wounds everybody.
Like most things, adultery does not occur in a vacuum. It is a social phenomenon. But until the recent Ashley Madison hack there wasn’t really a public debate to explore how adultery is framed in a socio-political context. It’s almost as if, up until this event, unless it was tabloid headings of celebrity infidelity or head numbing statistics, adultery was off the public radar. Which is what makes the AM hack so interesting. Words are powerful instruments and I guess nobody understands this as much as the media. An examination of the choice of words used can offer a window into the dominant understandings or world views.
I want to take a closer look at Glenn Greenwald’s article about the AM hacking which appeared in the online publication (which he helps edit), The Intercept on August 20th 2015. Greenwald is no lightweight in media circles. He is an American lawyer, journalist and author and was named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2013. Four of the five books he has written have been on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
The Ashley Madison hack is very interesting in as much as the topic of adultery is a side dish to the main news event which is the on-going concern with digital privacy (although you wouldn’t necessarily think so). We live in a world which keeps a digital trace on us all. How safe is that data and who should have access to it needs to concern us all. Hacking is theft of data. When someone steals valuable gems from a jewellery shop there is no investigation into the jewellery business or the people involved in it. However, the people who stole the gems are thieves as are the people who knowingly bought the stolen gems. We understand the crime and have designed a penal system (not to mention insurance business) that addresses it. However, with theft of information and that information being stolen just to be given away for nothing presents a whole new set of scenarios. Old and new chestnuts to chew over! But Greenwald chose to wade in with a different aspect and it is this which is so informative and provides clues to the public frame of adultery. He chose to attack the ‘puritanical glee’ which he identified as the reaction to the hack. The puritanical glee produced because of the topic of the website in question; adultery, not the invasion of privacy per se.
For Greenwald, it would appear that if we object to adultery we object to the private, sexual acts of other adults. He says “that the cheating scoundrels of Ashley Madison got what they deserved was a widespread sentiment yesterday. Despite how common both infidelity and online pornography are, tweets expressing moralistic glee were legion.” Firstly, let’s explore the language ‘cheating scoundrels’. This is a euphemistic expression to define people prepared to betray their spouses. The only proper term for them is an adulterer. A cheating scoundrel sounds childish and less harmful. I can cheat playing monopoly – ooh, I’m such a scoundrel! Secondly, let’s explore the language ‘despite how common both infidelity and online pornography are’. This is using the same set of assumptions that the stats try to convey. Because there’s so much infidelity and pornography it is normal, acceptable human behaviour and if we don’t approve we become guilty of being puritanical.
He goes on: “It’s hard to overstate the devastation to some people’s lives from having their names published as part of this hack: not only to their relationships with their spouses and children but to their careers, reputations, and — depending on where they live — possibly their liberty or even life.” Hello! Someone has disappeared from view here? What about the devastation caused TO the betrayed spouse and family? What about their hurt? Nothing, instead we are encouraged to think about the adulterers’ devastation at being found out and the consequences of this. Consequences that they should have been well aware of at the time of making the choice to be adulterous.
For Dan Savage, an American political activist, author, media pundit and journalist who cared to join the debate, it was clear; Ashley Madison clients need to stop hanging their heads in shame and start fighting back—e.g., telling their truths and defending themselves. The implications here? No two adulteries are the same. Some adulteries are positively beneficial. These are the infidelities that save marriages, that are mutually agreed to within marriages [I get a bit lost here, seems like an oxymoron ‘mutually-agreed adultery’] and where there is no easily identifiable victim or the victimization was mutual [More than lost here, I’m afraid!].
So the framing of adultery begins to get more nuanced. Greenwald wants us to recognise that just because someone’s name appears in the Ashley Madison database does not mean they have engaged in marital infidelity. “Some may use the site as pornography because it titillates them, or because they are tempted to cheat but are resisting the urge, or because they’re married but in a relationship where monogamy is not demanded.”
Using the site as pornography? Please, I’m not really expected to believe this am I? But also, can you see how this language makes pornography acceptable? ‘Tempted to cheat, but resisting the urge’; how I love the myth of heroic self-control. Sex is not a need, food is a need. Sex is a want. Get over it! Now, what about if they are in a marriage where ‘monogamy is not demanded’? If monogamy is not required why on earth would there be any problem in being open about sexual relations with others? Agreed, your data should have been better protected, but the information that you are on the site should not pose a problem for either you or your spouse. Should it? But here we have a further framing of adultery as something that some couples are perfectly OK with. The truth is, adultery wounds even in an open marriage because of the betrayal, not because of the sexual activity.
