Why are we surprised by Ashley Madison?

There's been a lot of ruckus about the Ashley Madison hack recently, and particularly about Christians caught up in it. Ed Stetzer has been writing a series of very good posts on the subject.I want to take a slightly different perspective and talk about why the hack has surprised and shocked us. First of all, I want to reiterate the reminder of others: the way the website worked, it would be fairly easy for someone to use someone else's email address. Just because someone's "in the database" doesn't mean they actually signed up for it. I haven't checked my own email addresses, but I know I'm constantly getting emails from various dating websites in various countries where people have used my email address, whether accidentally or intentionally. There are a number of "Justin Longs" out there, and some of them have email addresses very similar to mine on Gmail. I've gotten people's mortgage paperwork, restaurant reservations, auto insurance inquiries, you name it. So I'm rather more inclined to believe this is true of some than not. Ashley Madison was worse: it didn't verify an email address entered was actually owned by the person, and you didn't have to use the email address for communication with the site, so it was rife for abuse. Which means we should give the "it wasn't me" answer the benefit of the doubt. (When credit cards are in play, that's another matter.) Were we shocked by the size of the user base? Let's talk a bit about how many people were actually using the site:

  • Of the 5.5 million women registered with the site, one analysis suggests all but a handful were fake profiles. Its improbable any female you know is on the site.
  • This leaves 31 million men. Some of these were Canadians, but I don't know how many, so I'll just compare the whole 31 million to the USA. Update below: half of AM users are in the USA. This equate stop about 15 million.
  • There are 151.4 million males in the United States. But we can't compare to that, because some are children (doubtful a 5-year-old is on AM). 19.4% are under the age of 15; we can discount these.
  • I thought about whether to exclude the 15-to-19 age bracket (7% of the population) or the 85+ age bracket (2%), but as I could reasonably see cases where people in these age brackets might sign up for the website, and they aren't huge percentages, I left them in.
  • This means roughly 80% of the 151.4 million are adult (15 or over) males - or about 120 million adult males in the USA.
  • The 31 15 million male AM users make up 25.8% 10% of the USA adult male population, or 1 in 4 1 in 10.
  • In 2014, there were 59.63 million married couples in the USA, which means 59.6 million married men, or about half of the adult males in the United States.

SIGNIFICANT UPDATE 8/28: "AshleyMadison has 36 million members in 46 countries, with the US accounting for 50% of its business... the company has also set a target that 50 to 60% of its sales will come from Asia by 2020." (Adultery website AshleyMadison seeks IPO as demand booms, Bloomberg) Bottom line, imagine:

  • A pool of 120 million adult males
  • 60 million married, 60 million not: imagine the pool is "divided" in two.
  • There is a "lily pad" of 15 million AM users. It takes up one-tenth of the entire pool.

Were we shocked to think so many married men were ready to cheat? Our stereotyping reaction would be to think all AM men are married, since it's billed as a cheating site. But is that reasonable? What percentage of the lily pad is on the "married" side, and what percentage is on the "unmarried" side? The AM data by all reports (I haven't seen it myself) does not have reliable data about the marital status of the individual. Is it likely that most or all married men want to "have an affair"? Let's look at broader statistics. Our culture makes it seem like most men are cheats. Divorce trends suggest otherwise: the divorce rate has been falling in America for some time, even in an era of no-fault divorce. If most men were cheating, you would think many would be caught and the divorce rate would rise, not fall. However, secondly, marriage rates are falling too: see NYT, NPR, EconomistDiscrepancies in demographics makes it likely men will continue to marry later. And, it's not like celibacy is sweeping the nation. Cohabitation rates are up: see WSJ, stats at psychpage.com (based on 2002 study), and the Atlantic (I don't endorse all the conclusions, obviously). What does this tell us? It suggests those who get married really want to. They don't have to. One would think many of those wouldn't want to mess it up. Yes, we're broken, sinful people, in a culture that has made "affairs" seem acceptable and even thrilling. Still, it's not automatic that 100% of AM users are married men because all men are scoundrels just waiting for the opportunity. There's at least as good a chance that many AM users are single men open to hookup even with married women. So when you're looking at your neighbors, realize there's probably a better chance a single male is/was an AM user, than a married man. Were we shocked that a large number of people (1 in 10) were interested in illicit relationships, married or not? I wonder why. We already knew the predisposition for adultery was very high in America: because of the usage of readily-available pornography. If 1 in 4 are signed up for AM, 3 in 4 are not. But the usage of readily-available pornography is far higher than AM usage stats... Jesus said, "If a man looks on a woman with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultery with her." By that measure, America is already a nation of adulterers, with statistics far higher than AM users. And it's not just hard-core pornography: our media and advertising incite males to lust/heart-adultery to sell products. I think the Ashley Madison hack shocked us by identifying individual cases of a trend we already know. It's not just a study reporting  "x% of Americans cheat" (or 1 in 2 use pornography, or some such). It's an itemized list, with names of people we know. (For some, their own.) This reminds me of the Stalin-esque statistic: "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." This is the same thing: a single affair - if my spouse were on the list - would be a tragedy. A faceless statistic about Americans is just a statistic, and doesn't touch me personally, except to engender general outrage. We think Ashley Madison is somehow worse because "they cheated." Yet this Gizmodo article suggests they didn't - most of the men who got online on the site never interacted with a live woman, much less cheated with her (granted, there will be exceptions, and these outlier cases will make a lot of news). This makes the Ashley Madison website really no more in the end result than interactive porn. We think, "It is worse, because the intention to cheat is there." Our problem is in thinking that actually cheating, or just intending to cheat, is worse than looking with lust. It's not--it's the same. I would worry less about AM and worry more about the things that enable looking-with-lust, which is a far bigger problem.