The affair stripped bare on Ashley Madison
Great sex is the highest peak of human life. Golly!
It's a thousand red berries popping in your mouth, and they're dusted with ketamine. It's learning to stand. It's calling your teacher "Mommy" and everyone in class laughing at you and then Miss Dockstader saying, "I wish I were your mommy."
Sex is the best of times. If all goes well, you're in your happy place for three to 12 seconds, and the run-up to that moment is, my god.
I know this to be true because 37 million married people, most of them in North America, risked everything — a spouse's love, the innocence of children, parental regard, the house, the car, and possibly the career — to sign up on AshleyMadison.com, the Uber-for-adulterers website that sets up secret affairs. And then a group calling itself the Impact Team hacked the site for reasons that remain unclear. It is not known how large the data leak has been.
"Life is short. Have an affair" was the slogan, and as its users discovered this week, life is not short at all. It is unreasonably and painfully long.
On a weird note, the company was named after the two most popular baby names in 2001. It's not a porn name. (My porn name is Skipper Seaborne. Would you have signed away your sexual privacy to SkipperSeaborne.com? I doubt it.)
Ashley Madison is owned by Avid Life Media — they're Canadian and are we not proud — and their planned IPO in London won't go well, or even go. Customers are shocked and hurt that a website they trusted would betray them with a pauper's level of cybersecurity. How could you do this to me, Ashley Madison?
Isn't it odd when a tech company's motherlode, which is its database, becomes its greatest liability. If only we didn't know so much about our customers, I have never heard a digital startup say.
I wonder about adultery as I do about dodgy Senate expenses, or shoplifting, or raping unconscious surgical patients or any shoddy thing: why do people think they'll get away with it? Why lie? Especially when it's all online.
Adultery is so difficult nowadays, especially with the demise of the pay phone. You used to see them at the doughnut shop on a Friday afternoon, shifty-looking middle-aged men with a glint in their eye.
And even so, adultery beyond one-night stands is said not to work out. Eventually she'll get sick of room service and clamour to eat in the hotel restaurant, where one can be seen. One is seen. And yet one does not regret it because the sex was competitive, the way great sex should be.
Anybody can have sex. But we want that first fine careless rapture, and the frisson of cheating makes sex filthier and better. It may be that some Ashley Madison customers are still making dates even after the ship hit the iceberg. I do not judge. I once read a Carol Ann Duffy poem called "Adultery" and never got over it. "Wear dark glasses in the rain/Regard what was unhurt/as though through a bruise./Guilt. A sick, green tint … Paranoia for lunch; too much/to drink, as a hand on your thigh/tilts the restaurant ... So write the script - illness and debt, a ring thrown away in a garden."
I have been reliably informed that people don't forgive adultery, not truly, also that you regard the spouse you cheated on with a level of contempt. You don't like this feeling but you do feel it.
Sexual desire is a drug. You keep it in a vial. You could have put some effort into it, studied a man across a room and felt that vital thump in your belly, you could have approached him, bought a burner phone. But no, you were like Ed Grimley waiting for Christmas, and you went on Ashley Madison.
I will not demonize sexual desire, even though Russell Smith's brilliant new short story collection, Confidence, makes Toronto people on the prowl look like withered malign elves out to do harm. It's an extraordinary book, but imagine its eight stories turn into 37 million, withdrawing silently like a wave and then driving toward us with spare room couches, legal bills, slaps, bruises, For Sale signs and shattered windshields in a tsunami of hurt and sorrow.
This volume of instant terror and pain was not previously possible in human history. Our privacy is gone. Desire, of course, remains.