We get to find out that Greenwald, like Savage, believes that there can be good reasons for adultery. “There are a lot of people out there who have good [my emphasis] cause to cheat. Men and women trapped in sexless marriages, men and women trapped in loveless marriages, men and women who have essentially been abandoned sexually and/or emotionally by spouses they aren’t in a position to leave—either because their spouses are economically dependent on them (or vice versa) or because they may have children who are dependent on both partners.” Greenwald’s adulterers are ‘trapped’,’ abandoned sexually and emotionally’ – only remaining in their marriage because of financial reasons. Poor souls! It’s clear where Greenwald’s sympathies lie and it’s not with the betrayed spouse.
Then we get a real life example of the person with every ‘entitlement’ to commit adultery. Bring on the violins. No doubt he received hundreds of e-mails but we only get the details of one. “An e-mail from a woman who has two children with special needs, who has been out of the workforce for 15 years, and who is financially dependent on a husband who decided five years into their marriage that he was “done with sex” but refuses to allow her to have sex with anyone else. The marriage is good otherwise, [Sorry, how can the marriage be good OTHERWISE, this doesn’t logically follow through for me] she and her husband have an affectionate, low-conflict relationship, their kids are happy and well cared for, but sexual deprivation is driving her out of her mind and threatening both her marriage and her children’s health and security.” Same old, same old – sexual deprivation. Animal needs. Can’t be contained. Need expression. Greenwald says he would have given her AM’s website details if it was before the hack! What if she wasn’t in any kind of relationship? Tinder?
He goes on to pose a question “if cheating is your only form of sexual fulfilment , is it clearly morally wrong?” So again we have the euphemism, ‘cheating’ but now linked to animal sexual urges that can’t be controlled. When can it ever be morally correct to betray someone, to lie to them and take away their reality so that you can get your rocks off?
He places all his cards on the deck when he says “but whatever else is true, adultery is a private matter between the adulterer and his or her spouse.”
But it isn’t is it?
That’s just the point that he appears to have totally missed. It’s not a private matter between the adulterer and spouse. It is a private matter between the adulterer and other person they are having sex with. It’s a private matter between the adulterer, the other person and all the others who are complicit with and collude in the activity.
This notion of adultery being a private matter is a huge part of the public framing of adultery. Firstly it separates the act from the public and social-political sphere and secondly it is shorthand for ‘back off’ – the idea is that it has nothing to do with anyone else.
Wasn’t there a time when domestic violence was considered a private matter between the spouses? Didn’t this rhetoric help to silence the victims of domestic abuse for years?
For me adultery is morally wrong whichever way it’s looked at. Does this make me puritanical? I wouldn’t think so. I don’t much care what consenting adults get up to sexually. I’m very broad minded and have what I consider to be a personal healthy appetite. However, whether it is an orgy of twenty plus people or a fumble in the back seat of a car, if it involves lying to a spouse I have deep moral objections. The public debate needs to move away from the adulterer and the eroticisation of their activities to the trauma experienced via the adultery by the betrayed spouse.
The truth is, Mr Greenwald, (who clearly does not ‘get it’) adultery only becomes something of a private matter between spouses when the adultery is discovered! Then, it is a private tsunami of shock, anger, grief and shame. To apply the words of Nancy Mairs when discovering that her husband was with another woman: “This sense of my own extinction will prove the most tenacious and terrifying of my responses, the one that keeps me flat on my back in the night, staring into the dark, gasping for breath, as though I’ve been buried alive.” Mairs had previously committed adultery and betrayed her husband, but it wasn’t until she experienced her husband’s betrayal of her that the devastating effects of adultery hit home. It is a pity that Greenwald did not consider the AM hacking and subsequent leaks from the betrayed spouses and children’s point of views. This would go some small way to extend the frame of the debate.
Image Credits: Think Outside The Frame by winnond; Privacy Magnifier Represents Secret Confidentially And Magnification by Stuart Miles freedigitalphotos.net