Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of people are going to be having some awkward conversations in the coming days and weeks.
On Tuesday the hackers who stole information on millions of Ashley Madison users last month followed through on their threat to make their haul public. The Impact Team, as the hackers refer to themselves, released a huge trove of personal data on potential adulterers that will in all likelihood severely fuck up a tremendous number of people's lives. The leak is the culmination of a month of threats made by the hackers as part of an apparent moral crusade against the site, whose purpose is to help married people find a little strange. The Impact Team promised to release what now appears to be 9.7 GB worth of files on about 33 million site users if the portal's parent company, Toronto's Avid Life Media, did not shut down Ashley Madison and sugar daddy site Established Men within one month. (The hackers oddly made no mention of ALM's CougarLife, a sugar mommy site.)
Although the hack was huge, comprising the bulk of Ashley Madison's claimed 40 million users, it is currently only posted on the dark web, which means the content is largely unreachable to the techno-unsavvy. And early reports indicate that, thanks to Ashley Madison's history of lax account detail verification, many of the 36 million leaked site e-mail addresses and names are fake (which may account for the presence of thousands of .gov and .mil accounts, as well as Tony Blair's e-mail). Add to all that the fact that there's just a lot of detritus to sort through for anyone trying to ferret out particularly compromising information, and it's not the easiest data dump to sift through.
Still, as the Awl points out, people are already posting excerpts of the documents on 4chan, Twitter, and other forums that can be easily read by normal people. And if you want to search for a specific person's email address, there are numerous services that will help you out. So what's someone to do if they come across their partner's name in one of these lists? That's a fucking big can of worms, and one countless people will likely be opening up in the coming days and weeks. Looking for some advice on how to handle such a theoretical outing, VICE turned to Dr. Lonnie Barbach, a San Francisco-based couples therapist with three decades of experience and author of numerous works on intimacy, sexuality, and building strong relationships to talk about how people implicated in the hack can take the initiative in talking about their involvement with the site, or deal with the aftermath of an (accurate or inaccurate) outing.
VICE: What should Ashley Madison users who have been outed to their partners do?
Dr. Lonnie Barbach: It's the same as any affair that's been found out, right? It's just that we now see technology's incredible ability—I have so many clients who are outed through technology: on WhatsApp or through their e-mails. I would say that right now that's the most common way that one partner finds out that the other partner's having an affair.
The people who are looking into this are likely the people who are already concerned about their partner for one reason or another. So they're already going to be suspecting something. This is just saying: Here's the reality in our relationship. And now it requires the couple to really talk about what's going on.
How do you start that conversation? You can easily imagine a lot of people just yelling and throwing around blame and things going to pot quickly.
People often do start with the yelling. And then they calm down and have the conversation. The most constructive way to talk about it is to say: What's going on? Why is this happening? What does it mean? How are you feeling about the relationship? How are you feeling about me? What isn't getting satisfied? What's going on inside of you?
There's something happening. And for lots of couples an affair has been the most incredibly positive change that could have occurred because it gets them out of this sleep mode where they're not putting anything into their relationship and one person's not really satisfied but they don't know how to change it and so they go outside their relationship to do it. Really talking about it is kind of a wake-up call. The other partner starts to see what their mate needs and what is missing and they start putting energy and attention into the relationship like they haven't possibly done in a long time.
Is it any different for people who find out without having been suspicious?
No, except that it's a total shock and they have no idea why this thing occurred.
I ask because this leak doesn't just make it easy for suspicious husbands and wives to search for their partners. Giant lists are likely going to be floating around spreading information on people. So it seems like there's a lot of potential for people to find out suddenly, by complete chance.
Yeah. But a lot of people find out unsuspectingly. I had one woman who found out when she found her husband at a restaurant with another woman. But again, it's still the same issue: What is going on? What is happening? In [that case] again it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened in their marriage. Because at first she really blamed him. She said: He didn't talk to me about it. He just went and did it. Well it turned out he had been trying to talk to her about the fact that he wasn't happy in their sexual relationship, but she wasn't dealing with it. She accepted responsibility for her part of it and he accepted responsibility for his part of it and they went and started over again in a way that was just great.
How common do you think that happy outcome is? Because I think a lot of us see cheating as far more threatening or damaging to relationships than you're making it sound.
That's so complicated. It depends on so many things. One of them is a level of commitment. One of them is their ability to understand each partner's part in a problem in a relationship, how good their relationship was before this happened. And also there are early history issues that can get triggered by this. Someone who has had trust issues in their childhood for example—this may be something that is just impossible to overcome because this awakens early trauma. Or another relationship where the partners had an affair and it just causes them to feel so badly about themselves that they can't forgive. It takes some people a long time to get over it. It's rarely just: Oh, this is fine. Tomorrow we'll start all over again. Trust is broken in an instant and it takes a long time to rebuild.
One thing that could affect that trust building and recovery is that this isn't going to be private. Your family, co-workers, friends—this information has the potential to spread rapidly and widely. Will that affect how someone can deal with infidelity?
