Shortly after U.S. lockdowns began, the Ashley Madison “married dating” site saw an uptick in members. Today, more than 21,000 people are signing up each day for the online membership service, up from 17,000 a day in March. That’s on top of a worldwide base of 65 million members around the world in 2019.
“We’re in such unprecedented catastrophic times,” sex and relationship therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson said. “It’s so apocalyptic that you have got to have something to look forward to.”
Though some cheating has gone virtual, many married daters are still meeting their affair partner in person. However, those having affairs are taking precautions. From now until there is a cure or vaccine for the novel coronavirus, 65% of cheaters are likely to be more selective about who they go on in-person dates with, and 56% are likely to get creative with socially distanced date ideas. During these dates, 41% of cheaters regularly use hand sanitizer, 36% avoid crowds, and 11% stick to outdoor dates only.
The vast majority of Ashley Madison members have said that having affairs keeps them married. In an effort to understand the motivations behind choosing infidelity over divorce during a pandemic and how marriage will be impacted in the future, the company conducted surveys of its members. The results backed up Ashley Madison’s belief that marriage is a pragmatic arrangement that offers inherent value despite a partner often failing to provide sufficient love, support, or desire.
The pandemic has made the limitations of marriage abundantly clear, at least according to the site. “The fact that 21,000 people are joining each day tells you how pervasive the impact has been across the globe,” Ashley Madison chief strategy officer Paul Keable said in an interview with VentureBeat. “This pandemic is having a dramatic impact on relationships. What we’re learning from the pandemic is this is going to change a lot of different family structures. If you don’t maintain a connection to your spouse through interpersonal communications, you’re going to find at the end of the day that you don’t really have a relationship. What you have is cohabitation or a roommate.”
In a report dubbed “Love Beyond Lockdown” that was based on six separate surveys, Ashley Madison found that 75% of married couples are having less sex or no sex at all with their spouses. At the same time, the report said 53% are spending more time with their spouse now than ever before. It also found 41% have been less attracted to their spouse during the lockdown. And 25% say not having sex is the hardest part of lockdown.
“The top complaint from our members is that the spouse had not initiated any sexual intimacy,” Keable said. “And what it actually comes down to, supported by some external research from the University of Missouri, that it’s about the desire to want it.”
Pet peeves are also coming out. Some 58% say their spouses have not initiated any sexual intimacy, and 28% say their spouse is glued to a mobile phone or computer. Another 19% say their spouse is rude, moody, or constantly picking fights. Eighteen percent say the spouse hasn’t given them any space, and 15% say their spouse is messy and they’re constantly cleaning up after them.
The pandemic effect
Not having their sexual needs met at home is the reason 64% of members give for having affairs during the pandemic, and 74% say they are unlikely to stop having affairs after life returns to normal. Of those who are having affairs during lockdown, 34% say it gives them something to look forward to, while 23% say it’s a great distraction. Another 14% say it gives them someone to talk to, and 13% say it helps them maintain a sense of normalcy.
Ashley Madison said 95% of respondees are interested in finding or maintaining outside relationships during the pandemic, which suggests people don’t always look to their partner in times of uncertainty and stress. Nelson said people actually tend to look beyond their partner, and 80% of those surveyed are planning on meeting their current cyber affair partner once restrictions left. Backing up Nelson’s assertion, 47% say having an affair has helped them get through the lockdown, while 85% consider an affair to be a form of self-care.
While some are more adventurous, others are careful. Sixty-five percent say they are now more selective about who they go on in-person dates with. Fifty-five percent are likely to stop having multiple physical partners at the same time. Forty-three percent are likely to wait longer until they have sex with someone, and 56% are likely to be creative with social distant dates. But about a third are undeterred by constraints imposed by the pandemic — 32% percent have gone on in-person dates since the pandemic began, and 32% have had sex with their affair partner during the pandemic.
Ashley Madison said rumors the pandemic will lead to an increase in divorces aren’t necessarily panning out. According to the survey, 87% of respondents said their marriage hasn’t changed since social distancing began. At least that’s the response of those who have already chosen to have affairs through Ashley Madison.
