Over the past several weeks, I’ve watched one family after another melt down under revelations of a spouse exposed by the hack of the adultery website Ashley Madison. I would love to prognosticate that the Ashley Madison scandal is the jolt we needed to set some things aright, but I’m afraid Ashley Madison is just the beginning.
In order to understand what’s next, we must understand why Ashley Madison “worked.” Why would people sign up for a service promising to match them with others looking for affairs? Ashley Madison succeeded in drawing in 32 million users because it joined original sin to modern technology.
Ashley Madison utilized digital technology to promise several things that were out of reach for would-be adulterers. The first was opportunity. Many of the users on this site were not the sorts of people who would seek out singles’ bars or airport lounges for available sexual partners. They were hemmed in, many of them, not by moral convictions, but by the inability to know where to start.
Ashley Madison promised to match desire to opportunity. In that sense, Ashley Madison was an expression of our time’s consumer culture. We are promised a seemingly endless set of options for our appetites. Why should I be limited to vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream? If I want licorice gelato or avocado sorbet or salted caramel-ginger snap crunch frozen custard, the market is willing to provide it. Digital technology has made the same cornucopia available for the darker appetites of the flesh as well.
Even more importantly, Ashley Madison provided this service with the illusion of anonymity. Even the advertising logo featured a woman making a “hush” sign over her mouth. The promise was that no one would ever find out about this affair. This promise of cover drew out those who wanted adultery but who didn’t want to be seen as adulterers. In some cases, these were figures who styled themselves as “culture warriors” against decadent sexual permissiveness. They wanted to still be culture warriors, and to be as nasty as they wanted to be, all at the same time. Ashley Madison promised them the cover of secrecy.
We should have seen this afoot. After all, this is precisely the sort of technological innovation upon which pornography has built an empire. In a previous era, one who wanted to consume pornography needed to declare himself the kind of person who wanted to do so. One had to walk up to a cash register in a convenience store or to a clerk in a video store. This limited the numbers of those who would seek such media out.
Digital technology spawned an entirely different reality. One could seek out pornography with no one knowing, and with the promise that no one would ever know. One could continue to try to feel good about oneself because the porn was part of something one was already doing—surfing the web—and one could pretend that one just happened to find oneself in a bad Internet neighborhood. What has been the result? The result is a pornography industry that has weaponized itself—leaving shame and guilt and broken marriages all over the world, especially among those who thought red states or Bible belts were force-fields against the Sexual Revolution.
This will continue, and will accelerate. As technology continues to draw itself closer and closer into the human person, the immorality industry will proliferate too. Expect pornography to be not merely visual in the future but involving all of the senses. Expect the line between pornography and adultery to become murkier and murkier, as our Gnostic desire to be free from the limits of our flesh ends up exactly where it always does, in the idolatry of the flesh.
This is because the technology of casual sexuality is a continual updating of a very old profession—some say the oldest. Pornography and adultery services are simply new forms of prostitution. The customer is paying someone for sex—to perform for him sexually, to give him the fantasy of anonymous sex, to match him sexually with a willing partner. A disenchanted sexual age can pretend that this is simply the manipulation of neurology, simply the manipulation of parts for the purpose of orgasm.
The ancient Christian vision, though, tells us something else is going on here. Like the temple prostitution of the Canaanite tribes and the Roman Empire, the prostitution of our time is spiritual to the core. The Apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth that the joining of one to a prostitute is not merely biological but creates a spiritual reality—joining the body of Christ to a prostitute. This is why the Word of God commands us not just to avoid, but also to flee, from sexual immorality.
The brokenness of sexuality all around us demonstrates something far deeper than a crisis of culture. The brokenness of sexuality around us demonstrates a crisis of worship. We will not get out of this with better Internet filters or more accountability groups. We must recognize that technology will continue to offer fallen humanity what it thinks it wants—the illusion that we can transgress God and not surely die. Our only hope starts with the kind of vision which sees that, no matter the technology, we are never anonymous to God.