Cherwell

‘Life is short. Have an affair’

I’d never heard of ‘Ashley Madison’ before, though apparently with 3.5 million members a lot of people have. The website, which in structure seems no different to Match.com or any other online dating service, hooks up men and women who would otherwise not meet. The difference? Ashley Madison is expressly targeted at those who are already married or in a relationship, its slogan – ‘Life is short. Have an Affair’.

I came across the site tangentially – via this hilarious billboard in California.   Indeed the firm markets itself in true American style. Far from abiding by the culture of discretion and grace that characterises, say, French infidelity, the CEO Noel Biderman has attempted to sell adultery like Ronald McDonald sells French fries (here for instance). American politics buffs will appreciate the company’s endorsement earlier this year of Newt Gingrich, Republican Presidential hopeful and serial philanderer, in the now-elapsed G.O.P. primary contest.

I’m not sure what I make of Ashley Madison. Adultery is a function of (a) personal greed and (b) unhappy relationships. Those familiar with the MTV hit Geordie Shore, whose orange inhabitants possess the looks and libidos of gorillas, will be familiar with (a). Though as the Madison Superbowl commercial indicates prisoners of (b) are the target market.

To be fair, whilst Madison might have an interest in the cultivation of personal vice and inter-personal misfortune, it is in no position to influence either. As Biderman is oft to point out, Madison doesn’t make people want to cheat, it merely increases choice and efficiency in the adultery market.

Fair, but he forgets that we aren’t wholly autonomous; the choices available to you and I condition our preferences.  The availability and social acceptability of another vice, cigarettes say, will encourage us to smoke them. Similarly a ready market for extra-marital sex will lead to more cheating.

I confess to possessing Alain de Botton’s How to Think More about Sex. Like all my Amazon purchases made after 2am the book belongs to that commendable class of drunken acquisitions known as ‘1-Click Buying’.

His chapter on adultery is worth quoting. His observation that, until the eighteenth century phenomenon of the bourgeois, ‘the three very distinct needs – for love, sex and family – were wisely differentiated and separated out from one another’ is insightful. The oddness, and perhaps futility, of modern marriage rests in the retrograde idea that all these desires should be satisfied by the ‘selfsame person’. This is what Biderman is getting at.

Still, de Botton’s reflections don’t answer the question at hand. We may sympathise with the adulterer entrapped in a loveless, sexless marriage, but we’re still offended by Ashley Madison’s involvement. We reason that if a person is driven to cheat, then the complex emotions involved shouldn’t be exploited by a commercial interests. If you were repulsed in the first paragraph, that’s probably why.