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The Ashley Madison Web site's blatant promotion of adultery has stirred up a lot of controversy and hand-wringing over the state of marriage in America.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/3/2009 9:26:42 AM ET 2009-03-03T14:26:42

Lately, it seems, there is no escaping Ashley Madison. The Web site, that is, not any person, real or fictional, who may or may not be named Ashley Madison. You may have read or heard about it.

The site caters to married people looking to have sex with other married people who are not their spouses. Its blatant promotion of adultery has stirred up a lot of controversy and hand-wringing over the state of marriage in America.

The most recent bout of notoriety came when a commercial for the site was banned from the NFL’s official Super Bowl program (it aired in Texas). After Noel Biderman, president of Avid Life Media, a Toronto-based holding company that owns the site, erupted in high dudgeon that may or may not have been sincere, AshleyMadison.com scored even more publicity from media outlets reporting on the rejected ad. In the commercial, a woman is seen on a dinner date with an inattentive jerk who turns out to be her husband. As the spot closes with her eyeing another guy in the restaurant, the voiceover asks, “Isn't it time for AshleyMadison.com?”

This is par for the course for the site. Last July the company scandalized Times Square passersby with a billboard that declared “Life is short. Have an affair.” After lots of free media outrage, the billboard was removed three days later. Also last year, Biderman hired a self-described “professional mistress” to be a spokesperson in the United Kingdom.

I’ve seen the site on any number of news outlets, usually accompanied by agonizing over big sociological questions.

Let’s take a step back, shall we?

Cashing in on cheaters
Ashley Madison is hardly unique. It competes with other Web sites that do exactly the same thing, such as ADatefinder.com (“Meet Hot Married Women Now”), LonelyCheatingWives.com (“Date Lonely Housewives in Your Area”), and MarriedDateClub.com (“Meet the Hottest Married Ladies Now”). All are seeking to cash in on the ancient desire of some people to step out on their spouse. Beyond those sites, there’s AdultFriendFinder.com, CraigsLists, and any number of chat rooms for wannabe cheaters.

To hear Biderman tell it, Ashley Madison’s popularity proves masses of us are now willing to pay to commit adultery. There are 3.4 million profiles of people in the data base, he said, 72 percent of which are male, 28 percent female. Biderman claims the site is profitable, although Avid Life is a private company so there’s no way of verifying subscriptions or profiles.

However AdultFriendFinder, a bigger, more famous site is losing audience and money — over  $32 million in 2008, according to an SEC filing. “The number of unique users on our general audience social networking and personals websites has decreased and may continue to decrease,” Friend Finder stated in its filing.

According to the Alexa Internet site rankings, traffic to Ashley Madison has grown, spiking around the time of the Super Bowl hubbub, which no doubt attracted a lot of curious people. Even so, it is only the 1,575th most popular Web site in the U.S., according to Alexa. Nobody but Biderman knows how many of those people actually become paying members of the site.

Not different, new or special
I signed up and found out you can buy 100 “credits” for $49, 500 credits for $149, or 1,000 credits for $249. The $249 package comes with a guarantee you will have an affair or your money back. You spend credits to send “gifts” to others or to open their collect missives to you.

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Regardless of how much money the site makes or how many people use it to commit adultery, Ashley Madison says nothing about our collective moral compass.

Alternative papers like The Village Voice, the highbrow New York Review of Books and city papers all over the country have run ads from married people seeking extracurricular lovers for two generations. Hollywood has made movies about infidelity since its beginning, even in those supposedly halcyon days of marital probity before the so-called late 1960s “sexual revolution” (see 1960's “The Apartment”). People have cheated since there has been marriage. Lancelot and Guinevere? Ashley Madison is just a cheap, kitschy, techy-sounding way to do it. 

Video: Utah leads nation in online porn To Biderman, who also started the singles rating site HotOrNot.com, says is it’s all strictly business. Blessed with that strain of amoral entrepreneurialism in which money-making opportunities must be seized, whether they be cigarettes, sex, or subprime mortgages, Biderman sees “people craving or seeking intimacy outside their relationships” as “a market segment.”

Well, yeah. If you are the type of person who sees the world in terms of market segments, the long record of husbands and wives having extramarital affairs could qualify. And if you're worried about a paramour pulling a Glenn Close and sticking your pet rabbit in a pot, or blackmailing you, I suppose meeting another cheating spouse online and declaring the whole affair is supposed to be zipless may provide some comfort.

But it’s not different, or new, or special. Biderman claims that his site is exposing a female need for women to escape bad marriages and to boost self-esteem. But this is 2009. None of his clients, as far as I can tell, live in South Waziristan or Saudi Arabia.

The comment about women’s self-esteem made two female experts laugh out loud. Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociology professor and author, who consults with the PerfectMatch.com dating service, and Kat Hertlein, a University of Nevada Las Vegas therapist and expert in technology and infidelity, dismissed the therapeutic value.

“Certainly offering sex gets you some appreciation from men,” Schwartz said, graciously skipping any “well, duh!” sarcasm. “But most people want it on a deeper level. You’re not going to get that there.”

“That doesn’t hold water for me,” Hertlein said of Biderman’s self-esteem argument. The fact people are fascinated by the topic, Hertlein said, just proves that when it comes to adultery the “intrigue and mystery of meeting online holds huge interest.”

All that’s happening is that some people are choosing to shift what has gone on for thousands of years to an online meeting place instead of a bar, or a convention, or the office.

“What I liked about meeting people online,” sex blogger and author Regina Lynn said, “is that I can do it in the middle of the night. If I were to go to bar, I’d put on a bra and shoes!”

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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