The Sexist

Ashley Madison’s Conservative Values

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AshleyMadison.com, an online dating site that facilitates extramarital affairs, has never been too popular among moral conservatives. Earlier this year, Deroy Murdock argued on Human Events that Ashley Madison has edged out gay marriage as the number one threat to traditional matrimony. Now, cluck-clucking conservatives won't have to choose between the cheaters and the gays: Ashley Madison has begun marketing itself as a place where the married can pursue their same-sex attractions, too.

Ashley Madison's gay (and bi-curious) population is modest, but growing. Worldwide, the agency hosts 4.7 million members seeking extramarital affairs. Of those, only 143,427 are seeking some same-sex action. About two-thirds of Ashley Madison's same-sex seekers are women looking for women; one-third are men seeking men. Noel Biderman, Ashley Madison's CEO (married, two kids), says that his service provides a necessary sexual outlet for gay men and women who are trapped within the confines of traditional marriage. "There are men and women who, for whatever reason, might have been motivated to pursue a traditional marriage because they did want to build a family," Biderman says. "Unfortunately, in our culture, their sexuality is still at odds with that arrangement."

In an age when marriage equality is gaining serious steam, helping closeted gays escape their repressive straight marriages seems downright altruistic. But Ashley Madison isn't so progressive as to encourage gay men to marry each other. "They're not looking to leave their families," Biderman says of the same-sex contingent. "They're looking to have this on the side." Ashley Madison is not here to release gays from the closet—it's here to offer them a peek outside before returning them safely to nuclear family life. Meanwhile, it invests in the repression. "I don’t want to call it ironic, because people who find this ironic assume that we're a home-wrecking service," Biderman says. "We're not. We are a marriage preservation service."

Nobody relies on the preservation of traditional marriage like Ashley Madison. Ashley Madison's motto, "when divorce isn't an option," seems strange in a country where no-fault divorce makes it easy to reset one's relationship status to single. But Ashley Madison is not designed for folks willing to ruin their home lives so transparently. The service relies entirely on secrecy and discretion—what skeptics might call "lying" and "self-delusion." "This is not a service for people in open marriages," says Biderman. "There are sites out there for the courageous ones—the swinger couples who have found the courage to say, 'I love you, but I need to do something different in the bedroom,'" he says. Ashley Madison, on the other hand, is for people who "can't voice their sexual concerns to their spouses, because they are terrified of the repercussions," he says. "There's this notion that people who engage in infidelity are lying and deceitful," he says. "But people wouldn’t have to lie if these more realistic sexual options were socially acceptable."

As soon as those "realistic sexual options" are accepted, though, Ashley Madison goes kaput. The service wouldn't be making any money if people weren't terrified of communicating with their spouses. Besides, secrets are hot. Ashley Madison's branding centers around the service as a sexy, hush-hush taboo. Ashley Madison may have built an empire out of facilitating transgressions, but its continued success lies in reinforcing the traditional. Biderman's business will only remain viable so long as its members continue to invest in conservative, heterosexual marriages which reinforce monogamy. "People have told me, 'Oh, you should open Ashley Madison in France,'" says Biderman. "I tell them, 'You know, I don’t think they need me.'"

To date, Ashley Madison has only identified a need in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. In order for the service to expand, Biderman has got to locate other cultures that are currently struggling between the repressive and the progressive. "Places like Brazil offer an interesting dynamic, where infidelity among men is extremely high and among women it's much lower," he says. "There’s no reason to believe you can’t be wildly successful there. There is an incredible opportunity for a global phenomenon."

Biderman's latest campaign to make this an Ashley Madison world has, so far, failed to reach its full potential. "We always thought there would be a marketplace for same-sex affairs, but it's been difficult to cultivate it," says Biderman. "We could probably stretch those legs further, but there are so many obstacles to advertising our brand. We have enough difficulty advertising infidelity—think about the problems we'd have marketing to same-sex infidelity. I cant even tell you one avenue where I could effectively market that."

