This week has been a little crazy. An article I wrote for PerthNow went up and really caught fire. I did too, a little bit. It’s all been very cool and a bit overwhelming. I suppose what I can learn from all this is that the things I am anxious about–trust, marriage, the disconnect between people–are not unique to me at all. Everyone’s scared basically all the time, and we’re all just trying to do the best we can.
The article is about marriage, infidelity and Ashley Madison, and how I tried to understand all of those things. You can read it here. I like it and I’m proud of it, even though it was incredibly hard to write. I kept staring at Pages feeling like “I CAN’T. I. JUST. CAN’T.”
But I did. Here is some other stuff that didn’t make it into the article. It’s a behind the scenes featurette, kind of, except you don’t have to listen to me talk.
This was going to be a different story. I had planned to sign up on a bunch of sites to see the way that men talked to women online, then talk about the differences between forums. Ashley Madison was on my list because it caters to a very specific subset of people, ie: married ones trying to get laid on the sly. It quickly became my focus, mostly because the experience itself encapsulated a lot of things that I am personally nervous about.
If you think that you’re perfectly well-adjusted with no issues about intimacy, love or trust, try writing about them. Seriously. Nothing exposes your own damage like seeing other people’s.
I set out to collect my data in as scientific a way as possible. I knew I already had a self-selecting pool of participants, and I quickly learned that most of the men messaging me were…not very good at expressing themselves with the written word. These dudes, most well over forty, were sending the person they wanted to impress txtspk messages that read like an eight year old wrote them. Although I doubt any eight year old would write so much about his dick. So initially it was a process to find participants who were eloquent enough to talk to for any length of time. This meant that I couldn’t ignore all the really aggressive, borderline revolting attention that I was getting. I HAD to sift through it to find people to talk to.
I had some guidelines for my own behaviour, too. My username was decided by a random generator (“Compliment” + “Colour” = DarlingScarlet, which I also liked for the repeated “a” sound). I posted pictures of my face, not of my body, so that I couldn’t be accused of luring otherwise decent men to me with my siren-like boobs. My pictures were taken when I was 24 and had dark hair, and that is the age I put on my profile. I also decided that I wouldn’t approach any of these men–they had to approach me–and that I wouldn’t outright lie. I wondered if I’d find anyone to talk to.
I found twenty-six of them. The thing that surprised me most was how readily they spilled their life stories to me, a complete stranger, for no other reason than A) I asked, and B) they were hoping to see me naked. I wanted to know why they were cheating, and by extension why they were so bent on risking everything in their lives for an affair, instead leaving the relationships that they were so miserable in.
I can’t overstate what a depressing experience gathering this information was. Having to deal with the constant onslaught of attention? It sucked. Randomly being sent dozens of dick pics from total strangers who don’t even know your name sucks too. Pretending to be a wide-eyed, vulnerable girl who really, really wants to listen to you talking about how you want to cheat on your wife SUPER-MEGA SUCKS FOR REAL. After the first day, it started to skew my perception of the world: Is this DOOMED to happen? Is nobody happy with anybody, ever? Is everyone just a selfish pleasure-seeker? Is every relationship built on nothing but lies? Time to build a hut in the woods and hang out with rocks for the rest of my life!
I had to keep reminding myself that not everyone in the world is terrible. Not every person gets into a relationship and then starts planning how to most effectively cheat without getting caught. Not everyone is so terrified of conflict that they’d rather lie with their whole life than say “Hey, we need to talk about how much sex we’re having.” And I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t marry the kind of dickbag who would try to cheat with girls half his age.
But then again, didn’t these men’s wives probably think that at some point? I don’t think many people go into marriage (or any monogamous relationships, really) thinking “I can’t wait until I can bang someone else.” At some point, these guys loved their wives. Their wives loved them. They got married. And then one day, they’re trolling for strange online. How does that happen? Can it happen to anyone? Is this going to be my friends someday? Could it happen to me?
Well, yeah. It could very well happen to Future Alle. It could happen to any of us. Human beings are capable of being wonderful, but we’re capable of being really terrible, too. I’m so scared of the terrible part that when the little voice in my head tells me that it’s better not to even reach for the good, I believe it. I try not to, but mostly I do. I have a hard time with love.
I don’t necessarily view infidelity as an immediate dealbreaker. People are human, and part of being human is not being perfect. Sometimes shit happens, and if it was a genuine mistake and both partners really want to fix what cheating hearts broke, it can be done! But it’s a matter of degrees. Having too much to drink and hooking up with a friend seems worlds away from deliberately signing up for a website for the sole purpose of finding someone, ANYONE, other than your spouse to bang. It’s about intent. Not just the difference between manslaughter and murder.
Things I’d change? Um. I wish that I could have pretended to be a man & talked to women who wanted to cheat, but Ashley Madison charges guys quite a bit of money to message women. I’m uninterested in directly bankrolling a sleazy operation like this, so no thanks. I’d also have liked to get outside the hetero dynamic, but the site really only caters to straight people looking to step out on their relationships. I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
It seems like a lot of men thought that this piece was “man hating.” That’s not right. As a straight woman, the romantic and sexual interactions I have are with men. I wrote only about what I experienced. If I’d had found that 99% of guys on Ashley Madison were charming gentlemen, that’s what I would have written. If I’d have uncovered a group of lesbians hitting on unhappy wives and curious women, that’s what I would have written. I didn’t. I got HUNDREDS of messages from men that looked like this: (Click to enlarge)
And this, my personal favourite. This was the first message that this man sent me, and while there is a time and place for long form daddy-daughter erotica, I think we can agree it’s not in place of a “Hi, how are you.” NSFW. Skip over it if you’re in the office:
I think there’s something really weird about involving another person in your sexual fantasies without their consent. This guy’s kink seems fairly standard, but in an initial message? I had the icks.
So yeah, I wrote about what I experienced and the conclusions I drew from it based on what I was told. That isn’t man hating, it’s honesty.
Also, let’s be real. Lately it seems like the entirety of the United States government is dedicated to stripping women of our rights, and dudes are almost always leading that charge. If I wanted to hate on men, I’d hate on the men trying to force me to carry dead fetuses to term or preventing my birth control from being covered by insurance. Ashley Madison is not the hill I want to die on.
All men are not jerks with profiles on seedy dating sites. All women are not perfect angels. People are inherently flawed and everyone has the capacity to be horrible to the person they love. I’ve never thought any different. Grouping every single person into a little roped-off space and saying “Men are like THIS and women are like THIS” is reductive and stupid, the schtick of 80’s stand-up and lazy screenwriters. Stereotypes don’t do anyone any favours, especially ones based on a concept as fluid as gender.
I don’t really have a clever way to wrap this up because I am beyond exhausted. Oliver is lying at the end of my bed listening to Lana del Rey (he has so many feelings), but alas, I have a full day of work between me and sixteen years of sleep. LIFE IS HARD.