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Once upon a time, people went on ‘business trips’ to have affairs. Now, says Fran O’Hanlon, a new online dating service helps attached men and women do the dirty with a little more ease. It even claims to preserve more marriages than it breaks up.
You might think that a website with the tagline 'life is short, have an affair' exists only in a particularly harebrained sitcom, but make no mistake. The Ashley Madison site, and its intriguing tagline, does indeed exist. And on one rainy Thursday afternoon, some 3,000 members in my locale of central Dublin were on there, looking to ignite or continue an extra-marital affair.
I registered on the site as a single female seeking attached men and, within five minutes, I experienced something of a shock. Not because of the nature of the profiles, or even the number of attached men stupid enough to make their photos public for all registered members to see, but because flashing on the screen before me were two casual acquaintances.
The first is a media colleague, the second a thirtysomething civil servant who got married in the past two years. I'd assumed that both men -- married with children -- were blissfully happy with their wives. They'd certainly shown no signs of frustration or discontent. And then I was sharply reminded that nothing -- especially online -- is ever as it seems.
Of course, Ireland is more like a small village, where six degrees of separation is whittled down to two. A number of men have their photos uploaded onto the site, and they're not just obscured torso shots, either.
I can't figure out whether, in posting their photos publicly, the men in question are foolhardy, deluded, or merely convinced that their other halves won't visit the website. Or, indeed, that any of their acquaintances will. Part of me admired their openness; another part felt weird knowing what I did about my two acquaintances.
Never mind your common-or-garden dating websites, where the relationship status of users -- despite what they're telling you -- is unknown. On Ashley Madison, the majority of members are happily attached, and they don't mind telling you about it.
What they're looking for is no-strings-attached sex, free of commitment and complication. And, whether you like it or not, members are at least being honest about the fact that they're attached and seeking an affair.
Launched in 2001, Ashley Madison claims to have more than six million subscribers, most of whom are already in relationships (70pc are thought to be men). The site gets around 700,000 unique visitors a month, with traffic spiking on Monday mornings and after major holidays.
Once you register, the fun begins almost immediately. The site entices members with information on how many other people in your area are looking for the same thing right now.
Initially, members are asked for their weight, age, race and height, and what kind of action they seek: erotic chat, cyber affair, long-term affair, short-term fling, or a combination of the above. Most of the men registered have gamely plumped for the 'anything goes' option.
Once you're logged in, you can flesh out your profile by describing your interests. Yet this is one dating site that doesn't really care if you like yoga, chess or heading to the Inca Trail on your holidays. Among the boxes to available tick are: kinky fun, bondage, threesome, role playing, one-night stands, aggressiveness, sensual massage, sharing fantasies and lots of stamina.
Members can then fill out a section where users describe what really turns them on.
They can choose from an eye-watering menu of proclivities and preferences with a view to finding a partner who's a perfect fit: good personal hygiene, body piercings, seeking a sugar baby/daddy, natural breasts, has a secret love nest, aggressive/take-charge nature, hopeless romantic, shopping for sexy clothes, 'I like to cross dress', and 'I enjoy being a father figure' among them.
It's also possible to specify exactly what you are looking for -- from a possible encounter, or a 'daring rendezvous' (whatever that is) to candlelit dinners.
So, how does the site work?
Once you register, you buy a package with 100, 500 or 1,000 credits (depending on how much you mean business). Using these credits, it's possible to send messages to other members, and offer them 'keys' to your profile, so that they can view your private photos.
Other, perhaps more sensible types tread carefully, offering a sly 'wink' instead of outright contact. Others add you to their list of favourites, prompting the site to send you an email like a meddling, matchmaking aunt: "You have an admirer!" says the email. "Strauss would like you to know that he has added you to the 'favourites' section of his profile."
Within minutes of registering, a 49-year-old man emails me immediately (it's worth pointing out that I have no photo on my own profile). I was offered two sets of keys and four men -- aged between 37 and 40 -- 'winked' at me.
