Why are we denying that women used Ashley Madison?
On America's puritanical understanding of female adulterers
When it emerged that the hack on affair website Ashley Madison had potentially outed 36 million users, we the public berated the unfaithful.
But, if you look closely at the media coverage, it's only the site's male users who are being called to account. "Pull up your pants, gents. The game is up," said Business Insider. "Don't cry for the men of Ashley Madison," said Britain's Daily Mirror. "They deserve all they get." After all, they're the insatiable hound dogs so desperate to sow their maritally frustrated oats that they thought nothing of using their real email address to sign up for a site promising both affairs and discretion.
Meanwhile, women who use the site — whose details appear on that same list — are being ignored. "Ashley Madison proves women aren't interested in casual sex," screamed a New York Post headline. Sure, it seems very likely that around five out of six of Ashley Madison's genuine clients are men (allegedly the site added fake female accounts to lure more men), but that still means many millions of women signed on to have an affair. That's not an insignificant number — especially for a website marketed predominately at men. Yet, the press diligently focuses its scorn on those reprehensible testicle-owners who sought sex with women who aren't their wives.
Is it really so hard to believe that perhaps some female signups also drooled lustfully at the prospect of covert extramarital sex? And that they were so blinded by the horn that they too entered indiscreet personal details? But journalists are scouring the hack list for famous men, like noted family values hypocrite Josh Duggar, and seem unconcerned with exposing Ashley Madison's female customers.
To stubbornly ignore the role of women who use the site gives an incomplete picture. Mentioning Ashley Madison's female clients merely to dismiss them as an insignificant minority implies that it's only really men who coldly seek affairs. We can't accept that women can also be sexual predators — or, at least not women who are in their right mind. The media loves to paints females who assert their sexuality as "out of control" or damaged.
The uncomfortable truth is that women sometimes cheat, like men, simply because they enjoy sex and want more of it, morals and consequences be damned. To disregard this, or dress up cheating and promiscuous women as tortured, unbalanced creatures, isn't only patronizing but infantilizing and embarrassingly puritanical.
Even Vanity Fair's recent Tinder story, which reported on the app-enabled dating scene from both male and female perspectives, left you thinking that young women are the victims of men's insatiable online quest to shag everything in sight. The women who appeared in the story and who admitted using the site to hook up with a succession of guys seemed at best inured by the experience, while many couldn't hide their misery and disdain at being used by men who wanted nothing more than a one-night stand. Of course, I'm not denying what these women claim to feel — nor that they're truly representative of a significant group. But where were the female case studies who, like many of the men interviewed, feel emboldened by swipe-right sex culture?
We're getting better at acknowledging that women are sexual beings, but in the context of a sex scandal, we still seem to treat them as if they're all naturally monogamous. Anyone with two X chromosomes who actively seeks out multiple sex partners must be broken or surely she'd be doggedly hunting a traditional stable relationship.
Even Amy Schumer's comically excellent Trainwreck gives us a female lead whose many hilarious sexploits signify that she's not happy and won't be fulfilled until she's in a "proper" relationship. The message is that all loose women ultimately want to swap indiscriminate sex for a stable union.
But men, we've decided, are perfectly capable of dealing with the emotional fallout of promiscuity — both on screen (look at shows like Entourage) and off. We refuse to see that this could also be true for some women. Or, on the flipside, acknowledge that perhaps not all human males can handle a high volume of sexual partners without being psychologically compromised.
In college back in the U.K. nearly two decades ago, the majority of my male friends wanted to be in loving, monogamous relationships. Some of them only slept with a couple of people the entire three or four years they were in college. Meanwhile, many of the girls I knew coveted fun sex with a lot of different men — and didn't seem especially traumatized by it. I realized then that how we view sex and commitment isn't decided by whether we're male or female. But by insisting, as the press has done over Ashley Madison, that our motivation for and emotional reaction to sex divide along gender lines, we're dangerously misrepresenting both men and women.