Ashley Madison is more risky than any affair
The dating website is back to court Irish users, but if its 'starlet' was real she'd definitely be celibate, writes Donal Lynch
Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30
A starlet gone awry." That was how Ashley Madison CEO Rob Segal described the notorious 'affairs' website, which has relaunched amid a blaze of publicity. The millions of names - including those of 115,000 Irish users - which were leaked last year and the (hardly surprising) revelations that most of the 'women' on the site were in fact robots were both cleverly recast as the excesses of a sexy young woman. Speaking to the Irish Times last week Segal said: "We checked Ashley into rehab, we fixed her up and she's going to come back, if the market still wants to hear from her."
Well, of course it does. The market's appetite for online sexual titillation is fairly bottomless. Millions of users had their names leaked and their relationships destroyed by the leak of the Ashley data last year, and still millions have come back for more. The established dating sites have also gotten progressively more lurid - most of them now allow users to list fetishes. In this landscape there is certainly room for an even wilder Ashley - Segal lasts week said that the site is "for partners looking for other couples, partners looking for a single partner, soft kink, all kinds of experiences".
It all sounds so thrilling until you remember that if Ashley Madison really was who they want her to be - a troubled millennial - she would probably hardly be having any sex at all. We can put this down to the fact that Ashley is only human. The internet takes a natural, age-old desire - for sexual novelty - and overloads the brain with it. Dating and hook-up websites provide a seemingly endless horizon of sexual possibilities but they are all sizzle and no steak. They offer an ersatz substitute for real human flirtation. Despite the perception that sex is the wallpaper of modern society, and that this is the "hook-up generation", all research points to the fact that young people today are having less sex than at any point since the 1920s.
They are also far more likely to be celibate - nearly a fifth of Americans born during the 1990s haven't had any sexual partners since they were 18.
A study at the University of San Diego last year stated that "online dating apps should, in theory, help millennials find sexual partners more easily. However, technology may have the opposite effect if young people are spending so much time online that they interact less in person, and thus don't have sex". Buzzfeed, more succinctly, called it a "millennial fu*k crisis."
Of course, it wouldn't just be the dating apps that would stop poor Ashley. How can any real life girl compete against the blizzard of online sexual imagery. Porn has been described as a 'supernormal stimulus' - a term coined in the 1930s by the Dutch Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen. This refers to the fact that porn taps into a deep seated evolutionary desire for a mate, but elicits an even stronger response than the real thing. All animals are vulnerable to this phenomenon. Zoologists have observed beetles trying to mate with beer bottles, in preference to mating with female beetles - the male beetle prefers the exaggerated colours of the bottle. Tinbergen experimented with small songbirds who chose to sit on large, fake eggs rather than on their own young. Human beings are vulnerable too. Dolls, Disney characters and other objects of accentuated cuteness - think Hello Kitty and Bratz - use biological markers of primal helplessness like huge eyes, button noses, and large heads to lure children and grown ups alike.
And for boys (and girls) of a certain age, the exaggerated features of porn stars are more mesmerising than the potential partners of real life. Porn distorts what's known as the Coolidge Effect - the evolutionary tendency for male mammals to become more easily aroused by new partners. Porn sites flood the brain with dopamine, a feel-good chemical. The continual hit of online titillation alters brain chemistry. There is no other natural activity that releases as much dopamine as sex. This is part of what makes porn, and online dating so addictive. Cambridge neuroscientist Valerie Voon has published research demonstrating that the brains of habitual porn-users are similar to those of alcoholics or drug addicts.
The head of the Rutland Centre, Dr John O'Connor, recently spoke of the coming "tsunami" of sex and porn addiction in Ireland. A whole generation has seen its sexuality hijacked by the internet.
There are unlikely upsides to this. Self-love is safe sex. In the UK, official figures published earlier this year showed that teenage pregnancies in England and Wales have almost halved since the rise of social media. Will future generations substitute emojis or clicking for actual sex? For older people, who like Morrissey, set out on adult life wanting "to live and love, to catch something that I might be ashamed of", this prospect must seem unspeakably sad.
Older people are not immune either though. The owners of Ashley Madison might imagine her to be young, but the average age of its 168,400 Irish members is 33 for women and 34 for men, its own figures show. That these men and women rushed to sign up to a service perhaps speaks to the fact that it's not merely millennials that find the treadmill of online dating slightly compulsive. We are all in danger of becoming internet eunuchs.
A recent profile of Ashley Madison's new marketing angle made explicit that actual sex takes a back seat to diverting online intrigue: "The focus won't be on cheating, per se, but on those excited moments that exist outside of monogamy and everyday monotony." It's in those 'excited moments' that its users lose themselves.
And they're what make this errant starlet more dangerous than any affair.