For those who have had affairs, 47% said it made them feel sexy, 45% said they were excited, 44% felt desired, 32% felt appreciated, 30% felt relaxed, 28% felt confident, and 19% felt acknowledged. Twenty percent said they miss dating and casual sex most during the lockdown, and 21% can’t wait to resume going on in-person dates once everything is back to normal. Thirty-six percent are more excited to see their affair partners than anyone else once things are back to normal. And 57% are likely to pursue both physical and emotional affairs once the pandemic is over.
Ending their marriage is the last thing on most members’ minds. In fact, 92% of members disagree with or aren’t even considering the statement “I will file for divorce following [the end of the lockdown],” and Ashley Madison believes their infidelity is to thank for that. While many Ashley Madison members cheat primarily for sex, they reap the additional personal therapeutic benefits, which are especially helpful in this unique lockdown situation and can make them more patient and tolerant of their situation at home, Keable said.
There isn’t necessarily one person who can offer fulfillment in every aspect of someone’s life — not even a spouse, Ashley Madison said, adding that “spouse,” “confidant,” “friend,” and “lover” are not synonymous. More often, marriage equates mainly to co-parenting and financial stability. Thus, the pandemic may pave the way for new conversations about a more fluid understanding of monogamy.
“We’re moving toward what I call open monogamy, where people have a primary partner or a central relationship, but having some kind of fluid arrangement that is like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,” Nelson said. “You can go to my phone whenever you want, but I’m going to trust that you won’t.”
The company conducted its six member-based surveys from March through August, interviewing 1,470 to 2,258 people each time.
Ashley Madison became a household name in July 2015, when hackers stole data on 32 million cheating spouses. The leak of sensitive data led to spouses discovering that their significant others were cheating. Divorces, breakups, and suicides ensued. The hackers also exposed that Ashley Madison used bots posing as attractive young women to lure men into engaging more with the site.
Prior to that incident, Ashley Madison was adding 30,000 people a day. The company says it has since beefed up its security and rid itself of the bots.
Technology as an enabler
Technology can help people hide affairs, as well as uncover them, and those who are more cautious use some kind of encrypted communication. Fifty-eight percent of survey respondents store their data — like sexting messages or nude pictures — on some kind of private or secure app, Nelson said. “The majority of people get caught because they leave their phones out or leave the information in an accessible way,” Nelson said.
“Young people tend to be more careless and use social media,” Nelson said. “Some 24% of them say that the problem is that they’re too attached to their phone.”
It’s not clear how many people in the U.S. have affairs, as people don’t tend to tell the truth when answering standard polls. North America represents perhaps 70% of Ashley Madison’s business, but that could change as people in Asia and other regions come aboard. Taiwan had decades-old adultery laws on the books, and when those were repealed, more than 100,000 people from the country joined the platform. Speaking of the surge in new members, Keable said “It was just seven days, as there was such pent-up frustration and desire. We had no marketing there.”
While technology plays a big role in Ashley Madison’s platform, the company still relies on around 160 employees to keep things running smoothly.
“Technology is the backbone for this, but it’s all built on human behavior,” Keable said. “We’re trying to put as much of the human component into our technology. So all the bits and bytes and all the different back-end technology are all designed around how members are utilizing the service. How are they interacting? And what enables them to reduce the friction and increase the discretion? Those are the two key things that our technology teams and our product teams work on every single day.”
Is this a game?
“The studies show that a lot of people are cheating during the pandemic because they’re getting bored, they’re not having enough sex, but also, I think, because they don’t have enough space. So it’s a way of creating their outside self,” Nelson said.
That sounds an awful lot like one of the reasons people play games. So would gamers be more or less likely to have affairs?
“That is a brilliant study, and somebody should do that,” Nelson said. “Maybe they get it out of their system while playing and they don’t have to. They have a community where they can have an avatar, where they can be someone else, connect to other people. Some people are seekers, where they seek some kind of stimulation. Other people can sort of nest and stay home and play video games and be totally happy without connecting with other people.”
The topic would be interesting to explore, as many games are highly sexualized, with gamer identities that are the equivalent of hormone-mad teenage boys. But there aren’t many mainstream game worlds where the whole object is sex.
“With affairs, it’s not so much the person that you’re cheating with,” Nelson said. “It’s the person you become when you’re with the person that you’re cheating with. There’s something about infidelity that is this desire to become someone else. And you really can create a whole new persona with this other person, and it’s a craving to perhaps develop a part of yourself that has either gone dormant or that for whatever reason, you think you can’t be that person with your partner.”
