The leak that could end your marriage
As thousands of email addresses attached to the cheating website Ashley Madison appear online, we report on the fallout for Irish couples
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
It started out as a spicy news item, a very modern morality tale about sex, strangers and the internet.
But now that the Ashley Madison client-list has gone online and is quickly becoming more and more accessible, the reality is coming painfully close to home for tens of thousands of Irish people.
With the exposure of as many as 115,000 registered Irish clients, the breach of the site that promised no-strings, "100pc discreet" sex has the potential to spark a fire-storm of relationship strife in Ireland and across much of the world.
In terms of high-profile hacks, there has never really been anything like this. The sole purpose of the Ashley Madison website is to facilitate illicit sexual encounters. And if your email address is one of the reported 30 million on the client-list, it is now out there. And it will stay out there for anybody with access to the internet to see.
People are already trawling through the vast data-dump to find the email addresses of well-known figures. The appearance of an individual's email address on the Ashley Madison data-base is, of course, no proof of infidelity. But as the world reacts to the enormity of the security breach, it could be enough to cause serious trauma and relationship problems for millions of people.
Even a quick scan of the Irish email addresses linked to Ashley Madison accounts show the client-base crossed every social, religious and cultural boundary. It's not young or old, rich or poor, rural or city. It is Irish men and women of virtually all types and all walks of life.
And the stated aim of the hack - to reveal carefully planned and fully premeditated infidelity - uncovers the behaviour those who deal with marriage breakdown warn is the real relationship killer.
"It's very, very difficult to come back from an affair being uncovered," says counsellor and psychotherapist Tony Moore, of the marriage counselling charity Relationships Ireland.
"I think most counsellors will agree, cheating, the discovery of an affair, it's the one that can really wreck a relationship in a deeper and more profound way than almost anything else.
"The lies, the depth of the hurt, the sense of betrayal and trauma, the fact that it threatens the entire future of the couple, their children. It's really hard to come back from."
The relationship counsellor says the way the Ashley Madison site works will also add to the sense of trust betrayed.
"You have to pay to register, write up a profile and actively search for sexual partners. This is not something you can blame on a moment of weakness. It's deliberate and premeditated," says Moore.
"And in many cases, you will be looking at perhaps months of cover-ups, of lying, of strange, unexplained behaviour. Once it is uncovered, the long-term effects of this are deeply hurtful, extremely traumatic.
"There is the shock, that sense that their partners should have known, that they were fools to trust in someone who was ready to go to some lengths to deliberately betray that trust."
As a number of experts in online behaviour have pointed out since the news of the vast information hack broke, the age-old defence of "It wasn't me" (now updated to "somebody must have hacked my email/Twitter account") could be hard to maintain in the case of Ashley Madison.
The site, with an estimated 30 million users worldwide, had made strong claims to "100pc discretion" and prominently displayed its "Trusted Security" awards (clients who have been hacked may find it bitterly ironic that as of last night, the Ashley Madison homepage was still making those claims, even as the world's media talked about the hack).
One of the big factors in its huge success, and what set it apart from most dating sites, was the bold admission that this was all about cheating. Or as the now infamous Ashley Madison motto puts it: "Life is short. Have an affair".
There was no fig-leaf of "looking for friendship and maybe more". Ashley Madison became an internet phenomenon by boldly promising illicit sex, no questions asked.
This is made abundantly clear to those signing up for the site. And those clients listed in the hacked data (if they had in fact signed up) would have had to make a conscious decision to get out their credit cards and register their details. It costs money to look for secret sex via Ashley Madison - or at least it does for men, women are offered membership for free.
Membership rates start at €55 and clients have to pay for "credits" (via credit cards) through a variety of "fully secure" systems. The top membership rate - the "Affair Guarantee Membership" costs €250.
Unlike many porn or run-of-the-mill dating sites, Ashley Madison costs money and is relatively pricey by the standards of the internet.
And as nobody could have predicted that the site would be hacked in such a dramatic fashion, it would have made very little sense for somebody to pay to maliciously register another person's email, when there was no reason to believe that it would ever see the light of day.
Looked at logically, stealing somebody's internet address would appear to have been a relatively expensive and ineffective way to embarrass them. Until, of course, Ashley Madison was hacked.
Nevertheless, relationship counsellor Tony Moore believes most people caught out by the hack and confronted by their partners will go straight to the old reliable.
"It is the classic first line of defence," he says.
"Those confronted with suspicions or even evidence of cheating will often respond with: 'I've no idea where this came from'. With the internet, it's often 'I was hacked' or 'Somebody stole my email address'.
"Or they might blame a friend, maybe a pal who likes to play jokes on people, for signing them up to something they shouldn't have been involved with. Or borrowing their phone to make a call that shouldn't be there.
"Of course, the first reaction of the spouse is to call that friend up. So often, you find that when it starts to unravel, you get people who have been cheating having to spin this ever more complex web of lies.
"There's the lie and then the cover up, asking a friend to say they were with them when they were not. And all the time, their partner is starting to put two and two together, looking at stories they were told, like; 'well, I have to work with a client on American time so that's why I've got these late night calls'.
"Or going back over odd behaviour they noticed but didn't make anything of."
The psychotherapist and counsellor, who works with couples within the great Dublin region, says the internet and the proliferation of social media and sites like Ashley Madison are putting new strains on relationships, even if the basic reasons why relationships break-down remain unchanged.
But a wide range of counselling and professional help is available. And in the wake of this week's revelations, sadly, there'll be plenty of couples who'll need it.
Relationships Ireland is a not-for-profit organisation that offers confidential relationship counselling services based on ability to pay. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.relationshipsireland.com.
More of us are cheating - and we are doing it online and at work
When it comes to cheating, it seems even the experts can't agree on who is more likely to do it - women or men.
It is a notoriously difficult area in which to collect reliable data (just imagine getting a phone call from Red C polling, asking if you have cheated on your partner in the last 10 months, or are likely to in the next).
Up until recently, study after study found that married men were significantly more likely to have affairs than married women.
However, in the past five years or so, a series of surveys have found that married women are increasingly likely to have affairs, with one commissioned by two well-known UK dating sites in 2014 showing that 24.5pc of men and 18.3pc of women admitting to having cheated on their current partners at least once.
And most affairs do still start in the workplace. The survey conducted by a popular online magazine focused on love and relationships found that most affairs are between people who meet through their daily working lives.
Some 38.8pc of women said they had cheated with somebody they met in work compared to 30.7pc of men. However, this is also changing.
The recent explosion in "cheating" websites such as Ashley Madison has made the internet the go-to place for casual, illicit sex for those who wish to keep it a secret.
Ashley Madison led the way with a blatant pitch to those who wished to cheat on their partners, other sites have now rushed in to get a slick of what is becoming a billion dollar industry, based largely on the assumption that the internet can keep your secrets.
However, this massive hack of Ashley Madison client IDs has proved that this assumption of discretion and flying below the radar can be an illusion.