To twist the classic Tolstoyan aperçu: all good relationships are alike; but each bad relationship is screwed up in its own way. The reasons why people might betray their marriage vows of sexual and emotional fidelity are legion: disabilities, sexual dysfunctions, state prohibitions against certain kinds of sexual behaviour, marriages - whether chosen, forced or arranged - that have turned sour, or simply boredom may all come into play. To condemn extra-marital infidelity with no knowledge of the context - of the 'full story' - is moralism, pure and simple. 'Cheating' is a phenomenon to be figured out by those who are directly involved in a relationship. Unless invited to do otherwise, the rest of us should, quite frankly, butt out.
But we don't. Even as we condemn them, we relish peeking in on the sexual transgressions of others, as the popularity of celebrity sex scandals or the hidden-camera TV reality documentary Cheaters suggests. In fact, the widespread use of the juvenile term 'cheating' - which implies that an illicit path has been followed towards a desirable end - is indicative of the tremendous confusion and hypocrisy in our attitudes towards sexual behaviour.
As Glenn Greenwald writes, the media responses and public reactions to the recent data hack of the 'extra-marital affairs' website Ashley Madison suggest that little has changed in Western attitudes towards bedswerving since the days of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Greenwald notes some of the ways in which the media have been facilitating public access to the hacked data. Public reactions to the hack, meanwhile, run from prurience to physical violence, as reports of suicides and revenge crimes begin to surface. Conceivably, some people whose names appeared in the hacked data may even face the death penalty, since adultery is illegal in some countries. And yet the hackers, as I understand it, will face no repercussions. Contrast this with the fate of Chelsea Manning, whose hacking activities helped to reveal the depredations of US military power and who is now languishing in prison for her 'crimes' - possibly for the rest of her life.
We are, it seems, incorrigibly puritanical stickybeaks. Increasingly, as Michel Foucault argued in his History of Sexuality, we have come to regard sexuality as our ontological foundation - the very essence of our social and moral identity. Little wonder, then, that we tend to overrate the importance of sexual behaviour in our moral reckoning. As the Ashley Madison story broke, I was reading one of several autobiographical works by the largely forgotten British writer Ethel Mannin. Confessions and Impressions was written, precociously enough, when Mannin was barely 30 years old. By comparison with her engaging novels, Mannin's non-fictional writing is mostly rather trite; but here Mannin - writing in 1930 no less - makes the sharp point that morality is often equated with sexual conformity. Bemoaning 'English' hypocrisy and 'humbug', she notes that
"Our code of morality is exclusively concerned with sex; when we talk of 'immorality' we mean a deviation from the sex code; with the larger immoralities of hypocrisy and pretence and spiritual dishonesty we are not concerned. We have reduced morality as we have reduced passion to a question of sexual ethics"
Indeed. How many deeply unpleasant people present themselves - and are regarded by others - as 'moral', simply on the basis of their conformity to a conventional sexual code (a code that has always been mobilized by the bourgeoisie for purposes of social control)? This is not to say, of course, that sexual infidelity is always, or even often, justifiable; but humanity is, to quote Goethe, 'mixed and erring' and our zeal for making absolute judgements about the sex lives of others is symptomatic of a shrunken ethical sensibility.