herald

Monday 23 October 2017

Sex and the web of deceit

Katie Byrne goes incognito to probe the online dating site for cheats, and finds sex is all that is on offer

The rise and rise of online dating means that there is now a dating website for people of every persuasion and proclivity. There's even one for those who already have partners.

Ashley Madison is a website that connects cheats and, according to CEO Noel Biderman, it already has more than 18,000 Irish members. If that shocks you, consider the fact that Biderman will soon be injecting $1m into an Irish marketing campaign in a bid to bring local membership up to 100,000.

"A lot of people told me that Ireland was not crack-able," explains Biderman. "They told me about its religious heritage and the nature of how these kind of things are perceived.

"I said, 'that's a bunch of nonsense'. I heard that about Utah; I heard that about Massachusetts; I heard that about Canada. It's not the case."

He has a reason to be so confident. Despite widespread condemnation, Ashley Madison has more than seven million members worldwide. It recruits a new member every 11 seconds.

Described as a "community of like-minded adults", the site is for people who, despite being in committed relationships, are emotionally or physically unfulfilled.

On the contrary, the website is an unashamed marketplace for no-strings-attached sex. Even the sign-up process is hypersexualised. On typical dating websites, the "perfect match" section lists characteristics such as honesty, loyalty and kindness. On Ashley Madison, it includes high sex drive, discretion/secrecy and "has a secret love nest". After the perfunctory height/weight/ body-type questions, prospective members then have the option of detailing their "intimate desires". There's even a rating system, which allows members to grade others with whom they've had liaisons.

While I investigated Irish male adulterers, it should be added that AM also has a thriving female membership, though certainly not as many as men. Among the 50-plus age group, there are three men to every woman. In the 40-plus bracket, there are two men to every woman. In the 30-plus bracket, it is one to one. However, this is probably because many in this bracket are single (the unattached can also sign up). "They're probably better at not getting caught, but women are pursuing way more affairs than men perceive them to be," asserts Biderman.

I assume the alias of a 29-year-old married woman whose husband has gone off sex. I think he may be gay. My suspicions were aroused when he came home wearing UGG boots.

Most members don't post photographs of themselves. Instead, they create private showcases which can only be viewed if they send other members a virtual key. I was astounded by the number of men who sent me photos of themselves in which their partners also featured.

"Any woman in Ireland can sign up to my service and I assure you, within 24 hours, have two or three men interested in meeting with them," claims Biderman. "They'll think, 'I've still got it'. We all have an ego."

When I received the first picture of a man's penis, I put it down to a token pervert. Five penises later, I realised that this was standard practice in the debased world of Ashley Madison.

I hasten to add that many of these men didn't even try to strike up conversation. It was 'have penis, will travel', are you in or are you out?

The common thread among the men I struck up non-sexually explicit conversation with was that they were happy with their partners, save for in the bedroom. They all made it clear that they were seeking a sexual affair, nothing more or less.

A man in his 30s told me he was using the site because his wife's interest in sex had declined after she gave birth to their first child. "I don't even ask anymore because it makes me feel like a pervert."

Other members offered me tips for not getting caught. I was advised to use a second SIM for private calls, assume a false name and always use condoms. "Make sure you clear history on your computer and watch in case your husband has tracker software to view your emails."

One man told me to "watch for the guilt".

"It's part of the territory and usually means you love your husband. If you continue, expect to have contradictory feelings. You may feel guilt wash over you and, at times, disgust with yourself."

"What I hear over and over is that they love and cherish their partner, their children, their extended family . . . it's the disconnect in the bedroom," continues Biderman. He considers Ashley Madison to be at the cutting edge of the infidelity age. He prides himself with preserving some marriages by offering this outlet. He makes the point that infidelity happens. He's simply providing a place where it can happen safely, discreetly and, as ironic as it may sound, honestly.

The idea for the website came about when its founder discovered how many married men were interloping on single websites (30pc in the US). "That's really troubling," argues Biderman.

He also considers workplace liaisons dangerous. "One of two things happen. One of them loses their job or one of them gets an unfair promotion because they are sleeping with the boss." He has similar feelings about the escort industry.

It's a compelling argument and there is no doubt that he has discovered a dangerous disconnect in marriages, but why not try to reconnect two people rather than adding a third?

Biderman has acquired a vast knowledge of modern relationship issues, why can't he the person who stands up and encourages frank communication among couples before they potentially destroy everything that they have left?

When I tell him that he makes a persuasive argument, he contends that he is not trying to persuade people to commit adultery.

"My role in this universe of infidelity is not to persuade". The slogan for the website is: "Life is short. Have an affair." He says that people who come to Ashley Madison have already decided to have an affair. I disagree. Many people avoid the temptation of an affair out of fear of getting caught. Ashley Madison assuages this fear. I can only imagine the number of new members they'll recruit when this article goes out . . .

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