After registering, an email from the site, designed no doubt to tug on the heartstrings, arrives: "Are you tired of feeling underappreciated at home? Do you want to relive the excitement that only a new relationship can bring?
"AshleyMadison.com was created for women just like you -- day after day, year after year TRAPPED in a passionless marriage. Every year thousands of women find happiness at AshleyMadison.com and we GUARANTEE YOU WILL TOO! Because you deserve more. You deserve better. You deserve to find the perfect man at AshleyMadison.com."
One service on the site, Travelling Man, also helps further grease the wheels of infidelity. "Business travel is a reality for many of us... and truthfully there is no better time to pursue a little-something-on-the-side than when you are hundreds of miles away from your significant other," says a message on the website.
"So to that end, we have created a brand new service titled Travelling Man, which allows you to send a custom priority message to up to 40 female members in the city you are visiting. Simply tell us the type of women you are seeking by age, ethnicity and the location you want to meet in and we will bring the women to you!"
Far from being the preserve of a number of middle-aged men in the throes of a midlife crisis, the site is also teeming with young twenty- and thirtysomething people, some of them downright photogenic and gorgeous.
One 19-year-old, an 'attached' male looking for a short-term fling, makes contact with a pithy, "Chat?".
For Ashley Madison's Canadian founder, Noel Biderman, the impetus behind the site seems to be altruistic. He suggests that because many members are in sexless marriages but don't actually want to leave their spouses, the company "preserves more marriages than we break up".
Naturally, the site hasn't been without its detractors. Trish McDermott, a consultant who helped found Match.com, accused Ashley Madison of being a "business built on the back of broken hearts, ruined marriages and damaged families". Yet Biderman responded by stating that the site is "just a platform", and that a website or a commercial will not convince anyone to commit infidelity.
"Some people say it promotes promiscuity," he said in a 'LA Times' interview. "But if you don't do it, you get behaviour that's way more harmful to society. Infidelity has been around a lot longer than Ashley Madison."
"I'd love to know what evidence he is basing that on," smiles O'Hara. "It's a good marketing ploy, but the truth remains -- people often go offside if there's something wrong in their relationship that they're not addressing."
Yet the motives of many of Ashley Madison's members aren't always that wholesome.
One unnamed single gentleman, who admits to a penchant for attached women, says: "I have had two quite serious relationships with married women in the past, and in both the sex was hot, added to by the drama and the guilt -- you don't know what mixed feelings are until you've had your girlfriend answer the phone to her husband just after you've had sex.
"For sheer excitement and hyped-up feelings, there has been little else like it in my recollection, especially since you are more or less entitled to do what you like, too, and they can hardly complain that you are seeing other people when they're going home to sleep with their husbands!
"There's always the danger of being introduced to the other half by accident, in a bar, which also happened -- and realising that he was taller and better looking than me, which is a weird sort of ego boost to get," he adds.
Another twentysomething female describes the lure of married men in somewhat more chilling words:
"I like the power it gives me. It's my way of getting back at all the smug marrieds and Bridezillas down the years. On top of that, there's a kind of endorsement there. Someone thought these guys were good enough to marry, which counts for something."
"Men don't want anything more from them, and that's part of the appeal for these women," suggests Lisa O'Hara of the Marriage & Relationship Counselling Services. "Some women have a fear of emotionally available men, and often they're the ones who say 'there aren't any available men left'. To them, the good men are attached. I would be questioning their self-esteem, and what they feel they deserve."
Back on the site, and my inbox and wink action appears to have dried up. In a way, I'm not surprised; surely a single woman actively looking for attached men should be approached with caution? Undaunted, I create a second profile; that of an attached woman seeking a man.
Predictably, there's a spike in inbox traffic, winks and keys. Clearly, married men would rather hedge their bets with someone else who has the same sort of relationship to lose.
And, as with a conventional dating website, the men that emailed my original profile have immediately fired me a cut-and-paste email, clearly playing the numbers game in the hope that someone -- anyone -- will reply.