Ashley Madison's target demographic —people who lead conservative lifestyles but secretly yearn for a transgressive kick—is difficult to target. Social conservatives, remember, are obligated to respond to businesses like Ashley Madison with concern, outrage, and calls for banning. Ashley Madison claims to support the institution of marriage. Other American institutions have proven less than supportive of Ashley Madison. Recently, police kicked a tanker truck advertising Ashley Madison affairs out of the city of Philadelphia. Earlier this year, an Ashley Madison commercial was deemed too hot for the Superbowl. "We've got the Parent Television Council saying these ads are reprehensible," says Biderman of the Web site's conservative backlash. "There's this huge fear to have any sort of conversation about sex."

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As a result, Ashley Madison's marketing strategy has attempted to awkwardly straddle the divide between the conservative and the progressive. In one television spot, targeted toward women, Ashley Madison is offered as an alternative to a life married to a sexist pig. This husband arrives to an anniversary dinner late, leaves early, and in the meantime, ogles other women and implies that his wife is fat. Cheating on this guy practically constitutes a feminist act. The ad targeted at men contains no such progressive bent. In this version, the poor man's wife isn't a jerk—but she's fat, and she snores, too! This man is encouraged to cheat on his wife for more, shall we say, traditional reasons: he just wants to fuck someone else behind her back. And there's nothing progressive about dudes doing that.

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Ashley Madison's new PR push advertising same-sex affairs may further alienate the conservative base it requires to stay relevant. Then again, perhaps the gay element is just what Ashley Madison needs to keep conservatives abreast of its services—and curious about exploring its taboos. Every time a religious conservative declares a sexual practice an affront to human decency, a new conservative kink is born.

Illustration by Bonnie Kennedy

Comments

  1. #1

    Speaking of conservative values, David Brooks op-ed this morning is a hoot as are the diaries in the New Yorker.

  2. #2

    Adultery should be punishable by lopped off appendage. Be man or woman enough to leave if it isn't for you and don't disrespect and humiliate your spouse.

  3. #3

    "Adultery should be punishable by lopped off appendage."

    Sadly for you, this is not Saudi Arabia.

  4. Change is Gonna Come
    #4

    I wouldn't say adultery should be punishable by a lopped off appendage. Even smart, good people can make mistakes. And then of course, more than that, there are people who are just a**holes. But but even more than that are people forced into marriages they don't want by their families religious/culutral/societal values. Some people, especially women, don't have the power to reject these values, for fear of physical violence or no way of living on their own and their famuly would ostracize them for getting a divorce.

    Then of course there is the more subtle way. A guy had been dating his high school sweetheart for many years, maybe she's even pregnant, he feels he's supposed to marry her. He only realizes after getting married and living with her how unsuited they are for each other and how few values they share. Or a girl accepts all the encouragement, gifts, parties and adulation that comes with getting married to a nice, traditional guy, never examined if she really shares her parents' values until she moves in with her new husband, maybe living out from under her parents roof for the first time. As she gets a job, becomes a mom, meets more people, she realizes she may actually have some opinions different from when she got married. She'd never even thought of some of this stuff back then but making a living, raising kids, well she doesn't feel so inexperienced in life anymore, does she?

    I guess my point of this is I really hope people are encouraged to examine their beliefs and find who they really are BEFORE they get married. And seek out someone to marry that accepts who they are, then you'll feel no need to cheat. And I recognize how hard this is, when people are told "you're too picky - you'd be married by now if you weren't so choosy" "you should marry a rich man, do this and that and the other and you can snag him" etc. etc. and people give up and decide to hide who they are for the type of security they get from marriage. I'm not trying to be judgemental, but I do think that talking about it and admitting what the problem is and how many people it affects is a good thing. I mean, if talking about this makes one mom quit joking around with their daughter to marry a rich man, this world will all ready be a better place, little things make a difference.

  5. #5

    I am so appalled by this website and the companies choosing to advertise it. An adulterer can ease his or her conscience by saying their spouse deserves it, but that's just a cop out. If they really are unhappy they can make a choice to leave. If it's not worth that then it is not worth destroying your spouse's trust with lies and sneaking. I wonder how many children's lives will be torn apart by this. I've known so many young teenagers who have turned to drugs to alleviate the pain of a parent's infidelity and these ads only encourage the unraveling of family. It's easy if you're not on the other side suffering through the betrayal, or if you're the one banking billions off it like CEO Biderman. "Humans aren't meant to be monogamous," he says. So would this free-thinking CEO mind if his own wife used his site? "I would be devastated," he says.

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