The exposure of the identities of millions of users who access or have accessed online cheating website Ashley Madison has sparked a global uproar, both related to cheating in general and privacy violations. Already, two suicides in Canada are being investigated for their potential link to the site’s hack; the CEO of Ashley Madison’s parent company has stepped down following the catastrophe; celebrities like Josh Duggar of American reality television and various people in political positions have been publicly exposed for their infidelity. But the analysis of the site’s users has most recently revealed that, not only is the number of women on the site dwarfed by the number of men, the majority of female profiles were either fake or went unused.
An analysis by Gizmodo found that out of the 5.5 million female accounts on Ashley Madison (there are 31 million male accounts), only about 1,500 of the female users had ever checked their messages, only 2,400 had ever chatted, and only 9,700 had ever replied to a message. The rest of the accounts are bots, fake, or inactive.
The conclusion to draw here is that the largest portal on the internet through which spouses cheat on their partners is actually a portal for men to cheat. While it is unknown whether these men are in heterosexual or homosexual relationships, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume the majority of these men are/were cheating on their wives.
The Ashley Madison hack exposes the fact that the digital experience in general favors men. Technically, Ashley Madison is not a dating website, but to narrow in on how women get the short end of the stick when it comes to putting themselves online, let’s look at online dating.
The perils of online dating for women are not new, they just have been garnering more of the spotlight as women have begun to expose the violent culture behind text messages and what often start out as innocuous exchanges between strangers. Last October, a writer in Ms. Magazine explained why she created an Instagram account to expose the threats and harassment she receives as a woman on online dating sites. She points out that female rejection of male attention online elicits similar responses as it does in real life: anger, threats, and sometimes violence. Another woman has created an Instagram account to publish harassing if not threatening messages she receives through dating app Tinder because she lists the word “feminist” in her profile. The link between real-life harassment and assault from such digital behavior is hard to ignore. (See: When Women Refuse, a blog that depicts accounts of women’s experiences — both online and in real life — of harassment and assault after rejecting male advances.) The experiences of women using online dating sites that result in their direct harassment are everywhere.
But harassment is not relegated to the world of online dating; research published late last year from Pew found that women aged 18-24 experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels: 26% of the women surveyed had been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment. Additionally, “they do not escape the heightened rates of physical threats and sustained harassment common to their male peers and young people in general,” according to the research. Men were more likely to experience less severe forms of harassment such as name-calling or embarrassment.
And Blouin News has already delved into how disproportionally women experience violent threats and harassment in the online gaming world.
The fact that millions of men have cheated on their spouses through Ashley Madison does not mean that men cheat on their spouses more often than women do. But that supposition is hard to dismiss given how the experiences of men and women on the internet now directly mirror the experiences of men and women in real life. Indeed, The Washington Post cites Debby Herbenick, a sex researcher at Indiana University, who says that, based on her own research and interviews, men tend to seek out affairs more often than women and are likely to be more successful in doing so offline. She notes that sites like Ashley Madison tend to repel female users because of their ill-treatment and harassment.
And when it comes to online behavior translating into real life behavior, the results of that same Pew study found that digital experiences conform to the gender split in crime victimization in general: men are more likely to be murdered or violently assaulted by strangers while women are more likely to be sexually assaulted, victims of sex crimes as a whole, abused by partners, and stalked. Young women in particular are targets of gender-based violence. While the link may seem like a stretch, it isn’t: the internet has become a place for many men to get what they want. And when they don’t, a small but vocal minority tend to harass and violently threaten the women who reject them. Sadly, it looks like rape culture has gone digital.