Steinberg: Ashley Madison — so much for secrecy

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In 1965 Mike Royko took a look at Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and came to a surprising conclusion.

“I’m not sure that Hefner is a playboy,” the great columnist wrote in the Chicago Daily News. “He seems to be as middle class as the people he criticizes in his giggle-giggle philosophy.”

Real playboys, Royko said, “have sensational affairs with famous actresses, singers and countesses.” They gamble at casinos, sail yachts, drive race cars. “Rome on Monday. Paris on Wednesday, Saturday night in New York, and breakfast in Rio.”

Then there’s Hefner who, if you puff away the PR smoke, is a sedentary Midwestern guy married to his job who wants nothing more than to hang around his own living room night after night, guzzling Pepsi and listening to the stereo.

“Except for the fact that it is bigger and all paid for, he’s put together an overgrown split-level, right out of a ‘better homes’ magazine,” Royko wrote. “Hefner’s kingdom is the same kingdom the 5:15 suburban commuter is rushing home to. Item by item, it’s middle-class, sub-development living.”

In other words, don’t let the sexy image deceive you.

Good advice when considering Ashley Madison — to bring those who are just joining us up to speed — the online dating service for married people that was hacked last month, with names, emails, credit card numbers and sexual fantasies of its 37 million members snagged by a group outraged by Ashley Madison’s business model. Earlier this week, the hacked details were posted on the notorious dark Web, the hard-to-access land of bulk narcotics and illegal drug deals. Technically minded souls have already re-posted the data where suspicious spouses can check if their honey had been trolling for a special pal.

OPINION

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The media, of course, eats this up. The would-be Lothario humiliated is the oldest trope in literature, the stuff of countless Elizabethan dramas. The Washington Post speculated that “millions of users held their breaths” after the data theft was revealed.

Maybe. My guess is those members don’t have much to worry about. As we learn about Ashley Madison, the more we’ll find, rather than some online game of musical beds, will be a tiny portion of swinging adulterers who actually hook up with each other, and then a vast population of duped sad sacks and desperate house fraus ponying up their credit cards in pursuit of some unattainable dream. An image as romantic as a city laundromat at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night.

Give Ashley Madison credit for monetizing married ennui. The most incredible thing about that membership list is its size: 37 million. Quite a lot. That’s about 16 percent of the adult population of the United States. Though it turns out Ashley Madison also has a big international membership (some of whom, located in repressive countries that frown on this kind of thing, now have their lives put in peril by this breach. It’s all good fun until somebody gets hurt).

The details of how Ashley Madison works are fairly jaw dropping. It’s basically a text service. Women can send messages for free to men — who make up 70 percent of members — while the men must must pay to read the messages and pay to reply. The website — and this is astounding — generates fictional women who send bogus messages to men to gull them into participating.

The closest thing to Ashley Madison, in my view, is the lottery, where most pay for a dream that comes true only for a very few. Though I might be showing my age. Ashley Madison could be seen as a slightly raunchier subbasement of online dating which, if you haven’t been paying attention, has morphed into a billion-dollar industry. Match.com is 20 years old; 20 percent of young adults have dated somebody they met online, and some significant number of people who get married — studies range from 5 percent to 30 percent — are wedding people they met online. The taint of desperation that used to hang over online dating is pretty much gone.

Not so for Ashley Madison. The secrecy and attraction implicit in its logo — a pretty woman holding her finger to her red, red lips in a “shhhh” gesture — is belied by this hack. Though 80 percent of Americans think that infidelity is “always wrong,” we shouldn’t take too much pleasure in Ashley Madison’s secrets spilling out, because next it could be us, our bank, our hospital, our email, our secrets. Let he who is without something to hide cast the first stone.

Follow @NeilSteinberg

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