In January 2010, I was driving close to where we live in South London when my five year old son asked; "Daddy what’s a ma-ree-tal affair?" I looked up and saw the huge billboard for a website promising "instant excitement" by cheating on your partner. Its location? Right outside a busy shopping centre.
In raising such issues, it’s easy to find yourself caricatured as a regressive conservative or a naïve puritan. That’s not my background or approach. I’m on the political Left. Most of my work has been with homeless people, including a number of years working in Soho with people involved in the sex industry. And it is this that is the crucible of my concerns about private companies profiting from relational deceit.
The local council referred me to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). A few days later, the ASA wrote back, rejecting my complaint. The advert “did not offend against widely held moral or cultural standards”. So I set up a Facebook group about the advert which quickly gained a momentum that I didn’t expect. Over the course of four days, over 4000 people joined. We organised into a coherent campaign and put pressure on the company which led to the advert’s withdrawal.
Our brief campaign was effective and fun. But we also learnt some important lessons. Firstly, campaigning about adverts is intrinsically difficult because you inevitably end up giving the product more publicity. The people behind the websites know this and courting controversy has become part of marketing strategy. One affairs website even used a picture of Boris Johnson on a billboard.
We learnt that it is more important to focus attention on the larger companies that profit from the websites rather than simply the website itself. These are not small operations – they require sophisticated software and complex systems to operate and cannot run without partnering closely with large corporations.
Global Personals are one such company. They are a successful on-line dating company based in Windsor and run by CEO Ross Williams. They run hundreds of legitimate dating websites which bring people together - but they also choose to operate sites like Marital Affair which help break up relationships.
Understandably, companies like Global Personals do not want to be too closely associated with the more controversial enterprises. They want to quietly make money, not public ethical judgements. This aspect of their work is potentially toxic after all, and that it could infect other parts of their business.
They also enjoy public recognition for their work. Global Personals is currently shortlisted for two National Business Awards. They are due to be presented at a lavish ceremony at Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane on the 8th November where George Osborne, the Chancellor is giving the welcoming address.
But this is a departure for such companies. Cheating is being marketed and encouraged for profit – packaged and sold as yet another product from which to make money. It is commodification - the expansion of profiteering into areas that previously have not been subject to markets. The commodification of sex is of course nothing new - sexualised images sell just about everything and sex itself has been bought and sold since the beginning of time. But this goes further. It is a new trade in cheating and lying.
Campaigning in this territory can be seen as the preserve of a moralising Right wing. But one of the most encouraging aspects of the Faithfulness Matters campaign has been the support of those on the political Left, as referred to in this New Statesman article on the campaign. The Christian Socialist Movement (of which I have been a member for many years) has been one of the key organisations at the heart of the campaign. And it’s because many of the members see the connection between a concern for families and relationships and the fight for social and economic justice. This is a connection too easily lost when we operate within the tired silos of liberal and conservative division – silos which disable a truly radical approach to the problems our country faces.
Our response to these affairs websites should not be rooted in the shallow soil of contemporary moralism. Rather, we need to root our concerns and actions in a radical understanding of what it means to be human: that personhood is fundamentally about relationships with others. Christian theology suggests that our core human identity is found not simply in us as individuals, but when we are in relationship with others. This is rooted in all humanity being made in the image of relational God. A God who is also in a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The liberal victories for personal freedom over the last 200 years have been one of humanity’s greatest achievements but we must recognise and resist the confusion of good liberalism and bad libertarianism. Should the narrative of ‘rights’ and ‘choice’ eclipse the important relational conversation about trust, mutuality and faithfulness?