Living out in the sticks of Western Massachusetts as I do, there are only about 40 women on the dating site I'm browsing who meet my criteria. They all live within 20 miles of me, and range in age from 24 to 60. All are married or attached, and looking for something other than what they have at home. Few have photos available, for obvious reasons. Online Dating In 8 Simple Steps
There is Jams1*, 24: Well-behaved women seldom make history… I may come off as a bitch, but I know exactly what it is I'm looking for and I always get what I want.
WordGoddess, 36: Happily married to a wonderful person, but need some fun in my life. I want a hot, no-strings affair… Just pure, clean fun, thank you.
Rover69469, 47, has a photo, but taken at enough of a distance to give her plausible deniability. She's a tall, attractive blonde in beach attire, wearing sunglasses, seated on a bench at a boardwalk. She is a carrying a few extra pounds, by her own estimation. On her profile: PLEASE STOP EMAILING ME, OVER 700 IN 2 DAYS, IT'S MORE LIKELY I WILL FIND YOU AT THIS POINT.
Welcome to AshleyMadison.com, home to 4.5 million practicing or potential adulterers. Your host today is CEO Noel Biderman, King of Infidelity, happily married and father of two. Perhaps you've seen him on television. The Ashley Madison Agency, established in 2001, is far and away the most successful and profitable dating company for people who are married and attached, easily beating out the likes of Affairsclub.com, lonelywivesaffairs.com, and marriedcafe.com. According to those who hold fidelity in marriage as among the highest of moral virtues, Biderman is a terrible person. To others, he is the guy who is willing to say what we all think: that monogamy isn't for everyone, all the time. And despite all the uproar over the confessed dalliances of David Letterman, Mark Sanford, and whoever is next on the adultery-exposure circuit, Biderman might be right.
One in 10 married men and women have sex with someone who is not their spouse in any given year, according to the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Over the long haul, estimates from various sources say that anywhere from 15 to 40 percent of married adults will have affairs, ranging from one-night stands to long-term relationships that coexist with marriages. Men are still more likely to have sex outside of marriage than are women, but the aggregate data suggest that women are closing the infidelity gap, in every age group. Cheating How-To: Tips From A Mistress
The secret of Ashley Madison's success has been its willingness to make an unabashed public pitch for the married-but-looking demographic, not minding that its strategy would offend far more people than it would appeal to. In fact, Biderman has counted on offending people; the Ashley Madison brand has been spread more by outrage than approval. He has been browbeaten on the Tyra Banks show. He has had his Super Bowl ad rejected. He has endured being vilified and caricatured as the Enemy of Marriage, all to reach the market that has made Ashley Madison a success: married or attached women who are interested in having affairs and prefer to have them with similarly attached men.
All online dating sites live and die by the number of women they can get to sign up, about 22 percent (800,000) of Ashley Madison subscribers are female—a much higher percentage than other so-called "adult personal" sites like AdultFriendfinder (which is 90 percent male). The numbers aren't as high as Match.com (40 percent) or eHarmony (60 percent), but those sites—in theory—are based on partnering, not stepping out on one's partner.
With an acknowledged extra-marital agenda, it's far easier to get men to sign up for Ashley Madison. The result, Biderman says, is that the Ashley Madison male is "the least choosy" in the dating spectrum. According to Biderman, this non-pickiness is a windfall for women, who have a greater chance of scoring a desirable man. The men on the site "are so maligned (as cheaters), or they believe themselves to be so maligned, that if you could somehow have a scale—let's say they're a six, and they'd usually date a five or six. They are so willing to drop five or six levels for that moment." To Biderman, this is Ashley Madison's best-kept secret. "If somehow I could let that genie out of the bottle… if women really knew how successful they could be on our service vs. any other," Biderman says they'd not be disappointed.
To be fair, women can be much more successful than men on any dating site, but Biderman means that Ashley Madison women will have a lot of men writing to them, wooing them, complimenting them, and wanting them. Yes, any attractive woman who posts a photo can have those results elsewhere, but 700 emails in two days?
