There’s no beating around the bush with this, so we’ll give it to you straight – Ashley Madison is a website for married people, or those in some kind of relationship, who want to have an affair. The website’s tag line is ‘Life is short. Have an affair’, which should give you an indication of the let’s-cut-the-bullshit level at which it chooses to operate. Formed in 2001, based in Canada and named after two of the most popular North American female baby names at the time, the website claims to have over 20 million members – and it’s now in India (in English and Hindi, no less).
If you’re thinking ‘Hey, so this is a website that facilitates my getting a little nookie on the side – and charges me money for it’, you’re right. The company’s European communication head, Christoph Kraemer, makes it clear that they’re not encouraging people to have affairs. ‘The first thing to do would be to sit down and talk about your problems and seek counselling, as a couple’ he says. ‘If that doesn’t work, then we provide a safe, discreet way for people to have an affair, if they think it’s the solution for them. Who are we to judge, after all?’
Let’s set aside the moral implications for a moment (consenting adults are free to do what they like, to be sure) – just how does the whole thing work? Here’s how – log on, sign up and begin searching the website (and hope like hell you don’t bump into your partner/spouse, going under a name like ‘Dirtykitty74′). The company states up front that it doesn’t conduct any criminal background checks, and that whatever happens once you decide to take a mutual contact forward is on you.
A free account gives you limited access, naturally – to start conversations with interested members, and to do pretty much anything else that helps you score, as it were, you have to buy credits, with male members almost always being the paying party. You can deactivate your account for free, but to completely erase every trace of your having been on the website, including messages in other members’ inboxes, you’ll have to stump up $19 – compared to a divorce settlement, that seems like chump change. Ashley Madison says that it doesn’t store or share any personal data – which is possibly what eBay was saying at the very moment it was being hacked in May and September this year.
In India, Ashley Madison carried out a survey, in the course of which it asked men and women in various cities about why they wanted to have an affair, and to rank lovers across various parameters. The majority of respondents apparently said that they didn’t consider infidelity a sin – but a majority also said that they felt guilty after having an affair. Some other tidbits from the survey: women felt that male lovers in Jaipur were more romantic than in those in Ahmedabad, that Bangalorean men were kinkier than Hyderabadi men and that men in Delhi had, er, better ‘foreign accents’ than those in Mumbai.
Any survey about infidelity carried out by a company that has a financial stake in people having affairs has to be taken with a wee grain of salt, of course. In the past, Ashley Madison has had to deal with allegations of creating fake women’s identities to attract more men to the website, and also of snooping on private conversations between members for the purposes of sociological ‘research’.
Given that India isn’t exactly Amsterdam, and that a lot of our laws were written in the Victorian era, you would think that the company is operating on thin ice here. ‘We have legal counsel in India who assures us that we are breaking no laws, so we’re confident on that front’ Kraemer says.
We’re not entirely sure what to make of all this, if we’re honest – the fact is that men and women cheat on their spouses and partners all the time, for various reasons; this is something that can be filed away under ‘universal truth’. Actively profiting from situations in which people and their families are likely to suffer emotional damage – now that’s a grey area, if there ever was one. Still, if you’re a consenting adult, and if you’re interested, you know the two words to enter in your next Google search.