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"The site seemed simple and straight-forward . . . I knew that most members would be married. I prefer [to cheat with other married people] because they have as much to lose as me typically, and it's easier to relate to someone who is married," says Paul (not his real name), a 35-year-old executive at a large corporation in midtown Manhattan. He has been married for seven years, and throughout the marriage he and his wife have had sex about twice a week, but he says she's sexually conservative. Four years ago, he went looking for "someone fun and exciting, more adventurous in bed and spontaneous." Paul cheated for the first time with another married woman he met through the Ashley Madison Agency (ashleymadison.com), a website that boasts such taglines as "When Monogamy Becomes Monotony" and "For Women Seeking Romantic Affairsand the Men Who Want to Fulfill Them."
Paul is one of over a million members of Ashley Madison, whichlike Married Secrets, Affair Match, Discreet Adventures, International House of Wives, and otherscaters to married people who want to cheat with other married people. In the three years he's been an on-and-off member of Ashley Madison, Paul has met two women, one with whom he had an 18-month affair, and the other, a six-month affair; he considers them "friends with benefits." The reasons he gave for wanting to find other married people echo the thoughtful PR soundbites of the company's founder and chief operating officer, Darren Morgenstern. "Both people have just as much to risk and lose and expectations stay reasonable," says Morgenstern, who founded the site in 2002 after reading a business magazine article that said one-third of people who sign up on singles dating sites are actually attached. He wanted to offer a service where folks could be up-front about their marital status.
The Ashley Madison site works much like other personals sites: Members write a profile which includes their basic stats and various preferences (like cross-dressing and tantric sex), tastes in partners' behavior ("good with their hands," "will let me take control," and the unexpected "likes routine"), and desires (from being creative with food to being videotaped). There is even a section where members can rate other members with such positive feedback as "better in person." Membership costs $240 for three months of unlimited messages, or you can enroll on a pay-as-you-go system.
Sites like Ashley Madison tap into a very profitable niche within the online personals arena by bringing honesty to the dishonest practice of cheating. They allow people an alternative to a traditional personals site where they may have to lie and say they're single, thus giving potential mates the wrong impressionyet they facilitate lying to a spouse. While Morgenstern admits the company receives its fair share of hate mail, he says, predictably, "We don't promote infidelity."
Married people seem to seek other married people to give themselves a sense of added security in an inherently insecure situation. Their preference to cheat within their own camp is based on assumptions about people with spouses: They won't demand too much of the other person's time; they'll be less invested in the relationship since they already have one; they're more understanding about a last-minute cancellation because the wife is sick and the kids need to go to soccer practice. Ideally, all those things are true, but in the real world, there are no guarantees and having everything out in the open doesn't mean there won't be drama. These assumptions make all married people out to be sane and stable, and all single people end up looking like needy, unreasonable fools with no boundaries desperate to fall in love and break up a marriage. Of course neither is true: A married person can turn into a crazed stalker just as a single person can.
"I want to be up-front with people and don't want any misunderstandings along the way. We were very clear from the start that no one would be leaving their spouse," said Paul, who told me that he looked specifically for women he thought seemed happy in their marriages, as he says he is; that contributed to the success of the affairs and their not becoming something he didn't want. Another benefit of spouses cheating with other people's spouses may be a leveling of the moral playing field: If you're both cheaters, you can't judge one another for cheating.
People in open relationships don't have to deal with lying and sneaking around because they are open with their partners about their other partners. Subtract the thrill and naughtiness of doing something wrong without permission, and some people might not be into it. I'd rather hook up with a non-monogamous person than a married person, so that at least I know everyoneis on the same page. Again, being open does not mean there can't be jealousy, hurt feelings, and other emotions to deal with, but the basis for the relationship structure is honesty and communication.
It baffles me that there is not a site as popular, active, and profitable as Ashley Madison that is designed for polyamorous people. There are well-used swinger sites, but swinging is just one type of non-monogamy, a specific community and culture that not everyone identifies with. Alt.com is marketed as a site for "alternative lifestyles," but in practice, not a lot of poly people use it; you can't search specifically for other poly people, and the site is very BDSM-oriented while not all poly people are kinky. There is really only one credible personals site specifically for polyamorous people, Poly Match Maker (polymatchmaker.com); compared to Ashley Madison's million, it has fewer than 7,000 members.