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.”
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’sfat, 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.
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