I got married three months ago. Then last month, I logged on to an infidelity website
Her honeymoon is barely over, but Celia Walden checks out a site that promotes marital affairs -- and meets the main man behind the online phenomenon
Published 11/10/2010 | 05:00
'Life is short. Have an affair." The slogan gracing the home page of the world's biggest infidelity website, Ashley Madison, reads more like a command.
But the site's creator, Noel Biderman, assures me that the world's adulterers need no encouragement.
"Half the people in this hotel bar are cheating on their partners," he says, looking around at the business men and women innocently drinking lattes. This is quite an assertion.
But Biderman, denounced in America as promoting 'Home Wreckers Inc', has spent the past nine years helping over seven million people "cheat on their significant other".
Women have taken seamlessly to the cheating game. More than a quarter of married women admit to having an affair, compared with an estimated 18% of husbands, according to a survey for Top Sante magazine published last week.
Since Ashley Madison launched in Ireland last year, 40,000 wandering eyes have visited the site, a third of whom are women. And when the site went live in the UK last month, 630,000 Brits followed suit -- 44% of them female.
"That's higher than in the US or Australia, so what does that tell you?" asks the 39-year-old Toronto-born businessman. I don't know, I shrug. "Well," he looks pained at my naivety, "British and Irish women are disappointed by their men.
"We went live in Ireland first to test if the service was viable in Britain and other parts of Europe," explains Biderman.
"Within four months, 18,000 Irish people had signed up -- imagine what we can do when we start to market it? If any of the marketing techniques we've been able to execute in Canada, the US and Australia are allowed in Ireland, I think we'll have 100,000 members pretty quickly.
"You're recently married, I understand," he continues. I nod. I got married three months ago. "Congratulations," he says with a warm smile, adding: "We've recently seen a surge of 'honeymoon members' who have been married three years or less. Trust me," he says, taking a sip of his grapefruit juice, "monogamy is dead."
The photographer is slack-jawed, her camera suspended in mid-air, and I have forgotten my next question. Biderman doesn't notice. A little adultery can be good for a marriage, he says.
"It can be a cathartic outlet which allows the person to become a better wife, husband, parent or boss. Just look at Bill and Hillary Clinton: sometimes being unfaithful can act as a litmus test to see whether it's worth persevering with a relationship.
"But don't have an affair in the workplace, because you might lose your job; don't meet a woman on a singles website because when she finds out you're married, all bets are off, and don't visit escorts because it's unsanitary and you're breaking the law." Good, clean cheating is what Biderman advocates.
That afternoon, under his guidance, my infidelity genesis begins. I enter a cunning pseudonym -- Delia Malden -- and choose the caption "seeking affair." My limits are "whatever excites me" (there are options for one-night stands and long-term relationships, cyber affairs and erotic chats).
Having entered my height, weight, ethnicity and body type, a list of affair options within a 200-mile radius of my postcode pop up.
"Kherion66," an "attached male in search of adventure" might be a little scrawny at 73 kilos, and the 21-year-old army cadet who immediately bombards me with sexually florid emails, sends me a virtual pearl necklace and invites me to don masked carnival wear in a virtual bedroom, strikes me as a little forward.
Still, I force myself to send a few tawdry double-entendres to various suitors and pretty soon I feel distinctly grubby and would rather go home and hose myself down with TCP than continue this charade.
"It's not for everyone," laughs Biderman when I talk him through the experience.
"It might make some peoples' skin crawl, but then I also hear some very touching stories. One man whose wife had Alzheimers and had become a non-existent person was urged by his children to go on the site, where he met a woman he has been happy with ever since. So that kind of thing deflects the heat a bit."
And Biderman gets a fair bit of heat. He's received everything from death threats to abuse on anti-Semitic websites -- and expects nothing less when his Irish PR drive kicks into gear.
So does he think he can crack a still-largely Catholic island?
"As an entrepreneur, that's my big concern over Ireland. We had a great amount of traction in Boston, where the Archdiocese tried to rally protesters.
"If, all of a sudden, there's this political storm that says to a TV or radio station 'Don't take these ads', then we're limited to speaking to people on the web -- and that's not how we built our brand. It's always been about TV ads on the biggest playgrounds -- in America, that's the Superbowl."
Whether or not you can envisage an ad for an extra-marital dating service playing during half-time on All-Ireland Sunday, Biderman isn't worried about the Stringfellow effect -- the lap dancing club on Parnell Street in Dublin which floundered amid protests in 2006.
"The difference between Stringfellow's and my business is that there was a physical location where people could protest," he adds.
"People can protest my business, but, behind closed doors, you can't stop somebody from having an affair. Everywhere we've gone we've had people say 'This is wrong', and I'm almost positive the protests will be just as loud in Ireland. But infidelity will still happen whether we market our service or not. It's not a TV ad that makes someone stray."
It was Biderman's first-hand experience with cheating celebrities, coupled with the discovery that 30% of people on singles websites weren't single, that gave him the idea to found Ashley Madison in 2001.
"Whether it's princes, politicians, sportsmen and celebrities, they're all doing it," he says.
The former sports attorney came up with the idea for the site after having worked with US basketballers.
"They were as philandering a group of human beings as I have ever come across," he says.
Sex, he has since learned, may still be the primary reason men cheat, but financial issues can be almost as powerful an impetus.
"Since the recession my business has boomed. If one partner is earning substantially less than the other, particularly the man, that can drive them to cheat."
Availability has certainly got something to do with it too, as celebrities know only too well.
"They are subjected to many more temptations than the rest of us," says Biderman.
But he adds: "If you want to keep an affair discreet, you need to work on the basis of mutually assured destruction -- you need someone who's taking the same level of risk as you. The problem with men like Jeffrey Archer and those footballers is that they went for women who had nothing to lose."
Ironically, Biderman has been happily married for eight years and has never cheated on his wife.
"If I were faced with the decision to leave or be unfaithful, I would choose the latter. My kids are everything to me, so I would try the other path first, and I understand why other people would do the same."
Nevertheless, he rejects criticism that he is inciting amoral behaviour: "If I shut down Ashley Madison today, will it stop a single person from being unfaithful? Of course not. It's 2010, people: time to redefine morality."
Let's hope that the real Delia Malden's husband is as open-minded when he finds out what his wife's been up to.
Additional reporting by Deirdre Reynolds