Post by Hollis Griffin, Denison University
Two recent events in the world of sex-related Internet services underline ongoing problems that Americans have with intimacy and digital technology. A recent data breach resulted in the release of personal information of those who subscribe to Ashley Madison, an online service that facilitates extramarital affairs among subscribers. Just this week, federal investigators shut down the website Rentboy.com, which posted profiles of gay male sex workers for perusal by clients seeking those services. In both cases, the Internet provided safe harbor for sexual practices that many Americans consider distasteful and/or dangerous, even though so many people are engaging in them.
One of the tenets of U.S. citizenship is the right to privacy. But as Ashley Madison and Rentboy make plain: where sex is concerned, privacy is only ever sacred when the sex you are having is deemed to be respectable. It is interesting that both events took place online if only because the pleasures that people pursued on the two sites can never really be public. Outside of swingers’ parties and Las Vegas, adultery and prostitution are—with a few exceptions—largely verboten in the United States and pushed beyond the range of privacy’s purview. Never mind that people were arranging this sex as they sat hunched over their personal computers. They were looking to have dirty, dirty sex! Hypocritical sex! Dangerous sex! A quick scroll through social media networks and comment threads on news coverage of the two events reveals a just-beneath-the-surface moral panic about sex outside of marriage and sex for money. While there has been an outcry among sex workers and other queer publics about Rentboy’s closure, those charges are nestled amidst much applause about it. All of it makes me question where the line is, exactly, between “proper” and “improper” sexual activity.
Furthermore, Americans tend to think of intimacy online as “less than.” If people were “normal” and “healthy,” they would be able to find it in the real world. In fact, so many people think the Internet is home to pedophiles and perverts that the sex facilitated by Ashley Madison and Rentboy was suspect from the very beginning. It isn’t monogamous or procreative; it doesn’t often cement a long-standing bond between the people having it. It’s carnal and criminal, forbidden and filthy. If the sheer volume and variety of pornography one can find on the Internet is any indication, it’s the kind of sex that many Americans wish they were having.
What both events cover over or hide is more difficult to parse out. Alongside the drama associated with the Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure are much more mundane truths. The first is that the physical remove of the Internet allows people to engage in the kinds of intimacy that are harder to realize in public life. The second is that those intimacies can sometimes meet needs that more valorized ways of being and wanting do not. If the bodies and acts that people so often desire run afoul of social mores, it raises questions about the viability of the norms that govern intimacy and sexuality in the contemporary United States. Where Ashley Madison sheds light on the lies people tell one another in the name of love, Rentboy underlines the lies people allow to be written in the name of the law.
The Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure are part of much larger patterns in the United States, where the comforting fictions that so many Americans cling to about sex and intimacy are revealed to be as juridical as they are romantic. The stories we tell about sex and intimacy become the rules that we inflict on one another in the name of propriety. These laws result in punishments ranging from raised eyebrows to jail time, depending on the severity of the offense. In all cases, these laws—the formal ones and the informal ones—shoehorn people into social norms that attempt to govern sex and intimacy. Alas, they inevitably fail. Ashley Madison and Rentboy are news stories because adultery and prostitution are not new stories. Rather, the two events are flare-ups in a perennial debate about whom and how people should desire and be.
The two events also provide an interesting rejoinder to the joy experienced by many on the Left after the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Barely two months after the Court declared that United States could not deny marriage licenses to people of the same sex, the Ashley Madison hack and Rentboy’s closure underscore how very traditional that ruling was. It seems that marriage is the only way Americans can ever really condone sex and intimacy. To stray from that script is to be deviant. Rather than bemoan still more instances of dirty, dirty sex online, it seems that another, perhaps more useful way of thinking about these events would be to question the sexual norms that render them “dirty” in the first place.