AshleyMadison.com is an online dating site that boasts millions of users worldwide. While online dating has become commonplace in today’s wired society, AshleyMadison has added a shocking twist to what has become mundane. Rather than promising to join together singles of similar faiths and interests, AshleyMadison.com is an online site for married people seeking extramarital relations. Its tagline is simple: “Life is Short. Have an Affair.”
The majority of Americans view adultery as wrong, which, by extrapolation, means that most Americans can see the glaring immorality in AshleyMadison’s business model. There are, however, many more reasons beside adultery to be concerned with AshleyMadison’s creation and far-reaching success.
The founder and CEO of AshleyMadison.com, Noel Biderman, has been “happily married” for ten years to his wife, Amanda, and they have two children. Both he and his wife confess they would be “devastated” if the other used the website’s services. When asked how she felt when Biderman first presented his idea for the website to her, Amanda recalled feeling concerned, thinking the idea implied something unhealthy about Biderman. However, once Amanda realized that it was a “sound business, that there was an [underserved] market,” she was “totally behind” the website’s creation.
The Bidermans actually see the website as altruistic: they believe that an affair can save a marriage. Biderman explains himself thus:
“If I woke up today in some kind of sexless marriage like so many Americans do, I would be genuinely upset by that. I would try to change it with my partner, but if I couldn’t change it, I don’t know if I would just walk out the door. I believe the social science, I’ve seen it firsthand, how children raised in single-parent households have more trouble with drugs and alcohol, have fewer educational opportunities, and get in trouble with the law. I don’t want to do that to my family and I certainly don’t want to do that because everything else I have going for me is great. I like my lifestyle, so why would I give it all up because the number five or six thing on my list—my sex life—is not where it should be? So yes, if my brother came to me and said I can't take it anymore, I'm either leaving or I'm having an affair, I would encourage him to have an affair first.”
He further defends his position by claiming his website doesn't make people cheat, but instead provides a platform for those who have already made up their minds to have an affair: "People want to choose what they want to do. Long before I created AshleyMadison, people were unfaithful. I don't think I can convince people to have an affair, but if people are miserable, I feel like society can benefit from my service.”
In an interview with CNN, Dr. Sandy To, a gender, marriage, and family expert, said of AshleyMadison, “the website may reflect a shifting culture of a more self-centered and individualized approach where people are less inclined to sacrifice self-fulfillment for the marriage and the family.” She went on to say that the website is “harmless” to those who believe in fidelity: "It's just a commercial endeavor, for those who believe in monogamy, if they saw the ad, they would just look at it as a joke or a gimmick."
I can think of few better examples of changing mores than a website devoted to adultery that boasts 20 million users worldwide. But while Dr. To is right on the money about a shifting culture, her assertion that the website is harmless for those who believe in fidelity blatantly ignores the erosive impact media has on society. While Mom and Dad may believe in fidelity and scoff at AshleyMadison’s clear nonsense, what about Junior, who is web savvy by the time he is nine? Or when he sees an AshleyMadison Super Bowl ad during halftime? (Thankfully, CBS did ban the almost-pornographic AshleyMadison ad that was submitted for 2013’s Super Bowl.) As the number of AshleyMadison users grows, the percentage of young people who see such a site as acceptable will undoubtedly grow as well.
This trend is evident already among female users of AshleyMadison.com. Whereas men are traditionally thought of as being more likely to stray and as having “sex on the brain” more than women do, the number of women who use AshleyMadison is growing rapidly. Women, unlike men, do not have to pay to subscribe to AshleyMadison, and make up about 30 percent of its clientele.
Women users who have been interviewed about their use of AshleyMadison have claimed boredom, need for thrills, dissatisfaction from being the dominant marriage partner, and even, as one woman claimed, being “just like a dirty old man.”
GQ recently ran a fairly in-depth piece about AshleyMadison, in which several of its female users were interviewed. In the article, GQ blatantly attributes greater professional equality between men and women as leading women to cheat. The women interviewed give credence to this suggestion. One woman reports that when she has an affair, she “feel[s] like an expensive toy.” And she means this as a good thing.
A female journalist who has written about the rise of female promiscuity attributes it, in part, to wives having as much power as their husbands. A common trend among AshleyMadison female subscribers shows that they tend to be “more of the controller” in the marriage. One woman states, “I earn more. I repair everything. I fixed up the house.” Another woman who uses AshleyMadison explains, “in the house, the only way it works is if there's a strong masculine and feminine component. You need to give your husband [oral sex] every day. He should feel like a king. Seeking it out in my sexual life is to make up for it in my real life. I want my husband to be dominant and more successful. I don't want to be the man in the relationship.”
My own theology is of an egalitarian nature. That said, these comments do seem to beg the question: would these women be using AshleyMadison if they were in more traditional female roles with husband-leaders? But this is an extremely small sampling of the women who seek out affairs, and that would be far too easy a conclusion to draw.
Instead, it is more appropriate to look at needs for immediate, personal gratification that are demonstrated in the impetus for creating AshleyMadison in the first place: monetary gain, lack of ethic, a failure to follow the golden rule, and an inability to see beyond one’s self.
Amanda Biderman stopped caring about the website’s creation after she realized it had no implications for her personal life other than financial gain. Biderman sees himself as a neutral bystander to a game in which he would be “devastated” to find himself a player. Dr. To, an expert professor of sociology, claims to see no harm in sites like AshleyMadison, so long as ones personal belief is rooted in fidelity.
Adultery is but a symptom of the disease a belief system such as the one described leads to. In critiquing AshleyMadison and sites like it, it would be a mistake to focus solely on the immorality of having an affair — more than 80 percent of Americans will say they see that as wrong. But what of providing a forum from which affairs are born? Financial gain from immoral acts? Professing to be an expert on the family and then giving the “OK” for such a forum to exist? How many see these as immoral acts?
In fact, these are the roots we must strike at in order to stop the further spread of harm that Dr. To blithely described as “a shifting culture of a more self-centered and individualized approach where people are less inclined to sacrifice self-fulfillment for the marriage and the family.” Bideman claims that “no religion can stop [infidelity],” but I beg to differ. While we are in a fallen world and are a selfish people, if we can see beyond one’s self, true good can be born.
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. Her work can be found in Sojourners, Christianity Today, and the Burnside Writer’s Collective, among others. She is a contributor to Faith Village and a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Religion Newswriters Association. Jamie blogs weekly at http://jamiecallowayhanauer.com. You can find her on Facebook or on Twitter @JamieHanauer.