The future of technology and affairs
Nelson is aware that a host of sex robots and other interactive sexual products and virtual reality porn are on the way.
“They may create more interaction through technology and sexual connections for people, as they’re more socially distanced and isolated,” Nelson said.
I think there will be a lot of attraction to the sexual part of the metaverse, when it arrives, where something like the Star Trek Holodeck allows you to create a fantasy sexual partner. Some people might get lost in that world and never come out. You can see this tendency in game worlds like Detroit: Become Human, which depicts a future where robots are our slaves.
But I also think a sexual metaverse will be the hardest kind of world to create, as the sense of haptics, or touch, is very difficult to pull off, and the visual fidelity people would want in such a world would be extremely demanding.
“Using sex toys with a partner and doing it over Zoom or the phone has increased a lot in the pandemic,” Nelson said. “The sex toys have gotten much better, as there are many more female-driven companies that are involved in the creation of the products. They’re more appealing to women.”
Some of this discussion strays from the survey results, but the Ashley Madison phenomenon gives us a lot to think about.
The impulse to compartmentalize is nothing new, with people like Jerry Falwell Jr. allegedly putting out a religious avatar for the public and then doing other things in private. People who lose integrity in their lives can become more hypocritical in their public persona. But Nelson argues that Ashley Madison users at least they know why they are all there.
“If I have an affair on Ashley Madison, then my partner is a great parent, and they’re great at homeschooling and can clean the house, but I want sex and then I’ll be happy,” Nelson said. “We’re probably moving more toward a more sort of village mentality anyway in a relationship. And there’s somebody to homeschool my kids and clean the house. Someone to come over to have sex with my husband online. I think it’s moving toward more of a polyamorous situation anyway.”
New problems may emerge with the perfection of artificial avatars, where you can’t tell the difference between communicating with an avatar who is a real person or an AI.
“That’s interesting, as with COVID-19, people meet online to have an affair, to date or use dating sites. You meet with them virtually longer, and it takes longer to decide if you will meet them in real life,” Nelson said. “They will have longer technological relationships than they will in real life. Maybe when they’re lying next to you and smelling you, they don’t really like you.”
One of the worries of the future is that humans will mistreat AI sexual slaves. One Japanese company allowed executives to take home an AI model for sex as an experiment. The participants wound up beating the model severely. It’s like the world of Grand Theft Auto, where you as a gamer can treat other people extremely poorly.
“Dating sites like Ashley Madison serve a purpose, in that they sort of let out some steam. [People can] have multiple relationships that are extensively not about commitment and long-term relationship,” Nelson said. What people are searching for can vary. “In research on my book, When You’re the One Who Cheats, I found that men were really looking for more of a relationship and women wanted casual sex.”
Keable and Nelson said Ashley Madison positions itself as a place to experiment and figure out what you want. “Everyone knows why you are there and what the expectations are,” Nelson said. “There is honor among thieves, so to speak.”
Nelson returned to the notion that having affairs improves people’s mental health and allows them to stay in their primary relationship. He said different studies have shown that 25% to 65% of people will cheat at some point in their marriage. Ashley Madison’s growth suggests this is happening, but its technology also enables people to do that cheating while lying in bed next to their partner. In this kind of online experimentation, people often lie to themselves.
“From a clinical perspective, people minimize the cheating behavior, like it’s not that big a deal, like all I did was take my clothes off and talk to someone online, I just sent a sexy picture of myself in a bikini, and that really doesn’t count,” Nelson said.
What it all means
“When you’re in a confined social climate, like we are, suddenly your spouse becomes, if not your sole source of connection and socialization, your primary source of it,” Keable said. “If there are any issues and a lack of affection and intimacy, that’s going to cause rifts that grow over time.”
Keable said the poll results could be helpful to married couples in the days ahead.
“This is really informative for couples, as we go into what is looking increasingly to be a strong second wave,” he said. “There are going to be far fewer outdoor times ahead as everyone is locked down in their households.”
He added, “This is going to have long-term effects for a lot of different people in different ways. We’re about 21,000 [new members] a day now. And so what does that mean? And why is that happening? What are they looking for? When people are in isolation with their partners, we are finding people are not as connected as they thought they were. It’s a communication problem. We’re so focused. You suddenly realize maybe I’m living with a stranger. If you want to avoid your spouse ending up in Ashley Madison, you need to take dramatic steps or ownership of your relationship.”