And while exposing the identities of clients of Ashley Madison is powerful — potentially putting relationships and reputations at risk — it's the public disclosure of secret sexual fantasies that's the stuff of nightmares.
It should be a wakeup call for us all. It's only the beginning of the personal information and private sexual fantasies hackers could make public. Anyone who has watched porn online, or searched their fantasies on Google or posted a fetish on FetLife or joined an online dating site is at risk.
We all have sexual fantasies. Research shows that it is unusual to have no fantasies of a sexual kind, but overwhelmingly we'd prefer to keep our fantasies to ourselves. No one wants to be an open book.
Our awkward approach to sex in many western countries means that we often take on a large side-serving of guilt along with the main course of learning about sex and becoming sexually active.
Studies have shown that around a quarter of us experience strong guilt about our sexual fantasies, believing that fantasising is immoral, uncommon, and shows that something is wrong with us, our sexual development, or our relationships.
A sexual fantasy is a sexually arousing or erotic mental image. Your sexual fantasies may be based on memories of something that actually happened to you, something you saw in a movie, or heard about from a friend. You might fantasise about something you did last night, or something you would like to do if you found a partner willing to do it with you.
You might fantasise about real people or activities, or something completely fanciful that you would never consider doing in reality. In fact, you may find some situations or activities to be erotic in fantasy but repugnant or boring in real life.
Published this year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, a survey of 1516 Canadian adults examined the prevalence of 55 sexual fantasies. Common fantasies often involve reliving an exciting sexual experience or imagining having sex of different kinds, with a current partner, a person who is not a current partner, or even a complete stranger.
In the survey 83% of men and 66% of women reported that they had fantasised about having sex with someone they knew who was not their current partner or spouse.
So, leaving aside the question of whether or not you would actually sign up to a "cheating" website, we can say with some degree of certainty that the fantasy of having an affair is a common one.
Fantasies may be informed by our experiences but it's important to note that fantasies are not the same as our actual wishes or behaviours. Fantasies, even if they are very intense or common, are not necessarily good indicators of real-life interests.
The Canadian study showed, for example, that while many women said they fantasised about being dominated by a sexual partner, far fewer said they would actually like to experience this in real life. So 50 Shades of Grey might fuel fantasy, but is unlikely to work well as a sex manual.
What is particularly relevant for the Ashley Madison case is that we are unlikely to tell anyone about our sexual fantasies, and also unlikely to act on them.
The important thing about a fantasy is that we can control it. We can imagine exactly what we would like to occur, with anyone, anywhere. If the fantasy stays in our own heads we can imagine any scenario we like without having to worry about the embarrassment of being discovered, or the rejection of a partner who doesn't find our fantasies erotic. We don't have to cope with social disapproval or legal restrictions.
The Ashley Madison hacking scandal is set to change the way we think about the nature of private sexual fantasies. If we post private information about sexual interests and fantasies online, or use any online platform that might collect explicitly — or infer indirectly — our sexual interests, everything changes.
We are exposed, naked, like the Ashley Madison clients, to the severe consequences of embarrassment and social censure and rejection by our partners. And it might make you just a little bit nervous.
This article first appeared on the NEWS.COM.AU website
Image Credit; Getty Images
Media; Catherine Garrett 9479 6565 / 0418 964 325