Religious people with more sex guilt are more likely to demonize victims of the Ashley Madison hack, according to new research.
The Ashley Madison website facilitates adulterous relationships. The website was hacked in 2015, exposing the personal information of millions of people around the world.
The new study, published in The Journal of Social Psychology, examined how Christians in the United States viewed victims of the hack.
“For many years now, Jana and I have been interested in the way that people’s religious beliefs and identification influence how they think and feel about sex,” said Brien K. Ashdown of Hobart & William Smith Colleges, one of the authors of the study.
“We think that too often, the relationship between religion and sex is portrayed as a simple, two-variable, one-directional process. Our previous research has shown that this relationship is more complex, including variables such as sex guilt and political ideology, for example.”
“When the Ashley Madison hack happened, we realized this was a great chance to explore how people’s own religiosity and sex guilt influenced the way they felt about other people’s sexual behavior. Or, rather, other people’s perceived sexual behavior,” Ashdown told PsyPost.
The study of 187 self-identified Christian participants found that participants with higher levels of sex guilt were likely to demonize Ashley Madison users, as well as the website’s owners and the people responsible for hacking it.
People who agreed with statement such as “When I have sexual dreams I try to forget them” and disagreed with statements like “When I have sexual desires I enjoy them like all healthy human beings” tended to also endorse statements demonizing Ashley Madison.
The researchers also found that increased religiosity predicted greater demonization, but only because increased religiosity was associated with greater sex guilt.
Political conservatism was also linked to the demonization of both Ashley Madison users and the owners — but not the hackers.
“People often think that when something bad happens to someone, that we calmly think and simply use our morals to make judgments. But, that is not how our brains actually operate,” explained co-author Jana M. Hackathorn of Murray State University.
“The way we think and feel about sex is influenced by a lot of different things, such as our religious identification and how much guilt we experience when engaging in or thinking about sex,” Ashdown added. “We tend to want questions about human behavior to have one cause and one effect, but that just isn’t the case.”
“For this particular situation, I think it’s really important to think about how the ways that we feel and think about our own sex attitudes and behavior (that is, our own sex guilt) has a pretty strong influence on how we judge other people based on their perceived sexual behavior.”
However, the research has some caveats.
“There’s a pretty strong social norm against infidelity and non-monogamy in most Western societies, and yet this is exactly the type of behavior Ashley Madison was facilitating. So perhaps it makes sense that people would be more likely to demonize the users of the website,” Ashdown told PsyPost.
“An important follow up question would be, then, whether people with higher amounts of sex guilt about their own behavior tend to have harsher (more negative) perceptions of other people’s sexual behaviors and attitudes when those behaviors aren’t as aggressively shunned by society.”
“I think it is also important to point out that victim blaming occurs, but many people don’t realize that they do it. In some instances, it is very obvious that victim blaming is occurring,” Hackathorn told PsyPost.
“For example, rape is the most commonly used situation in victim blaming research. However, there are other situations where it is so nuanced that we don’t realize that victim blaming is occurring.
“In the Ashley Madison hack, people had very strong, negative opinions about the victims of the hack, due to the fact that they were potentially engaging in ‘immoral’ behaviors,” Hackathorn added. “It’s this slight twist that allowed for the perfect opportunity to look at how our own attitudes toward sex can affect how we judge others, even if they are the victims. I think this was an important addition to the literature for that reason.”
The study, “Scandalous: Christian identification, sex guilt, and the mediated demonization of the participants in the AshleyMadison scandal“, was authored by Brien K. Ashdown, Jana M. Hackathorn and Jordan Daniels.