Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Epistemology of Lies

One of the stable mysteries in sex research involves the differing percentages of men and women (sorry, but the gender variant are too little studied on this topic, so this essay is going to rely on traditional pronouns) who admit to having sex outside of marriage.  In the early 50’s, Alfred Kinsey estimated that about half of men and a quarter of women admitted to extramarital sex.  In the early 90’s, the Janus report suggested a third of men and a quarter of women had strayed.  In 1994, Laumann, Gagnon, Michael and Michaels reported about twice as many men admitted to straying than women.  While the exact percentages of extramarital affairs varies somewhat over time and with differences in the exact wording of survey items across surveys, this discrepancy holds up.  Neither male on male infidelity, nor questions about the numbers of partners men have relative to women explain the discrepancy.  Neither are all the unfaithful males making up the difference with single women.  The difference is not accounted for by homosexual contacts, or a smaller number of women pairing with a larger number of men. The evolutionary theorists have suggested women stray less because it is more in their advantage to retain male partner to share parenting responsibilities, as men can more easily walk away from parenting duties.  Female infidelity goes up when there is a surplus of men, and down when there is a surplus of women.  Scarcity of partners matters.  Infidelity does appear more common in younger people, and in those nearing the end of middle age, which suggests that child rearing does effect straying, however it is not related to the number of offspring in the United States.  Cross culturally, men do report straying more in societies with relatively more marriageable women, and less in societies with a relative shortage of such women.  It also seems that marital infidelity is more openly admitted among younger respondents in more recent studies.  In 2015, a study reported nearly identical rates of infidelity among males and females for the first time.

So who are all those men having sex with?  The conventional wisdom is that men are inclined to exaggerate their promiscuity, and women to minimize it, apparently even on anonymous sex surveys.  Without a magical or questionably unethical and highly intrusive alternate methodology, this hypothesis is not easily tested.  Clearly women do experience burdens related to child rearing and responsibility that do not evaporate even in societies that support reproductive choice.  Demographics also matter.  So do the socially constructed dimensions of gender roles.  There is no single cause.

This propensity for exaggerating and minimizing extramarital activity on surveys pales in comparison with the analysis of the Ashley Madison core dump by technology author Annalee Newitz and published a week ago on Gizmodo.com.  Annalee describes subjecting the Ashley Madison database of some 22 million men and 5.5 million women to data analysis designed to differentiate users’ behavior by gender.  Looking at data fields recording contact attempts and text messaging through Ashley Madison’s site, Annalee suggested that most of the 22 million users are male, and that only about 10,000 of those who created female profiles ever used them even a single time to contact anyone through the site.  While alternative explanations exist for these observed discrepancies, such as real women creating profiles, then dropping, or some systematic corruption of the Ashley Madison data set, she also found evidence of robotic profile creation and sparse but significant employee complaints about phony profile creation.  Huge numbers of men joined a site with virtually one women for every four men at best on it, yet conversed for extended periods over affairs that could not have happened.  And Ashley Madison perpetrated a fraud of epic proportions, even allowing for their warning that ‘some’ of the profiles on their site were for ‘entertainment only.’  Something is rotten in the state of Ashley Madison.

Newitz's sex ratio findings make a mockery of warnings from sophisticated observers like Dan Savage that one had best be careful going to the Ashley Madison hack for information about your husband’s fidelity.  The odds might be many thousands to one that, at worst, he may have intended to be unfaithful but failed to find a partner, and more than likely was engaged in pornographic fantasy with little hope of a relationship.   I also warned of this danger of drawing unjustified conclusions from the data in an earlier post.  But I would never have projected a discrepancy between men and women’s behavior this large.  Perhaps I was warned.

Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam in their study of Internet porn searches, ‘A Billion Wicked Thoughts:  What the Internet Tells Us about Sexual Relationships,’ presaged this result in their efforts to identify the different on-line behaviors of men and women searching for porn.  This can be easily seen by comparing two charts on the top 5 visual porn sites preferred by male and female searchers presented on page 18 of that book.  The top sites searched by those identified as males totaled about 51M searchers a month.  An entirely different top 5 searches from those identified as female totaled about 3M a month.  That very roughly reflects 6% of the male figure.  Ogas and Gaddam also found about 6% of visual porn searches on American On-Line were from self-identified women.  But most of their data were in the range of 20-30% female use relative to men.  But Ashley Madison, while it had picture profiles, was not visual porn.

The female use data as suggested by Newitiz’s analysis of the Ashley Madison user data are so low, it is lower than the likely number of men who joined Ashley Madison pretending to be women to escape the monthly fees.  Joining as another gender might be a barrier to actually meeting, but could facilitate fantasy, checking on the authenticity of others, or even scamming.  It is probably a rational strategy for men who knew from the start that they only wanted to dream about the profiles and weren’t planning to meet anyone.  It is also a lower percentage than the number of 5.5 million women who were kinky, and might have had reasons beyond just wanting a partner who had accepted the necessity an affair in braving the hazards of going on Ashley Madison.  If 1.5% of the women 5.5M women wanted kink, we might have expected 75,000 to 100,000 profiles with contact records, not less than 15,000. 

