On­line adul­tery makes bid for the main­stream

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective -

As on­line dat­ing has lost the stigma once at­tached to it and mil­lions of peo­ple flood big sites such as Match.com looking for love, niche dat­ing sites have be­gun to pro­lif­er­ate to help nar­row the field.

There are ser­vices for all sorts of peo­ple looking for some­thing spe­cific: an­i­mal lovers, gays, veg­e­tar­i­ans, blacks, Chris­tians, black Chris­tians. One of the best known is JDate, the Jewish dat­ing site. Yet its 700,000 mem­bers are a mere third of the num­ber at­tracted to an­other site that has been un­der the radar un­til re­cently.

Ash­ley­Madi­son.com has 2.2 mil­lion mem­bers and just launched a mil­lion-dol­lar ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign — but na­tional net­works think Amer­ica isn’t quite ready for a dat­ing site for the al­ready at­tached.

Ash­ley­Madi­son’s new 35-sec­ond tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial fea­tures an in­som­niac man ly­ing next to a slightly zaftig woman. He sneaks out of the room hold­ing his clothes. “Most of us can re­cover from a onenight stand with the wrong woman,” a nar­ra­tor in­tones. Cut to a pho­to­graph of the man and woman to­gether — on their wed­ding day. “But not when it’s ev­ery night for the rest of our lives. Isn’t it time for Ash­ley­Madi­son.com?”

The site spe­cial­izes in con­nect­ing peo­ple who are al­ready par tnered but seek­ing nos­trings-at­tached af­fairs.

The com­pany bought ad time on chan­nels in­clud­ing ESPN, CNN, Fox News Chan­nel and Spike, but the net­works seemed to have sec­ond thoughts. ESPN, for one, says it has in­structed its af­fil­i­ates to quit air­ing the ad.

The com­pany’s site went live at the beginning of 2002, but the new ad cam­paign marks the first time it has sought a main­stream au­di­ence. It used to ad­ver­tise dur­ing air­ings of “The Jerry Springer Show.”

It’s hav­ing trou­ble get­ting the new ads to stay in place. A bill­board in New York’s Times Square showed a cou­ple en­ter­ing a ho­tel room and urged, “Life is short. Have an af­fair in New York City.” It was re­moved af­ter just three days.

“They got a call from one of the ho­tel op­er­a­tors across the street,” re­ports Noel Bi­der­man, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Toronto-based Ashley Madi­son Agency. “They said they were go­ing to burn it down if they don’t take it down.”

The CEO can’t see what all the fuss is about when those same net­works air ads with tag lines such as “What hap­pens in Ve­gas stays in Ve­gas.”

“I am not go­ing to con­vince any­one to have an af­fair. I don’t have that power of per­sua­sion,” he says. “What I can do is get some­one who’s made that de­ci­sion to try Ash­ley­Madi­son.” It’s a lot safer than mess­ing around in the work­place or get­ting a “lady of the night,” the hap­pily mar­ried fa­ther of two says rather quaintly.

“It’s like dump­ing raw sewage into the cul­ture,” com­plains Char­maine Yoest, pres­i­dent of Amer­i­cans United for Life, who says she has had her own ads turned down by net- works. “We live in a Hol­ly­wood cul­ture that cel­e­brates in­fi­delity.”

Mr. Bi­der­man agrees on that last point: He seems to think Hol­ly­wood al­ready has done the work of mak­ing cheat­ing look good. He notes that some re­cent movies widely con­sid­ered ro­man­tic — in­clud­ing “Ti­tanic” and “The Bridges of Madi­son County” — fo­cused on cheaters. Of course, lit­er­a­ture has had more than its share of sym­pa­thetic adul­ter­ers — think Leo Tol­stoy’s “Anna Karen­ina” — for cen­turies. “It speaks to the hu­man con­di­tion,” he says.

His site cer­tainly has struck a chord. In just 6 1/2 years, with very lit­tle ad­ver­tis­ing, it has at­tracted those cou­ple mil­lion mem­bers. On a re­cent af­ter­noon in Wash­ing­ton, just be­fore most peo­ple are think­ing about leav­ing work, Ash­ley­Madi­son had close to 50,000 lo­cals on­line.

