I remember it like yesterday, even though it wasn’t. The nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not being sure what to say to him. Feeling out of my depth. After all, he was the Attorney-General.
Strangely, this was the memory prompted when the Ashley Madison affair came to light this last week.
For those fortunate enough to have been out of internet range this week, Ashley Madison – the website which existed to promote and facilitate extra-marital affairs – was hacked and the personal details of account holders released. Cue conflicting emotions. It was intriguing to see, given it is usually de rigueur to scoff at sexual fidelity yet it appeared the media found it impossible to ignore the apparent delicious irony of cheaters being cheated. People were embarrassed. At least one had her heart broken on live radio, to the later regret of radio announcers.
Ashley Madison, whose tagline is “Life is short. Have an affair” was scathing of the actions of the hackers, releasing a statement that said the hackers had appointed themselves as “the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society”.
Their statement continued, “These are illegitimate acts that have real consequences for innocent citizens who are simply going about their daily lives.”
Much like affairs.
Which brings me back to the Attorney-General. I had made an appointment to visit him. He was my local Member and his government was proposing that prostitution be decriminalised. Taking up my democratic responsibility, I went to express my view. He may have considered it a perfunctory meeting, one to ‘get through’ with a young local constituent. I was still a teenager and just able to vote. He was relatively dismissive and told me that if this was an arrangement between two consenting adults and doesn’t affect anyone else, he saw no reason for the purchase of sex to be criminalised.
My response surprised me, and it certainly surprised him.
“But what if a man visits a prostitute and gets a sexually transmitted infection, which he then passes on to his wife? That would affect her, and quite possibly, their children.”
He had no answer for me.
Of course, knowing what I now know, I could have provided him with many other reasons including the way such an industry contributes to the objectification of women, places vulnerable women at risk and creates demand factors which increase sexual trafficking.
Yet all I had was a simple question for the chief law officer of the State, and it was the first time I saw the empty platitudes of the sexual revolution laid bare before me.
“If it doesn’t affect anyone else.”
Except it does.
None of us are perfect, and demonising people who have made mistakes or otherwise is the antithesis of the just, compassionate society I want to build and live in. Similarly, wandering around denying reality, in our parliaments, the public square and our personal conversations, does none of us any good.
Ashley Madison may consider that the release of information will ‘have real consequences for innocent citizens who are simply going about their daily lives’ but so do the actions they promote.
Take just one consequence of multiple sexual partners, being the transmission of sexually transmitted infections which cannot be entirely prevented by condom use. In Australia, STI rates are climbing significantly. In 2011, approximately 80,800 chlamydia infections were reported, a sixfold increase since notifications started 16 years earlier. There’s a cost to treatment, and unless we are advocating an entirely private health system then the financial cost of our ‘private behaviour’ is borne by our neighbours. 2012 figures from the UK indicate that such costs are significant, with sexually transmitted infections estimated to cost the taxpayer, via the National Health Service, more than £1 billion per year.
Ashley Madison was right about two things – life is short, and actions have consequences. We cannot live only for ourselves for we are intertwined in community both visible and hidden.
It’s a reminder that everything I do has consequences. Choices that are my own to make resonate beyond my horizon. What I do with my money, the way I steward or waste natural resources, the ethics of my consumption, interactions I have with the stranger at the check out when I’m tired or frustrated, whether I speak up for the vulnerable. It all affects someone else.
Our choices are made as individuals but their consequences are felt by communities. We do well not to live for ourselves alone, and to remind each other of this truth when we forget. For while the frailty of human nature may mean a heathy, flourishing society will never be perfectly attained, I’d rather aspire towards such a goal together than abandon it absolutely.