One 31-year-old man from Kildare writes: "I don't want out of my relationship, just got married too young and now there's no affection there. I have a high sex drive, so I'm just looking for discreet fun. Lots of time free during the day if you have."
Another fortysomething man from Dublin is more candid: "It's like I've married my best friend. There's just nothing there on the physical side any more."
"Most of these men are committed in another relationship and simply aren't getting sex at home," affirms O'Hara.
"A connection with someone else provides the excitement in an otherwise humdrum existence. Plus, if you're with a partner of the same age, your respective libidos might not tally up, seeing as a woman peaks sexually at 39. It's entirely plausible that you're happy in your relationship but that something is amiss."
Of course, it's one thing to meet someone outside of a marriage and, swept along in a cloud of hormones and chemistry, start an affair. Quite another is to trawl websites looking for sex with someone, or even anyone.
"You'd come across people who want anonymous, no-strings sex and I'd be concerned about people like that," admits O'Hara.
"Why can't they get intimacy in their relationships? Most men would want there to be a bit more to a sexual encounter than just that. You'd at least want to like them, and most people do need an emotional connection.
"Some need a connection more; for others, it's about a release. They mightn't be feeling great about the relationship itself, but they love their partner and love being part of a couple. Often it points to an anxiety or other block in the relationship. Some people can perform sexually without an emotional connection, which can be even more distressing for a partner to hear than an actual affair."
What about a person who simply wants a cyber affair, or erotic chat?
"In a way it's in the same category as porn, as it's fantasy stuff," suggests O'Hara. "Ask a guy about something like this and they're likely to say, 'but I haven't done anything wrong'.
In fact, many of the men who have contacted me seem rather content to bat emails back and forth. In one intriguing instance, a thirtysomething gentleman (let's call him Steve) wants to email solely about how his day went, and how my day is going. Hardly the makings of a sizzling affair, and I wonder why he isn't inching towards a meet-up in real life. "Let's just say it's a case of once bitten, twice shy," he replies cryptically.
Ashley Madison may be creating headline news now, but the idea of using the internet to find no-strings-attached sex is nothing novel. On Craigslist, a classified ad site, the 'casual encounters' is often used by those on the hunt for anonymous sex.
Escort Ireland is a comprehensive directory of both independent escorts and escort agencies across the land.
Elsewhere, the site Intimate Encounters boasts hundreds of Irish members (around 200 men in Leinster alone), asking visitors on its homepage: "Married but feeling neglected? In need of some excitement?"
The testimonials are little short of effusive: "Having an affair has saved my marriage, as we both now have an open relationship," writes one user. "I realise that this doesn't work for the majority of married couples, but I've never been happier!"
Another female user writes: "My life would be very boring without my lover. My affair has made my marriage last. Without him, it would not have. He gives me everything I could have wished for."
The site even carries a disclaimer: "Warning: Not everyone is suited to having an affair; they are not an alternative to working on or ending a marriage, not all affairs have a positive effect on a marriage, some can be very damaging. Always consider other people and, if you are going to have an affair, please select your partner wisely.'"
Regardless, it all makes for rather dispiriting reading if you still believe that love and marriage can be impervious to such outside factors. Yet hopeless romantics can take heart, for it's definitely possible to salvage a marriage that has been rocked by Ashley Madison or its kind.
"It's a terrible shock to find out that your partner has been having a cyber affair, but often people are found out because they haven't wiped their internet browsing history," notes O'Hara.
"Sometimes there's that unconscious desire to get caught out and to address the issues in the marriage once and for all. If you're faced with proof in that moment, the relationship you effectively thought you had is gone. Either you push it under the carpet and live with the consequences, or you confront your partner.
"You may be an emotional wreck, but it's better to address it. Chances are there have been underlying issues that the other person has either been afraid to address, or has tried to address and you've possibly ignored it. This can sometimes be their way of protesting."
And, while I wouldn't dream of suggesting you create an Ashley Madison profile, it would certainly seem to be prudent behaviour to at least browse the profiles that are already there.
After all, who's to say that your better half hasn't already beaten you to it?