Life Is Short. Have an Affair, New York.

What adultery site Ashley Madison was thinking when it scandalized Times Square

When Ashley Madison, a social networking site for married people looking to have affairs, put up a billboard in Times Square, the owners of the building across the way threatened to burn it down. Soon major news teams like Fox were reporting on the complaints the advertisement stirred up among offended passersbys. By Thursday, July 24, only three days after it went up, the billboard was removed. Positioned among sexy Victoria's Secret ads, the Naked Cowboy, and events like National Underwear Day, the image that so scandalized New Yorkers was an open hotel room door with a couple embracing inside. On the door, a sign read, “Life is short, have an affair.”

With 2.45 million users, all of whom are apparently looking to break their vows of matrimony, AshleyMadison.com is no stranger to causing controversy. The site relies on anonymity and unsatisfied libidos to connect people who're in search of “a little extra on the side”—allowing them to set up profiles for free but charging them for credits if they want to send emails and instant messages to potential partners in adultery. While some users refrain from posting pictures of themselves for fear of getting caught, others provide not only photos but also personal info, making them as unabashed as the site’s advertising campaign.

According to CEO Noel Biderman, who spoke from his office in Toronto, Ashley Madison's users have more than doubled in the last year. He admits that's due in part to media fodder from PR stunts like the Times Square billboard, which he says has aroused massive interest. It’s also not the first time an Ashley Madison billboard has scandalized a city. An ad with the same “Life is short, have an affair” slogan incited a crowd of protesters last September in Beverly Hills. It also drew the attention of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres. “We thought, why not attempt the same thing in New York?” said Biderman, explaining his company chose Times Square because “there are all these hotels in that area have this second purpose no one talks about.”

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Was Biderman angry his billboard got taken down? His response: “Disappointed but not deterred.” He’s also quick to point out, “There’s absolutely nothing illegal in what we do. We offer freedom of choice.” Of course, Ashley Madison’s critics, who feel the site flaunts and romanticizes cheating, would call that "freedom" an encouragement of immorality. But Biderman has a point: “I don’t think a billboard is going to convince you to commit adultery. It just makes you aware of our service. People come to us because we offer them a lack of judgment. Step back and look at marriage and divorce rates. Monogamy is obviously up for debate.”

In other interviews, Biderman has lauded his site time and time again for giving would-be cheaters a place where they don’t have to lie about their marital status, a place where they can be open. Yet when it comes to being open with their spouses—in that sense, Ashley Madison is big on privacy. When asked if their message isn’t hypocritical, Biderman says, “I’m just a businessman”—one who attests to being in a committed, monogamous marriage at that. Still, this businessman has no moral qualms. Biderman claims he’s making the world a better place by improving the lives of men and women who are physically unhappy. “People write to me all the time to say thank you,” he says. “Most people don’t have the courage to be open with their spouses,” no matter how short life is.

To hear it from Biderman, cowardice transcends social boundaries—not just wedding vows. “This isn’t a question of race, or socio-economic class, or even gender,” he says. “Monogamy isn’t in people’s DNA, even if it’s still best for raising a family.” By Biderman’s calculations, the average man on Ashley Madison is in his late 30s or early 40s and has been married seven years, while the average woman is in her late 20s or early 30s and has only been married two. “The wedding passes, the bubble bursts, and women have fewer options,” he speculates for why female users turn more quickly to cheating. In general, the site tries hard to attract women, who only make up 30% of its user base. That explains its “female-friendly,” made-up name, which Biderman claims was selected to sound like a confidante to women (and perhaps to men like a mistress?). “Women have an easier time here,” he says. “They can sign up and have 20 men on their door no matter their age of appearance. Men are lower-hanging fruit.”

With a new television commercial out this month—it's National Infidelity Month, apparently—Ashley Madison is bound to offend America yet again. Opening with a shot of a man in bed next to a pudgy lady friend who turns out to be his wife, the ad tells us, “Most of us can recover from a one-night stand with the wrong woman, but not when it’s every night for the rest of our lives.” Women’s blogs are already bemoaning the spot’s sexist undertones, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, Biderman is getting ready for big things beyond Infidelity Month, like his New Year’s resolution for the site. Come January, he’ll be instituting a guarantee: thanks to Ashley Madison, users will have an affair—or their money back.

Previously in Click Me: Telling the Internet My Dirty Little Secrets

Click Me runs weekly on villagevoice.com. Got a question about cybersex? Write to your friendly cyberhood sexpert Bonnie Ruberg to ask advice or to share stories about sex and the internet: bonnie [at] heroine-sheik [dot] com.

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