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Shortly after the lockdown began, the Ashley Madison “married dating” site saw an uptick in members, as people started having affairs during the pandemic. 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 that had 65 million members around the world in 2019.
Lockdown has not put an end to affairs because of modern technology. Though some cheating has gone virtual, many married daters are still meeting their affair partner in person. Ninety percent of the site’s members have affairs on their smartphones, even though 29% of spouses know each other’s passwords, said Tammy Nelson, a sex and relationship therapist who has studied the results.
“We’re in such unprecedented catastrophic times,” Nelson said. “It’s so apocalyptic that you have got to have something to look forward to.”
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 with 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 65 million-plus members have said that having affairs keeps them married. So, 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 surveyed its members. It may sound self-serving for its business, but Ashley Madison believes marriage is a pragmatic arrangement that offers inherent value despite a partner often failing to provide all the necessary love, support, and desire.
“The fact that 21,000 people are joining each day tells you how pervasive the impact has been across the globe,” said Paul Keable, chief strategy officer at Ashley Madison, 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,” Ashley Madison found in six different surveys that 75% of married couples are having less sex or no sex at all with their spouses. The report said 53% are spending more time with their spouse now than ever before. It also found 41% are 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 coming out. Some 58% say that their spouses have not initiated any sexual intimacy. Twenty-eight percent say the spouse is glued to a mobile phone or computer. Another 19% say the spouse is rude, moody, or constantly picking fights. Eighteen percent say the spouse has never given any space, and 15% say that my spouse is messy and I’m constantly cleaning up after them.
The pandemic’s effect
Not having their sexual needs met at home is the reason 64% of members have been having affairs during the pandemic, and 74% are unlikely to stop having affairs once the pandemic stops. Of those who are having affairs during the lockdown, 34% say they have something to look forward to. Twenty-three percent say it’s a great distraction. Fourteen percent say they have someone to talk to, and 13% say it helps them maintain a sense of normalcy.
Ashley Madison said 95% are still interested in finding or maintaining outside relationships beyond their spouses in the pandemic. That suggests that people don’t look to their partner in times of uncertainty and stress. They look beyond their partner, Nelson said. Eighty percent are planning on meeting their current cyber affair partner once restrictions left.
The pandemic has not decreased the desire or ability to cheat; in fact, it has fueled it. Forty-seven percent say having an affair has helped them get through the lockdown. Thirty-two percent have gone on in-person dates since the pandemic began. Eighty-four percent consider an affair to be a form of self-care, and 32% have had sex with their affair partner during the pandemic.
While some are more adventurous, others are careful. Sixty-five percent say they are more selective with 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.
Ashley Madison said that the rumors of divorces rising aren’t necessarily panning out. It found 87% 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, and 28% felt confident, while 19% felt acknowledged. Twenty percent said they miss dating and casual sex the most during the lockdown. Twenty-one percent 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 everything is back to normal.
With the bulk of time now spent at home, married people having affairs deem their infidelity an integral form of self-care and a way for them to stay married, Nelson said.
Ending their marriage is the last thing on members’ minds. In fact, 92% of members disagree or aren’t even considering the statement “I will file for divorce following” the end of the lockdown, and their infidelity is to thank for that.
Cheating during lockdown has made 47% of members feel sexual, 45% excited, and 44% desired – but the benefits run deeper than just feeling sexy. Thirty-two percent of members feel appreciated, 30% feel relaxed, 28% feel confident, and 19% feel acknowledged. 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 a single person who can offer fulfillment in every aspect of life – not even a spouse, Ashley Madison said. Sometimes 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 more fluid monogamy.
“We’re moving towards 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 held six member 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. Those who are more cautious would use some kind of encrypted communication.
“The majority of people get caught because they leave their phones out or leave the information in an accessible way,” Nelson said.
Fifty-eight percent of them store their data — like sexting messages or nude pictures — on some kind of private or secure app, 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 Americans have affairs, as people don’t tell the truth when they answer polls. North America is perhaps 70% of Ashley Madison’s business. Taiwan had decades-old adultery laws, and when they were repealed, more than 100,000 people from Taiwan joined Ashley Madison. Asia is an area for market expansion.
“It was just seven days, as there was such pent-up frustration and desire,” Keable said. “We had no marketing there.”
The company still has around 160 employees or so.
“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 are members 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 gamers. Would gamers be more likely to have affairs?
“So 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 next and stay home and play video games and be totally happy without connecting with other people.”
That would be interesting to explore, as many games are highly sexualized for 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 knows that there is a world of sex robots and other interactive sexual products and virtual reality porn coming these days.
“They may create more interaction through technology and sexual connections for people, as they’re more socially distanced and isolated,” Nelson said.
I think that there will be a lot of attraction for the sexual part of the metaverse, where something like the Star Trek Holodeck allows you to create a fantasy sexual partner of any kind. You might get lost in that world and never come out. You can see it in such game worlds like Detroit: Become Human, which depicted a future where robots are our slaves.
But I also think that some kind of sexual metaverse will be the hardest kind of world to create, as the sense of haptics, or touch, is very difficult to do, and the visual fidelity that 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.
There are people like Jerry Falwell Jr. who are allegedly putting out a religious avatar for the public and then doing something else in private. People separate themselves into compartments, and they don’t have integrity in their lives and are more hypocritical. For those on Ashley Madison, at least they know why they are all there, Nelson said.
“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 and but I want sex, and then I’ll be happy,” Nelson said. “We’re probably moving more towards a more sort of village mentality anyway in a relationship. And there’s somebody to homeschool my kids and clean the house. Some come over to have sex with my husband online. I think it’s moving towards more of a polyamorous situation anyway.”
In time, one of the problems that can come is 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. They 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 have multiple relationships that are extensively not about commitment and long term relationship,” Nelson said. “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 your mental health.
“People thought that their affair was part of taking care of themselves, like self-care in a way they would not lose their minds and stay married during the pandemic,” Nelson said. “I can still feel sexy, feel confident, and feel excited about myself and be with my spouse.”
Nelson said different studies have shown that 25% to 65% of people will cheat at some point in their marriages. And Ashley Madison’s growth suggests that is happening, and you can do that cheating while lying in bed next to your partner. In this experimentation, people 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. “Guys say I just went to a strip club.”
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 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.”