As I logged onto the Ashley Madison website I fought the urge to look over my shoulder to make sure that no one was watching. After all, what married person would want to be discovered perusing a site that advertises itself as “the most famous name in infidelity and married dating” and “the most successful website for finding cheating partners,” promising its clients “100 percent discreet service”? A murmured “It’s only for research purposes, darling,” might sound rather lame in the face of a computer screen displaying the image of a subtly provocative young woman holding an index finger to her pursed lips, wedding ring prominently displayed, and a legend that reads: “Life is short.
Have an affair.”
What aroused my (strictly professional) curiosity was “High Court to hear petition over website that facilitates adultery” (The Jerusalem Post, June 3, 2015).
AshleyMadison.com – a $90 million business that claims some 36,185,000 members worldwide – arrived in Israel last year and is now seeking to be allowed to advertise on Israeli TV and radio. The move is opposed by Nir Schwecki, CEO of Israel’s Second Authority for Television and Radio, who holds that the website acts as “a platform” for infidelity, an encouragement to enter adulterous situations that could lead to families being destroyed.
In August the High Court will have to determine whether the website’s advertising on our broadcast media would or would not constitute the soliciting of “sexual services” – a legal and moral question over which each side’s lawyers will battle.
One of the main contentions of AshleyMadison.com founder Noel Biderman is that the sheer number of active Israeli members of his website is tantamount to a democratic vote by Israelis who desire his product.
Statistics show, he says, that his (forgive the term) penetration of the Israeli market has been more rapid than in any other country besides Japan.
In a more general vein, he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity: “I’m at the cutting edge of what society needs.” Monogamy is probably on its last legs, he commented to another interviewer.
Far from bristling at the charge that his website acts as a promoter of infidelity, he argues that providing such a platform is important.
“It’s not creating cheaters,” he protests, “but servicing a need that exists” for men and women who are unhappy with aspects of their marriages. By providing an outlet for those individuals, he claims, his website can actually save some marriages.
He emphasizes that unlike other dating sites, Ashley Madison is very open about being aimed at married people, and thus singles are far less likely to enter into a relationship with someone they are wrongly led to believe is free.
A 2012 episode of Lifechangers, a daytime talk show on American TV hosted by addiction specialist “Dr Drew,” featured a young woman who had joined AshleyMadison.com and was dating a series of married men. She insisted that she was fulfilling her needs at that time in her life while not causing any harm to the wives and families of the men she dated.
It was interesting to read the YouTube talkbacks to the show. While some viewers validated the woman’s behavior – or at least empathized with the fact that her partner of 16 years had died, leaving her devastated and fearful of suffering further emotional loss – many more were contemptuous of the married men who used the website to find extramarital partners.
“I am married,” wrote one talkbacker. “Things get boring, life gets rocky. But I don’t cheat. Not because I am afraid of getting caught, but because I would know in my heart that I have lied and deceived my best friend. If your partner isn’t your best friend, then maybe you should end the relationship.”
A male talkbacker, addressing the website directly, said he felt “sick inside when I’m put through the torture of watching one of your ashley madison [sic] ads. I feel like I need to go for a shower just to wash away the residue of general ickiness it leaves behind.
“There are ways to keep a marriage going and to keep love in your heart,” offered another, adding that doing so “takes strength and courage, and it’s a life full of lessons and love.”
A panel of us psychologists, interviewed about extramarital relationships in the context of the success of the Ashley Madison website, said that while a taboo still existed around the idea of having affairs, it was “much more common than in the past.”
Nevertheless, they were unanimous in stressing that while an affair may start out with the promise of excitement and even fulfillment, “it absolutely does not work in the end,” to quote one relationship expert. “Whether guilt eats you alive, or later your spouse finds out and it tears your relationship apart, the bottom line is that honesty is, in the end, the best policy.”
The notion that having an affair will “help my marriage” is a delusion, a false reality, said another expert, adding that the problem with a website like Ashley Madison is that “it gives a patina of legitimacy to infidelity. Young people are going to be saying, ‘It’s the new normal.’” The magazine Redbook sent a couple of reporters, one male, one female, “undercover” to Ashley Madison to explore the “whys behind the guys” who were doing the cheating. The woman reporter came away with an insight that many people might find counterintuitive: “Men were looking for... an emotional connection,” she reported back. “They wanted the thrill of that new passing-notes-inschool relationship; they wanted... a kind of romance....”
So much for the conviction that what drives men to a website such as Ashley Madison is exclusively the search for extramarital sex.
Women need to internalize that their husbands or partners may need emotional validation and romance as much they do, and act on it. That could consolidate a marriage, and might even go surprisingly far in helping to save one that is in trouble.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the seventh commandment in the Bible, and believers might find that injunction sufficient to keep them in the fold when the marital going gets tough. For many in the modern Western world, however, the Bible does not exert the moral force it once did, and it is likely that few would-be adulterers give its commandments even a passing thought.
Yet it seems to me that anyone who sees themselves as essentially decent would shun a website like Ashley Madison, however alluringly it presents itself. In boasting about its 36,185,000 “anonymous” members; in assuring prospective clients of “discreet encounters”; in claiming to have won the “Trusted Security Award” (whatever that is), it is saying, though not in so many words: “Ashley Madison offers you, for a price, the opportunity to live a lie. When you become a member, you will remain anonymous and so can seem loyal and trustworthy in the eyes of the person you chose to be your partner and best friend, appearing to keep your marriage vows intact while sharing your body, and perhaps your heart, with others.
“When you look in the mirror you’ll see a fraud and a trickster – but, what the hell, life is short. Happy hunting!”