Soon after the Ashley Madison details were made public Wednesday, tabloids fell all over each other to find juicy tidbits of hypocrisy and moral corruption — especially of their political enemies. Yesterday afternoon Gawker hit gold, revealing that Josh Duggar, a known pedophile and the reigning king of rightwing hypocrites, had sought extramarital affairs on both Ashley Madison and OKCupid. In no time, the Schadenfreude-giddy blogs were basking in another Duggar scandal. But was it all worth it?
As it turns out, no. The Ashley Madison leaks, as many observers began noting yesterday afternoon, could have real-world, devastating consequences on thousands of users worldwide. When the dust clears, it will be the most vulnerable — LGBT people and women in repressive countries — who will ultimately pay the price, not in snarky Internet comments but through loss of employment, family and in some cases, possibly their lives.
As one anonymous gay man in Saudi Arabia noted on Reddit after the leak was exposed last month:
I am from a country where homosexuality carries the death penalty. I studied in America the last several years and used Ashley Madison during that time. (For those of you who haven't been following the story, Ashley Madison has been hacked and its users' names and addresses are on the verge of being exposed.) I was single, but used it because I am gay; gay sex is punishable by death in my home country so I wanted to keep my hookups extremely discreet.
I only used AM to hook up with single guys. Most of you are Westerners in countries that are relatively liberal on LGBT issues. For those of you who are older–try to think back to a time 10 or 20 years again when homosexuality was intensely stigmatized. Multiply that horrible feeling of stigma by a million, and add the threat of beheading/stoning. That's why I used AM to have discreet encounters…
The idiots who claim I'm lying are projecting from personal experience, and forgetting that, for many gay people around the world, being outed is a life-threatening experience. The risks for us are greater than the risks for married Westerners cheating on their spouses. That's why AM's promise of discretion appeals to us. (Seriously, you think that there are no gay Muslims on there out of 37 million users?)
Even if authorities in these countries don't investigate each case, two things are likely to happen: 1) women will disproportionately be punished, as they typically are in such cases; and 2) the use of this information for the purposes of blackmail will become, if it hasn't already, its own cottage industry. With over 30 million users, the average person exposed in the hack probably won't be outed by the media, but rather enterprising and resourceful blackmailers who know who to target. As Business Insider noted:
This is especially concerning when you consider the nature of some of the members of Ashley Madison (…) one initial analysis of the hack found more than 15,000 US military and government email addresses in the dump.
As such, this doesn't just affect the members themselves — it also affects anyone who works with them, or relies on them.
Public shaming aside, let's break down who we know might be at risk legally, by sheer law of averages. LGBT, women, and to a lesser extent, straight male adulterers in the following countries:
The BBC reported that over 1,200 users have .sa email domains. Not only is adultery illegal in Saudi Arabia, it's punishable by death. Though death sentences for adultery are exceedingly rare, the exposure of this crime can lead to lesser charges and social shaming. Homosexuality and cross-dressing can also lead to imprisonment, fines, corporal punishment, capital punishment, and whipping/flogging.
1,450 accounts from Turkey have been found. While homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, it can get one kicked out or banned from military service. Adultery, while not illegal, does carry great moral shame that disproportionately affects women.
53 accounts with a .qa domain have been exposed. Homosexual relationships are illegal in Qatar, punishable by up to five years in prison. Adultery is punishable by 100 lashes and when the woman is Muslim and the man is not, the woman can be put to death. Again, these punishments are rare but they are a real threat.
Consider that in over 75 countries homosexuality is illegal, exposing one to prison time, and in some cases, death. Here's a map:
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