The caveat, of course, is that almost all the men will be married or attached. That's a deal-breaker for many women, but obviously not all. Of the 40 or so women on Ashley Madison I'm perusing, about a third would consider a long-term relationship and a third indicate they are undecided about what they want.
How many men and women on AshleyMadison.com are on their way to divorce, with or without the service? Probably a lot, and Biderman doesn't disagree. "Is it wrong to be in communication with men who are thinking about changing their lives?" he asks. "Sixty percent of women who aren't married say that the man they're with now is not marriage material. And almost 70 percent believe that the best guys are already taken. You combine those two factors, and…if I was a woman, then why wouldn't I want to be in a place that says behind this door is where most of the guys are who are what you just described: the best guys that are already taken, and who have got a good chance of coming unhitched soon?" What Kind Of Guys Look For Affairs Online?
Add to that the fact that the women know they're going to be meeting people more likely to be understanding of their own situations and needs, and suddenly Ashley Madison can look like a boon for women, not a bane. Biderman goes so far as to say that the traditional view that women are more likely to be emotionally harmed by infidelity and economically harmed by divorce is paternalistic. And even when it's true, women have a right to options.
He's not alone in his thinking. In 1992, author Dalma Heyek filled The Erotic Silence of the American Wife with what at the time seemed like heresies: stories of women whose lives were not ruined by having affairs. She chronicled women who were not sorry, who were not punished for having sex out of wedlock. Two years later, In Tempted Women: The Passions, Perils and Agonies of Female Infidelity, Carol Botwin called adultery the "fastest growing women's sport" and attributed its increasing popularity, in part, to women having their own jobs, money, power. She called these women "The Groundbreakers." 4 Types Of Infidelity & How Affairs Help Marriage
One can only think that the frequency of extra-marital affairs has increased since then. Today, alongside the inevitable self-help books about how to survive infidelity for those who do not partake, we have Judith Brandt's The 50-Mile Rule: Your Guide to Infidelity and Extramarital Etiquette.
Experts say there are no reliable figures on how many marriages break down as a result of infidelity, and often it is more a symptom of a troubled relationship than the direct cause of divorce. Edivorcepapers.com claims that "17 percent of the divorces have infidelity as their origin." The site also says that "54 percent of married men and 70 percent of married women had no knowledge of the extramarital activities of their married partners." Are these accurate numbers? I don't know. They sound like good guesses, anyway. Why I Cheated
Biderman doesn't think Ashley Madison should take the blame. "If my partner were to cheat on me, the last thing I would do would be to blame an inanimate object, blame the cell phone that the people spoke on or the hotel for letting them to meet there. I wouldn't blame the guy who even went ahead and seduced or met with my wife. That's part of human nature and ultimately, while I could be angry, frustrated, sad and all those emotions, I don't think I would blame her. I think that if you want to understand how and why things happen to you in this world, you've got to take a look in the mirror. You can blame Ashley Madison, but that's like saying we invented infidelity. And that's giving us way more credit than we deserve."
And, in fact, Ashley Madison's director of customer service, Mary Jane Oliver, believes that Ashley Madison might actually prevent some infidelity, by providing a virtual environment for people to test the waters.
"Sometimes people think they want to do something and then they realize that no, they don't really," she says.
In my case, I enjoy scanning the listings, imagining possible encounters, but for me too Ashley Madison is more deterrent than facilitator. Out and about in regular life, I feel, as a 52-year-old single man, like something of a desirable commodity; the power is on my side. On Ashley Madison, I'm just part of the herd, chasing after one of the few females. The odds aren't in my favor. I think my chances are better sticking to the bar or the produce section of the supermarket. Cheating Myths Debunked
* Screen names have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.
Jeff Schult is a journalist and author living in Haydenville, Mass. Into Temptation: The Armies of the New Sexual Revolution, is his next book. The blog for the book is at: www.intotemptation.net.
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