Finally, I actually know one woman who claimed, long before this fiasco, to have been on Ashley Madison, although she did not share her contact history there with me.    As broad as my circle of friends may be, my profession is somewhat of a lightning rod for sexual discussion of a certain type, the odds aren’t that good that I would know such a woman if there were only 15,000 in the entire country.  But some of my colleagues, also admittedly those most likely to know outliers of this type, claim to know several experienced Ashley Madison users, male and female, who met on-line.  We are, of course, sworn to professional silence about any data we might cull from professional contacts. Suffice it to say, the Gizmodo.com data and my informal reports don’t add up.

Two days ago, however, Newitiz recanted her analysis of the Ashley Madison hacks user fields.  Those empty fields in female profiles didn’t reflect their initiation of contacts with men, but kept data on Ashley Madison’s communications to them.  Ashley Madison was targeting its users with a vigorous program of robotic communications aimed at providing the illusion that sexy women hot for affairs were propositioning them.  The female users’ data fields were empty because with four men on the site or more for every woman, Ashley Madison did not need robotic communication to keep women subscribed to the site.  Only men were charged a monthly re-subscription fee, so Ashley Madison’s robots were focused on men who were looking for female partners.   It is still unknown exactly how many of the female profiles on the site were real women investigating potential affairs.  But it is a fair guess that the absolute upper limit to genuine contacts for heterosexual men was 20-25%, and perhaps way less.  Although Ashley Madison worked pretty much as advertised for women seeking women or men, and for men seeking affairs with men, it was primarily an business model of keeping heterosexual males seeking women strung along paying the monthly fees on a diet of fake profiles and lame propositions programmed by computers with scant possibility of any actual contact.  Most men on the site never had one.

This has a number of alarming implications.  First, how could Ashley Madison, which promised special safety and security to people who wanted to risk breaking social norms, have provided such abysmal service.  Rather than providing good security, they have risked outing tens of millions of people world wide.  Did they ever intend to provide it?  The hack of the company’s internal communications shows an obsession with retaining revenue and customers, not with security.  The site functioned essentially as a gigantic fraud far more deserving of Justice Department attention than Rentboys.com, busted late last week.  For all the good and bad reasons men might have gone on-line seeking extramarital affairs, bilking and hacking them constitute crimes, not condign punishment for social deviance. The Internet world is a very harsh place for people lacking the social skills to protect themselves.  Just when we are confronting men for their social privilege, remember Ashley Madison’s clever hook consisted of robotic invitations like “I’m always up for some kinky chat!”  We are all privileged in some ways, and painfully vulnerable in others.

But that is my original point.  The Ashley Madison hack, like so many other epistemologies, answers only a few questions, raises many new ones, and swirls the murky waters in new ways that obscure some things even as it reveals others.  We are not seeing into the dark hearts of religious conservatives or entitled men in brand new ways that revel unexpected truths.  We are not hearing the death knell of monogamy, but its struggle with changing social contexts.  We are seeing that fantasy is not politically correct because that is not its function.  A lot of guys don’t need the full risks of an affair to get off, and it is worth considering that a whole class of men exists out there which would much prefer the fantasy of an affair to the pleasures and pains of real infidelity.  There might be only modest overlap between the so called ‘cheaters’ on Ashley Madison and men who honestly tell survey researchers that they have had an extramarital affair.

What about Ashley Madison itself?  A number of smart commentators have suggested Ashley Madison might be in for some difficult times in court because the hack reveals that the site’s security promises were ineffective.   The Newitz analysis certainly doesn’t suggest that the site was scrupulous about offering only genuine profiles.  Ashley Madison’s EULA shows genuine foreknowledge that male might experience a dearth of female interest.  What legal vulnerabilities these create will probably be explored.

In the meantime, there are some very clear lessons learned:

Internet security is a functional oxymoron.  You have way less than you think.  Do not do anything here you do not want your worst enemy to know.  Things said on the Internet may have a half life of forever.

People’s reasons for extramarital affairs are very diverse.  They do not reflect simple moral failure or hostility to their spouses, or even proof of a love for the thrillingly illicit.  Someone somewhere has these motivations, but people are not alike simply because we categorize their behavior with the same label.

The immediate corollary is that you don’t know very much about your partner once you find their name in the Ashley Madison hack.  Most men didn’t have affairs, and a good argument could be made that Ashley Madison was a fantasy aid for many, whether they had ever intended to assume the full risks and responsibilities of an actual meeting or not.  Many must have wanted affairs.  Most stayed without getting one.

The moral entrepreneurs who are criticizing the state of American marriage because of this would much prefer to blame people for not following their preferred dogmas.  The evidence of social research suggests dogma is the weakest explanation of why people do and do not stray, and that demographics, social and geographic mobility, and economic changes are more powerful predictors.  Look for lots more ineffective criticism in the future because those genuinely influential factors are growing stronger.

Sex education is hamstrung without media education and affective education.  If we are not going to be cheated by shallow frauds like Ashley Madison, men need to be able to tell the difference between robots inviting them to ever more expensive fantasy sites and conversations with real women.  The bots were not channeling Madame Pompadour and the 18th century courtesans than inhabited salons in the Age of Reason.

Outing people for their sexual conduct is bad.  There is no end here that justifies these means, and the hackers are not heroes, even for exposing Ashley Madison’s corruption.  Two Canadians are alleged to have committed suicide over these disclosures.  I do not know if the hack is the precipitating cause.  But sex shaming is just bullying by privileged means.  If you don’t want people whining about your privilege, use it graciously for genuine good.

2015, Russell J Stambaugh, Ann Arbor, MI. All rights reserved.

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