Lindsey* had been married for over a decade when she started having an affair with a close family friend. She and her husband had grown apart over the years, and they had all but stopped having sex.
Because the man knew her husband and children, the affair became “too close for comfort,” she told me. “We had to end it.” But the experience awoke something in her. “Part of me had been dormant for years,” she said. “I liked it. I realized there was something big missing in my life and I wanted it.”
So she took to the internet to find someone new. After briefly trying Match.com, she settled on Ashley Madison, “a site for people just like me.” She created an account in 2016 and soon met several “terrific” guys: “smart, funny, good writers, respectful.”
She started dating one of them regularly and felt liberated by how easy it was. “There was never any drama because we’re both in the same place,” she said.
Ashley Madison, founded in 2001 and known as the website for married dating, suffered a huge reputational hit when a group of hackers released a trove of user data to the public in 2015 (the website claims that it has had as many as 50 million users and was, at one point, valued at $1 billion). Many active users fled the site or cooled their use for a few months. But once the dust had settled and other scandals entered the headlines, many people largely forgot about Ashley Madison. And for women like Lindsey, using the site still feels like a less risky form of cheating. Online, it’s easier to meet someone you’re sure your spouse won’t run into at the grocery store.
This might explain why Ashley Madison’s user numbers have shot up in recent years. A new Ernst & Young report commissioned by the site found that more women are using the site than ever. In 2017, there were an average of 152,035 new Ashley Madison accounts registered per month in the United States, and the end of last year, the ratio of male to female active user accounts in the U.S. was almost exactly one to one. This was a particularly surprising development, given the post-hack revelation that most of the site’s female users were actually bots.
Toronto-based Ruby Corp., which owns Ashley Madison, has done a significant amount of work since the 2015 hack to make the website’s users feel more secure. To start, the company fired its CEO and changed its name (Ruby used to be Avid Life Media). In early 2017, it hired a whole new leadership team, including a new chief technology officer and chief information security officer.
CTO Ruben Buell said he was hired to repair both the company’s image and technology, revamping the entire data security architecture of the site. From photo sharing (photos can be made blurry or only shared using a private key), to calling customer service (reps pick up the phone with a generic greeting), to billing (receipts don’t mention Ashley Madison), every part of the website has been designed to take the stress out of online cheating.
Some of Ashley Madison is still a work in progress. The user interface looks like it was built in 2005, with generic clip-art and functional-looking text boxes. The site is also incredibly gender rigid and hetero-centric, something Buell admits and said he is working to address.
To protect its users, Ashley Madison uses three types of monitoring — human monitoring, automated monitoring, and machine learning — to keep out what the company deems “undesirable” profiles: sex workers, scammers, and spammers. I created an account to report this story, and, after sending messages to several users saying that I was a reporter looking for sources, my account was promptly deleted. A week later, Ashley Madison customer service informed me that my profile was suspended for violating the site’s terms and conditions.
All of that isn’t to say Ashley Madison users are operating risk-free. Ashley Madison users are typically on the site because they’re hoping to keep their sex lives private, both from their spouses and their judgemental peers.
But they’ve all used the site to find affair partners, which means they’ve accepted at least some baseline of risk. Like Lindsey, many of them found the website to actually be the least risky form of cheating available.
The women who spoke to me did so on the condition of anonymity, specifically to protect their spouses. Dr. Alicia Walker, a sociology professor at Missouri State who studies closeted sexual behaviors, says this is common. She interviewed dozens of Ashley Madison users for her 2017 book, The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife, and found that the majority were “cheating to stay.” Like Lindsey, they weren’t looking for a new partner, just looking to outsource their sexual pleasure.
Walker kept in touch with her sources for the book. She said some of them shied away from Ashley Madison after the hack, but after the dust settled, most returned. “Despite all the risks and the negatives and the costs of cheating, people’s needs were so great that they were willing to risk it,” she said.
“I think our information is out there pretty much everywhere,” said Amy*, a 50-year old Colorado resident who has dated outside of her marriage for years but began using Ashley Madison in early 2018. “If somebody were to look me up to see if I was on there I’d be pretty honest about it.”
Amy speaks candidly about her views on monogamy, which she doesn’t think is a prerequisite for marriage. “I think people like sex, I think sex is healthy,” she said. “I’ve told girlfriends who have been fighting with their husbands nonstop to just have an affair. You just want more attention. You don’t need to end a marriage to get more attention.”
Amy has been married for 16 years, has two children, and sleeps on a separate floor in the house from her husband. Nonetheless, she said, “I like being married. It works for me and the kids.”
“I was in a place where I was only into what I was doing right now, I didn’t care about how I looked, only that it felt good. And it felt good.”
Frankie*, a 39-year old woman living in Georgia, signed up for an Ashley Madison account around 2013. At the time, she was married, but barely spoke to her husband, whom she said was cold and distant. “I slept on the couch for years,” she told me.
But conversations Frankie had with men on Ashley Madison, as well as the physical relationships she developed, broke her out of her shell. “I helped me learn that I do like sex,” she said.
During her affairs, she said, “I was in a place where I was only into what I was doing right now, I didn’t care about how I looked, only that it felt good. And it felt good.”
Frankie separated from her husband in 2015, but she said the time spent on her affairs taught her how to communicate her needs. “The relationship I’m in now, we have everything I didn’t have with my husband before,” she said. “We talk and we don’t have any secrets.”
There is some irony in women like Frankie needing to operate in secrecy to be able to speak openly about their needs. But women are often socialized to undervalue their own sexual pleasure, and there is liberation in breaking taboos.
The women who spoke with me about their use of Ashley Madison had no shame about cheating, and many of them, like Amy, believe that sticking to one sex partner for the rest of your life is a false promise. But they were all concerned about the reputational damage it could cause them — and their unwitting spouses — if their behavior were to be revealed.
There’s a difference, of course, between cheating and an open relationship, something the women I interviewed didn’t think was possible in their situations. Lindsey and Frankie said their cheating was a total secret. Amy said she has gently nudged her husband to date other people, but added that he’s “not somebody who would be comfortable with any of that, with an open relationship.”
When Ashley Madison was hacked in 2015, the hackers said in a message that the users didn’t deserve online privacy because they were “cheating dirtbags.” Danielle Keats Citron, who teaches information privacy and free speech law at the University of Maryland, spoke out about this language at the time. Citron is a staunch advocate for online privacy, no matter what people do with their sex lives.
“When people are engaging in affairs or experimenting or just even looking, they should have their privacy too, we shouldn’t judge them,” she said. “They’re not engaging in activity that’s excessively harmful.” While Citron said there is, of course, some harm in cheating, she asked, “does it rise to the level of warranting other people to shame you?”
Lindsey has no intention of leaving her husband right now. Like many other women, she’s cheating primarily for sexual fulfillment. She said she doesn’t feel guilty about cheating, and even believes it can be a rational, healthy choice.
“Since having these two affairs, I have definitely changed my view of monogamy,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a great thing.”
She said that cheating has even allowed her to be a better partner to her husband because she’s happier overall.
“I feel like I have a rich, full life,” she said. “I have a great job, great kids, tons of friends, hobbies, but this is icing on the cake, and it’s really been great for me. The only thing is that for it to be great, it has to be a secret, it has to be.”
*Names have been changed.