Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
During my junior year of college, I was broke, hungry, and officially sick of living off financial aid refund checks. So one morning around 4 a.m., after eating nothing but Cheerios for two days and waking up starving for a decent meal, I signed up for SeekingArrangement.com, a social media site of sorts that features many wealthy men seeking out younger girls to “take care of” financially. Some of my friends had signed up for the site and bragged to me about paid cellphone bills, shopping allowances, and fancy dinners. I imagined the worst-case scenario would be an awkward (but free!) dinner out.
But before I contacted a single potential patron or even officially finished the sign-up process, my shyness and trepidation won out, and I never even ended up completing my profile. Cut to nearly two years later, and I’m still receiving daily emails from the website telling me to check out my new matches.
Since I very recently secured a great post-grad job, I figured now was the time to unsubscribe from this sort of thing. Imagine my shock when I went to the homepage and recognized a face among the suggested profiles: a very close friend’s father. From what little I know about her parent’s relationship, they both seem happy, and—more important—monogamous. I felt pretty confident that my friend’s mother was unaware that her husband had registered an account on a site like that.
So the question is, what do I do with this information?!?
This is a hulking ethical burden, and my heart truly goes out to you! For those of us without a morally punitive streak, information of this sort—i.e., likely evidence of a betrayal—is only an affliction of the conscience. A bit of petty gossip is all well and good (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but you were simply minding your own business, attempting to erase an ill-fated effort at monetizing your wiles (a girl’s gotta eat), when suddenly you were stricken with the sort of revelation one would generally prefer not to know. You cannot return to the Garden of Eden, of course, but with a little good judgment and strength of character, you can get out of this relatively unscathed, and with your conscience clean!
As a precaution, I would at first advise you not to assume you know what’s going on—there are a number of explanations that would exonerate the man. It is possible this account was created during a period of marital separation, and your friend’s father simply never closed it. (After all, how long did it take you to close yours?) And are you absolutely sure he had a profile hosted by the site? It is possible that the website doesn’t display actual profile photos on the front page, but instead aggregates local photos from around the internet for preview. (It wouldn’t be a particularly discreet service if you could see profiles on the front page, right?) It’s also entirely possible that your friend’s parents actually do swing; you really never do know what goes on behind closed doors. This is not to say that you should delude yourself into denial by ignoring both your instincts and the most obvious explanation, but it’s always good to leave room for the possibility of a misunderstanding. Regardless, the fact that a recognizable photo of this man was so easily discovered means your friend’s family is at the very least at risk of some kind of unwanted exposure. There aren’t many families who would want their neighbors or coworkers scrolling past their very own paterfamilias on SeekingArrangement.com, so it’s entirely understandable that you might want to intervene.
You actually have quite a few options here, all of which are somewhat dependent on your ability to assess the characters of the parties involved. You are also entitled, of course, to do absolutely nothing. Really, that is an option that you should consider if you haven’t already. Looking the other way can be both a very liberating and altruistic move, especially if you honestly believe that disclosure could do more harm than good. But since you’ve come to me, you’re likely looking to unload your millstone, so let’s start with your most personal connection.
• You can talk to your friend about this. This is . . . incredibly tricky. On the one hand, as a close friend she’s obviously the person you know best in this situation, and likely the best person to decide what to do with the information. On the other hand, she might not want to know. Do you know if she’d want to know? Is she an I’d-rather-not-know kind of person? Can you fish for her feelings on the general subject of knowing versus not-knowing without arousing her suspicions? Would it unnecessarily hurt her and/or her mother or her family for her to know? These are complicated judgment calls that are entirely contingent on both your friendship and the disposition of your friend. If you find the risk too high, there are certainly more direct routes.
• You can talk to the father. Disarranged, may I recommend an anonymous email here? You do not have to risk ruining your relationship with your friend’s family in order to inform this man that it appears his behavior is not only perfidious, but indiscreetly so, placing both his marriage and his wife’s pride at serious risk. If you do this, keep your moral judgment in check—you are not some anonymous, scarlet-letter brandishing, puritanical email terrorist; you simply want to see that humiliation is avoided and infidelity is . . . ceased? Renounced? Confessed? This is where it gets sticky, as you’ve no idea what this man’s wife would want. Not only would you be advocating for her without her knowledge, you would also have no way of knowing if this man actually followed through on your advice. If he is a duplicitous sort, he might just lie to you about a nonexistent open marriage or a confession. He might continue this same modus operandi on another essentially public website. Of course, if you can’t trust him, you can always go straight to the most pointedly interested party, to wit:
• You can talk to the mother. Again, Disarranged, consider anonymity here, this time for her sake. I’m betting no one wants to be informed of their husband’s likely unfaithfulness by their daughter’s friend. There is pride at stake here, and a sympathetic, non-judgmental tone can go a long way. It might also help to say that you don’t know anything about their marriage or judge them in any way—that it could all be a huge misunderstanding for all you know. At the same time, though, you should stress that this is easily discoverable information, and you don’t want to see anyone scandalized.
I know none of these is a particularly easy choice, but I suspect you’ve the discernment and compassion to make the right one. Just remember that the goal here is not to punish or condemn wrongdoings (or rather, “alleged wrongdoings,” as the case may be), but to prevent harm. Restrict your involvement as much as possible, focus on the welfare of the parties involved, and know that you can’t control the outcome of the situation. Good luck, Disarranged, and for the love of god, if you haven’t already, delete that profile! It sounds like everyone—and their mother—can find it!