By Gracia Lee and Leila Lai
When I first learnt about Ashley Madison and its plans to expand into Singapore two years ago, it made me wonder: is infidelity so popular that it can be a lucrative business?
The Canadian-based website appears to be an innocuous online dating service at first glance, until one realises that it is marketed specifically to married individuals. Growing up, I was taught to value fidelity, commitment, and honesty in a marriage, and was taken aback by the company’s complete rejection of those values. The website’s slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair” branded cheating as something desirable — a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Following vocal disapproval from Singaporeans, the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) subsequently banned the website. However, it hit local headlines again in August this year, when more than 4,000 emails ending in “.sg” were among the millions that hackers leaked.
Four thousand emails. I imagine 4,000 families affected, and perhaps even more than 4,000 children caught in a complex web of confusion and anger.
I was once a close friend’s confidant when her parents were going through a divorce because of her father’s infidelity. She told me of the emotional anguish that she was experiencing: a potent combination of hurt and betrayal, mixed with the fact that she still loved and respected him.
Seeing a close friend in such pain, I got a glimpse of the emotional consequences of infidelity on innocent children, and I wondered if my future children would grow up in a world where this is the norm.
In light of the Ashley Madison leak, I worry if our society is starting to let crucial values slip through our fingers. Yet it may be a good thing that Ashley Madison struck so close to home, as the buzz it generated made us confront a difficult topic.
It is unfeasible to block every objectionable website. Moreover, banning Ashley Madison two years ago didn’t stop Singapore- registered users from signing up. With or without Ashley Madison, anyone who wants to use a digital platform to cheat can easily find an alternative in casual dating apps like Tinder.
Talking openly, on the other hand, can be more effective in managing the problem of infidelity.
Open discourse on a sexual practice, according to French philosopher Michel Foucault, makes the act visible, thus allowing society to analyse it and define what is normal and what is deviant. This creates reasons and methods for regulation and control, be it by the state or the self.
The appearance of the Ashley Madison website sparked off discussions on infidelity and promiscuity, subjects that were previously seen as taboo. It allowed those who condemned these practices to stand up and voice out against threats to their moral values.
This is exactly what is needed.
“Some people don’t see cheating as a problem,” said relationship counsellor Lee Kien Seng. “If we see adultery as something that is morally wrong, then cheating will never be a considered option.”
Many Singaporeans clearly did not want infidelity to become the norm here, as seen from how they initiated a petition for the ban two years ago, which gathered 2,900 signatures.
Someone once said, “One voice is a whisper, but many voices is a roar.” Indeed, we cannot underestimate the power of our whispers to become a roar loud enough to protect what we believe is important for our society.
While discourse can trigger control by the state, it also reinforces our responsibility and self-discipline for our actions. A couple I know told me that the Ashley Madison fiasco made them more aware of the need to be honest and express their feelings to each other. They have begun to talk through disagreements and be more open about their emotional needs. Doing so, they are spending more time to understand each other and solve problems in their relationship. This is better than keeping silent and hoping that the problems will sort themselves out.
Their commitment to talk openly to each other about intimate and difficult issues echoes the advice of Mr Lee, the relationship counsellor. He said that unsatisfactory sex lives and feelings of neglect are some reasons for infidelity, and stressed the importance of good communication in a relationship.
We cannot always control the vices that enter our society and threaten to corrupt it, but we are in full control of our choices. A good value system is ultimately essential to avoid the temptation of adultery, said Mr Lee.
As long as we articulate and affirm our values, whether through protesting services that encourage questionable behaviour or cultivating healthy relationships with our loved ones, we will be in a better position to stand against the influence of websites such as Ashley Madison.