“That’s re­ally so­cially sig­nif­i­cant,” says Uni­ver­sity at Buf­falo Amer­i­can stud­ies pro­fes­sor Elayne Rap­ping, a me­dia and gen­der ex­pert who was shocked to hear how many peo­ple are looking for ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs on­line.

She’s never sur­prised to hear that men at the top — such as for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John Ed­wards — cheat. Hav­ing a broader sec­tion of so­ci­ety — and par­tic­u­larly women — on the prowl is dif­fer­ent.

“The di­vorce rate is down, and peo­ple are stay­ing to­gether for any num­ber of rea­sons. It’s a kind of con­ser­va­tive pe­riod. But what this is say­ing is that a lot of peo­ple who are stay­ing in their mar­riage are do­ing so not be­cause they’re happy, but for some other rea­son,” she says. “Maybe for so­cially ac­cept­able rea- sons, peo­ple are stay­ing in their mar­riages and go­ing out­side of them for sat­is­fac­tion.”

She thinks the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the In­ter­net are more likely to have given rise to the phe­nom­e­non than the seem­ingly end­less ex­am­ples of big-name cheaters like Mr. Ed­wards. Me­dia can play a role, though. “I do think when peo­ple see th­ese ads on main­stream TV, those who have al­ways fan­ta­sized may be more will­ing to act on it,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to ad­ver­tise it.”

Wendy Wright, pres­i­dent of Con- cerned Women for Amer­ica, ap­plauds ESPN. She says na­tional net­works give the site “a sense of le­git­i­macy” by al­low­ing it to ad­ver­tise.

“In­stead of a race to the bot­tom, maybe we can start climb­ing our way out of the gut­ter,” she says. “This [site] could be used by black­mail­ers, this could be used for pros­ti­tu­tion, and just the fact that it’s ca­ter­ing to mar­ried peo­ple, it’s en­cour­ag­ing the de­struc­tion of mar­riages. It en­cour­ages bring­ing harm to your spouse.”

Miss Wright won­ders about those 2.2 mil­lion mem­bers. “It could be a cal­cu­lated busi­ness move on Ash­ley­Madi­son’s part to get dou­ble fees — first peo­ple who are trolling for adul­ter­ers and then those who are check­ing on their spouses,” she spec­u­lates.

The fact that Ash­ley­Madi­son is thriv­ing at the same time it’s find­ing it hard to let peo­ple know that it’s thriv­ing points to a divi­sion in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

“It’s an in­ter­est­ing irony, be­cause if you look his­tor­i­cally at at­ti­tudes to adul­tery and af­fairs, we’re ac­tu­ally more judg­men­tal and more neg­a­tive about them than we’ve ever been,” says Stephanie Coontz, au­thor of “Mar­riage, A His­tory” and pro­fes­sor of his­tory and fam­ily stud­ies at Ev­er­green State Col­lege in Wash­ing­ton state. “I’ve taken lots of oral his­to­ries from women who were mar­ried in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. A sur­pris­ing num­ber said, ‘I found out my hus­band vis­ited pros­ti­tutes, but what can you do?’ “

The In­ter­net and other mod­ern con­ve­niences make it eas­ier for that adul­ter­ous mi­nor­ity to cheat, she says.

Jenny Block, au­thor of the re­cently re­leased book “Open: Love, Sex & Life in an Open Mar­riage,” thinks a pri­vate-ver­sus-pub­lic dis­tinc­tion is at work in Amer­ica to­day.

“In pri­vate, we’ve be­come very comfortable with adul­tery. Some peo­ple think that’s the cost of do­ing busi­ness: Mar­riage is hard, it’s work, how can you pos­si­bly get through it any other way?” says Ms. Block, who notes she doesn’t pro­mote open re­la­tion­ships, only hon­esty within what­ever re­la­tion­ship a cou­ple chooses. “Pub­licly, we’re nowhere near ac­cept­ing it.”

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