The web of deceit that extends beyond Ashley Madison
Before we laugh at those duped by the dating website, we should remember that nobody is exempt from vanity or vulnerability
In Jonathan Coe's novel The Closed Circle, a middle-aged man points at a beautiful waitress half his age and says to his equally shopsoiled friend: "What do we know about her? Only that she's young, and she has a body that we both crave.
"She could be a serial murderer, for all that we know. And yet either one of us, after a couple more drinks, would put our family lives at risk if she asked us to come back to her room. Wouldn't we? It's a pathological disorder of the male sex."
Pathological and pathetic. As each new revelation from the Ashley Madison scandal shows, men will risk their families for women who, when you get down to the basics, don't actually exist. The evidence that the site was a swindle has been building ever since hackers downloaded its supposedly confidential data. First, there was the gender imbalance. Ashley Madison, whose CEO, Noel Biderman, resigned last week, had 31 million men on its database, but just 5.5 million women. As it takes two to tango, there must have been plenty of empty space on the dance floor.
Then Canadian journalists remembered that in 2011 one Doriana Silva had sued Ashley Madison for $20m, claiming that her former employers had forced her to create so many fake profiles of sexy women they left her with a repetitive stress injury. This provoked a stand-off and she later dropped her case.
Finally, Annalee Newitz of the Gizmodo news blog analysed the leaked files. She found profiles full of dead data whose sole purpose was to make men think that millions of women were active on the site, when in fact only a few thousand appeared to be checking their messages to see who was inviting them to a night in a cheap hotel. Ashley Madison created a sci-fi world, she said, "where every woman on Earth is dead and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly designed robots".
How we laugh at the humiliation of others. Ugly, fat men so lost in their conceit they cannot even look in the mirror and see themselves for what they are. That they are the victims of a double crime - the scams of a dating agency and the extraordinary invasion of their privacy by malevolent hackers - does not trouble us. That many relationships that could have worked are now being destroyed spoils no one's merriment either.
I'm not playing the prig here. I roared with laughter when Hamza Tzortzis, from a fanatical outfit called the Islamic Education and Research Academy, issued a long, blustering statement explaining how unnamed conspirators had put his name, address and bank card details on the Ashley Madison site.
I've known for years that those who shout loudest about sin have the keenest lusts, which is why the Bible belt is the porn-viewing capital of America.
In Tzortzis's case, I could only hope that his protests that he was the victim of a devilish plot were true. The clerical authorities at the Islamic Education and Research Academy say that the appropriate punishment for adultery is a "slow and painful death by stoning".
But the gloating at the humiliation of men who made themselves ridiculous misses how easy it has become to exploit human longing.
Ashley Madison profited from a truth about promiscuous men that the phrase "casual sex" does not begin to cover. Unless you are a stupendously handsome or famous man, or preferably both, there is nothing casual about casual sex. It is grindingly hard work, with no prospect of a grind at the end. Men must hit on dozens of women, ignore every rejection and bound back again. Dating websites give men the illusion that they can cut out the clubs and bars and make hundreds of approaches from their computer.
Desires beyond mere lust are just as easily exploitable. The crime you are least likely to see reported is romance fraud, which has exploded with the growth of social media. The criminals contact women and men, gay as well as straight, through dating sites. They then move on to personal messages and phone calls. For women targets, the scammers often pose as army officers - strong and reliable men they can trust.
For men, it is the Ashley Madison routine again: conventionally beautiful and tantalisingly available women who are young and vulnerable and looking for a man to put his arms around them. The scammer grooms the target for months, asking for, and sometimes sending, gifts, before cleaning them out. The police are threatening them and they need a lawyer. A loved one needs treatment. Their business is in danger of collapse.
You don't hear about romance scams because they are so embarrassing. But Monica Whitty of Leicester University estimates that about 230,000 people in Britain have been robbed. The typical targets are lonely. They dream of a romantic love that can transform their lives. They are dazzled when a desirable man or woman feigns interest. They will do anything. They will send explicit films, which can later be used to blackmail them. They will empty their accounts of savings they meant to leave to their children.
In the past, a conman would have had to pass from town to town and bar to bar finding targets to fleece. Now the web brings him straight into a target's home. Women compared the shame that followed to rape. "I just cried for a week," one told Whitty. "This man was my soulmate. It was so intense. It was a one and only kind of relationship."
The world directs the same mockery at them as the vain, deluded men on Ashley Madison. "Look at yourself, you dowdy cow," it says. "What on earth made you think a dashing army officer could possibly want you for anything other than money?" The desperate middle-aged woman convinced she has found "the one", the old queen besotted with a young beauty, are as much figures of ridicule as the husband who thinks that beautiful women will throw themselves at him without questions or strings.
But be careful before you join the world's laughter. For this is a world where hackers can ruin your life - not for having an affair but for thinking of having an affair. A suspicious and calculating world where the best advice is to suspect the worst of strangers, open your heart to no one, and remember that anything you say online can, and perhaps one day will, be used in evidence against you.