Unless you're a very famous person, the probability of everyone trying to find out about it is not so great. You've got all these millions of users, which means that you would have to spend hours and hours scanning the list to see if you know anyone on it.
But there are a ton of groups trying to make this easily searchable for "my friend Joe."
If it does [spread], it's like all of these politicians who've been found out. It really requires somebody to do some soul-searching and talk about what's really true, if they want to, to the people who they care about in an honest way.
The leak doesn't just tell you about a partner trying to commit infidelities. You can potentially correlate these accounts to descriptions of fantasies or hidden peccadillos. How do you deal with the revelation of kinks and fetishes on top of cheating?
That's so interesting. I'm not sure about this. It would be so interesting in terms of sexuality to find out how many more people have all of these sexual interests and fantasies and how normal it actually is. If somehow all of this information out there [reveals] 75,000 people have this kind of fantasy, it could free up a lot of people who have this fantasy they think is really weird. It might make people less ashamed and more open about it.
Yeah, this could be a huge dataset on infidelity and sexuality as well, couldn't it? Are we going to see a spate of academic articles using "The Ashley Madison Dataset"?
Wouldn't that be great! I don't know, but what a huge sample. You don't have to know who it is. All you have to know [is the demographics].
Speaking of anonymity, this site wasn't rinky-dink. It apparently had decent security. So do you worry that the privacy concerns this raises could create a chilling effect on people's willingness to explore and talk about their sexual needs, or make people even more sneaky and secretive about their infidelities, building up even more relationship tensions?
Probably both. Everything is open to being hacked in any area.
But again, do those fetishes make it harder to address infidelity with your partner?
Obviously the more issues you have in a relationship the more difficulties you have. If you have an area of sexual interest that is not shared by your partner or that your partner finds disgusting or a turn-off, you have a problem. It's like any kind of area you have a real difference in. Sex just happens to be a really important one. There are lots of couples who have differences in [sexual] style that have nothing to do with fetishes or fantasy. For one of them sex is a quickie, and for the other one it's a long, drawn-out drama, or for one it's a puppy dog playful thing, and for the other it's a medieval endeavor. You've got to match up and sometimes this is more or less important.
We've been talking about the people who get outed, but what about users who know they're in the leak, but haven't been found out yet? What do they do with that info?
That's the same decision that people make whenever they're having an affair and their partner doesn't know about it. Whenever someone is having an affair, I say: It's not a matter of if your partner is going to find out. It's a matter of when. So how do you want that to happen? They can go to their partner and tell them because it can lead to positive change in the relationship—but there's always a risk. And then there are some people who would just rather deny it and say: Maybe nobody will ever find out, so that's how I'm going to act. Or I'm going to deny it. I'll just say my e-mail got hacked and it wasn't me. It depends upon the individual.
Let's say you decide you do want to broach this with a partner. What's the most constructive way to start that conversation?
Probably to tell their partner that there are things in the relationship that have been upsetting or bothering or not satisfying them and that they want to talk about those things and that they've been involved in this website and realize that it's not solving their relationship problems and they want to solve them. Assuming they do. Maybe they realize: I don't want to solve them and I want to get out of this relationship and that's what I need.
Could this force a lot of people to confront divorce or the end of a relationship who wouldn't have done it without the external pressure of the leak?
Possibly. I think [the leak's] going to require people to talk and examine what's going on in their relationship that they wouldn't have otherwise because it's bringing these subjects up for discussion. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I think there's a complacency that can set in in a marriage. You get married and then you start paying attention to other things. It's almost like the relationship takes last place because you've got your work priorities, you've got the kids, you've got your hobbies, whatever these other things are. But the marriage is going to take care of itself. And it doesn't. That's one of the causes of relationships going awry. [Marriages] need to be nourished like a plant needs water. You've got to put energy into it; you've got to have conversations, let each other know what's going on inside of you. That's the intimacy. Without talking about those things you've got a business relationship about managing a home. So it does have the possibility—it's like an earthquake, things have to get rebuilt.
Should we try to turn Ashley Madison into a national conversation on fidelity and how to manage a relationship, deal with cheating, and treat monogamy? Wouldn't I love that? And how we treat sexual diversity. I'm putting together an app, it's called "Happy Couple." It'll be in the app stores in about a month. It's an attempt to get couples to talk to each other in a game and to give them ideas of things to do to keep their relationship alive and interesting. I think that is hugely needed probably at an international level, but certainly at a national level.
What about people whose e-mails or names show up in the hack but who were just used by someone else as a fake ID? The wrongfully accused cheaters, what do they do to save their marriages, or their wider personal lives, their jobs and social standings?
That's an awful thing like when you find yourself in a lawsuit or crime that you had nothing to do with and you're stuck in this morass of having to clear something. It takes over your life. But if you have a partner who is trustworthy you may wonder for a moment what went on and think this is suspicious and uneasy, but I don't think it takes too long before you say: I don't think this is real. If something comes up I'll notice it, but this doesn't seem like it has a basis . Without considering somebody who has a traumatic trust issue in the past where this pops up and stimulates this old injury.