"Life is short. Have an affair."
That’s the slogan of the Ashley Madison dating service, a Web site for people who want to cheat on their partners. That’s right, unlike traditional Internet dating sites -- where you’re expected to say you’re unattached no matter what the truth is -- Ashley Madison is honest about its duplicity. Unlike match.com, with its married interlopers, Ashley Madison isn’t about to break the hearts of innocent singles who only want to live happily ever after with someone who loves Elvis Costello as much as they do. And although its mission can be perceived as very wrong (for the record: cheating is bad!), the fact that it claims 3.2 million members suggests that it’s also doing something right.
For starters, the commercials are hilarious. One television spot shows a glamorous couple in the throes of passion. A title card reads, "This couple is married ... but not to each other." In another ad, a man retreats to the sofa to escape his obese, snoring wife while a voice-over declares, "Most of us can recover from a one-night stand with the wrong woman, but not when it’s every night for the rest of our lives."
The ads, as well as the slogan, were written by the company’s 37-year-old founder and chief executive, Noel Biderman, a former attorney, sports agent and self-described happily married father of two who started the company in 2001.
I met up with Biderman, who is from Toronto, last week at a Los Angeles television station where he was a guest on the morning news. Despite much hand flapping and righteous indignation from the hosts (even the weatherman wanted in on the questioning), Biderman calmly suggested that because many members are in sexless marriages but don’t actually want to leave their spouses, the company "preserves more marriages than we break up." He added that the most sign-ups occur around New Year’s and that, ahem, Los Angeles is the company’s biggest market.
When I talked to him after the broadcast, Biderman, whose mild-mannered comportment belies the seediness of his enterprise, explained that in hard economic times, a lot of people who’ve been planning a divorce suddenly cannot afford one. The money-saving solution? Seek carnal comfort in others. He also made an analogy between his extramarital dating service and handing out condoms to teens.
"Some people say it promotes promiscuity," he said. "But if you don’t do it, you get behavior that’s way more harmful to society. Infidelity has been around a lot longer than Ashley Madison."
He believes that hearing about the service in a commercial is not going to persuade anyone to have an affair. "It’s a decision they’ve come to already. All I’m saying is, don’t do it in the workplace where it could result in someone losing their job, don’t go to a singles dating service and lie about your status, don’t hire a prostitute. Given that affairs are going to happen no matter what, maybe we should see Ashley Madison as a safe alternative."
And just who is Ashley Madison? Is she the steamy love child of Laura Ashley and a Dolly Madison chocolate Zinger? Is she Heidi Fleiss with a Daughters of the American Revolution name? Alas, she doesn’t exist. In an effort to attract women to the site, Biderman and his colleagues combined two of today’s most popular baby names and invented their fictional proprietor.
By tracking information provided on user profiles, Biderman has been able to learn quite a bit about his clients, even if he doesn’t know their real names. Seventy percent are men, he says; among those who are "active" members (sign-up is free but you must purchase credits to interact with others), the male-to-female ratio is 1-1. The majority of the men, who tend to be in their late 30s to early 40s, are married. The women, who skew a bit younger, fall into three categories: the suburban housewife "who is seeking validation of her desirability"; the "quintessential mistress" who is not interested in a family life but wants things like trips and dinners out; and women who’ve been married only a short time and suddenly wonder what they got themselves into.
The company put me in touch with a "quintessential mistress" named Jackie (at least she wanted to be named Jackie for the purposes of this column) who professes total satisfaction with Ashley Madison. A self-described "very fit and attractive" 43-year-old college graduate who lives in Beverly Hills and works in real estate, she says she values her independence too much to pursue a conventional relationship. Of all the dating sites she’s tried, Ashley Madison has worked out the best for her. (It can’t hurt that the site sometimes offers free points to members who will talk to the media.)
"A few weeks ago, I had a fantastic meeting with someone who’s been married for 15 years and has three children," Jackie said. "I met him at the Four Seasons on Friday night and we met up again Saturday morning and went to Vegas for two days. I didn’t really care that the guy’s married. He has no desire to leave his family, and I have no desire for a commitment. So it’s ideal."
What’s that furious clacking sound I hear? Is it the sound of apoplectic readers typing irate e-mails about the subject of this column? Or is it the sound of people signing on to Ashley Madison?
Or is it the sound of divorce lawyers lowering their fees? Maybe some good can come of this after all.
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.