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[Love & Dating Issue]

Ashley Madison and the state of affairs

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Ashley Madison founder Noel Biderman … and friends
Lynn Comella

You may have seen the commercial. An attractive couple makes a beeline for the bed, stripping off their clothes as they go. They embrace, kiss and become entangled in each other’s bodies. As the steamy scene unfolds, text scrolls across the screen: “This couple is married … but not to each other.”

It’s an ad for Ashley Madison, an online dating service for married people seeking affairs. The company’s tag line is nothing if not memorable: “Life is short, have an affair.”

Founded in 2001, Ashley Madison has more than 8 million members worldwide, with a new member joining, remarkably, every seven seconds. The website serves nine countries and three languages. In the greater Las Vegas area alone, it boasts 50,000 members. Think about that for a second. Approximately one in 40 area residents—some of whom may be your friends, colleagues or even your romantic partner—are looking for no-strings-attached relationships with people who are not their spouses.

Infidelity has made Ashley Madison’s founder, Noel Biderman, 39, a very wealthy, albeit controversial, man. He’s been called a pimp and a pornographer, and has been compared to a drug dealer who knowingly destroys people’s lives and marriages.

Biderman doesn’t shy away from the controversy that Ashley Madison generates. He embraces it, not only for its marketing potential, but for the opportunities it presents to add his voice to public discussions about marriage and infidelity. He’s appeared on Larry King Live, sat alongside the women of The View and debated Fox’s Sean Hannity, all in an effort, as he puts it, to “recalibrate notions about why people stray and what it means.”

Biderman, who describes himself as a happily married father of two, got the idea to create a dating service for married people after learning that 30 percent of people who visit dating sites intended for singles are attached. And, although technically not a dating site, recent reports indicate that Facebook is now being cited in more and more divorce proceedings. In Britain, a law firm specializing in divorce contends that one in five divorce petitions filed in the last year named Facebook as a mitigating factor.

Biderman recognized that an untapped and potentially lucrative market existed for married people seeking affairs, and set out to create a social networking platform explicitly for them. “What’s wrong with giving people access to a community of like-minded people?” he asks.

Biderman approaches the topic of infidelity as both a savvy businessman and an amateur sociologist. He spent nearly a year and $200,000 on research before launching the site, and delved into literature on monogamy and infidelity, reading as much and as widely as he could in order to learn about the biological, evolutionary and cultural roots of infidelity.

“My biggest challenge when I did research,” he tells me, “was that I couldn’t find any evidence that women had affairs.”

Despite this void, Biderman knew that many women did, in fact, stray—it takes two to tango, after all—and, as he puts it, “it is not in our DNA to be monogamous.”

While he was confident men would use the site, Biderman focused on building a brand that would appeal to women. There is nothing accidental about the name Ashley Madison, or the fact that the website’s colors are pink and purple.

So who, exactly, uses Ashley Madison’s services? The ratio of men to women on the site is two to one, with slight dips and increases across different age groups. The primary users are married men in sexless relationships and men who find their stride later in life and are looking to meet younger women. According to Biderman, there are also a number of young married women on the site, some of whom have been married less than a year.

The meaning of marriage and infidelity has changed over time, Biderman explains. Younger people in particular are less willing to settle for relationships that leave them feeling emotionally and sexually unsatisfied. Biderman himself says he “would” use his own service, though he didn’t specify whether he already has.

Interestingly enough, Ashley Madison typically sees an uptick in new members the day after Valentine’s Day. For a number of people who don’t get what they want from their partners on this high-pressure holiday­—be it flowers, gifts, sex or affection—it’s the last straw, Biderman says. They wake up the next day, take stock of their relationship and decide to take a meaningful step toward meeting someone who might bring them more happiness.

“Nobody can be talked into having an affair,” Biderman tells me. “No one is going to watch my commercials and suddenly get the idea to cheat. Life takes them there, not my commercials.”

This was certainly the case with Morgan, an attractive 40-something married woman from Las Vegas who preferred not to use her real name for this story. Morgan set up a profile on Ashley Madison to meet other women shortly after she and her husband decided to be non-monogamous several years ago. In fact, it was Morgan’s husband of 12 years who told her about the site.

“I wasn’t looking for anything serious,” Morgan tells me, “which is why it was such a good fit, because there’s an understanding that people are already in relationships. I liked that there was this upfront understanding.”

She was surprised to find many women looking for other women on the site, as well as couples looking for women with which to have threesomes. “It didn’t feel like a meat market, although it was,” she explains, saying that Ashley Madison managed to feel inviting rather than sleazy or distasteful. And although Morgan didn’t “hook up” with any of the women she met online—due largely to geographic distance—the almost daily attention she received was a real ego boost.

Morgan and her husband are still married, and their relationship is stronger than ever. “We’ve realized that our friendship is very, very deep. We very much support whatever will make the other person happiest. And we truly mean that.”

She scoffs at the idea that Biderman is breaking up relationships or causing the downfall of civilization. “Ashley Madison doesn’t create a cheating environment,” she says, shaking her head. “[Biderman] is not ruining people’s marriages; it’s the people in the marriages who are ruining them.”

On this point, Biderman couldn’t agree more. Ashley Madison didn’t invent cheating, he explains. But more than this, cheating doesn’t make someone a bad person; nor does it have to be the end of a marriage. “Infidelity can be a catalyst for change. It can start a conversation. It can save your marriage,” he says with the conviction of a man intent on knocking monogamy off its lofty pedestal.

As for Ashley Madison, business is booming and more growth is in sight. As it turns out, people cheat all over the world. Or as Biderman puts it, “There is no stopping this train.”

Lynn Comella is a women’s studies professor at UNLV.
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