Monday, July 19, 2010

AshleyMadison.com & The Culture of Online Dating/Cheating

A working wife unlocks the door to her burgundy brick home. Curious as to why her husband is home before her, she climbs up the stairs and tiptoes to her room. Wanting to surprise her husband with a seductive mood, she instead, to her dismay, opens the door to find him on top of a tall, buxom, blond. In tears, the wife runs out, thinking it’s her fault. She asks herself – Am I not pretty enough? Thin enough? Do I attract the wrong men? But now, she has an entirely different dynamic to blame: the internet.

Nowadays, people use the internet to search for their soulmates, engage in reckless sex, and even hide notorious infidelity. But, what ambiguously constitutes as infidelity is merely online conversation or flirting via webcam. If it doesn’t go further than that, one can argue it’s not considered cheating. But, here, I introduce you to a new concept – an internet dating site that actually caters to unfaithfulness – called www.AshleyMadison.com. According to his National Post Business article - appropriately titled “Infidelity Inc” - Jared Mitchell writes surveys claim 20% who implement online dating sites are married, “yet among AshleyMadison.com’s 275,000 subscribers, the total is closer to 80%” (Mitchell, 100). And not only is this site serving married men who are searching for philandering women (100), but 30% of these women are singles appealed by married men (104). Not to mention an article in Business 2.0 Magazine about Match.com revealing 20-30% of users on single dating sites were married people pretending to be single (103).


The lesson here? Because these relationships are accessible online, the rules of dating and cheating have changed. I will discuss how dating and online etiquette has intertwined and skewed the boundaries - in terms of areas such as honesty in pictures and information on dating websites, online vs. offline connection, and cybersex– based on evidence shown in the culture of AshleyMadison.com. My hypothesis is that mostly men would cheat on their wives online, because of the internet’s convenience, anonymity, and release of sexual stimulation – all without leaving their own rooms; the men may slightly fib about their appearances and look for casual sex. I will concentrate only on men, since Ashley Madison mostly caters to married men who are looking to cheat. I have assessed 37 profiles of men, aged 18-30 from Ontario who, according to the site, clicked they are seeking “cyber affair/erotic chat” and 38 profiles of those same above characteristics who pressed they are seeking “something long term” (75 profiles in total). My social science research basically focuses on just online dating (no mention of Ashley Madison) and previous themes listed, but my media research i.e. recent newspapers and magazines talk about the controversy surrounding Ashley Madison and online dating/cheating.

First, I will look at my social science research or, in other words, the online dating factors that can be connected to online dating/cheating and websites like Ashley Madison. According to the article “Online Place and Person-Making” - by Rachel Jones and Martin Ortlieb - individuals require “places.” According to surveyor Michelle (UK), this place can be a site where “she is free…to be as serious or as playful as she likes” (Jones & Ortlieb, 216). Perhaps everyone needs that place, where there are no rules, and their cheating is condoned – a place where potential cheaters are brainwashed into exploring their inhibitions and becoming convinced that cheating isn’t wrong or immoral. This article also reiterates that traditions and actions involving romantic meetings may be changed, when people choose to meet others from online (217). So, again, I think this means cheating – where it isn’t typically permitted in the outside world – is permitted online, as long as the people you’re cheating with know they’re involved i.e. like in AshleyMadison.com. However, the problem with “truthfulness and integrity” were major factors for participants (218) in an online dating survey conducted in the US and Germany (215). Ironically enough, here, in the case of Ashley Madison, men advertise their cheating on a website that promotes cheating. But, in the process, they’re showing women on the website that they’re being untruthful to their wives. How can these girls trust guys who say they’re cheating? It only implies these men are capable of lying about more serious matters, like if they’re rapists or serial killers. And while these men probably wouldn’t admit to those crimes, what if these girls were to fall in love with these men who they know are capable of cheating again. But, how do you know if someone’s being serious or joking? Discussing the element of “virtual or real settings” (221) – whether online activity can compensate for offline or reality – is difficult. Should any online flirting be taken literally as cheating? It may be a joke, but you can’t see the body language or tone of voice of the person online to interpret it as cheating. But when you’re on Ashley Madison, you wonder if any man would actually say they’re cheating, when they’re really single!


Jennifer L. Gibbs, Nicole B. Ellison, and Rebecca D. Heino collaborated in writing “Self-Presentation in Online Personals.” Here, it indicates a successful online dating relationship conventionally transports to offline (Ellson, Gibbs, & Heino, 152). This is what makes the cheating real – in-person – as if you’re not cheating on your wife with a computer, but a real human being. But, what if you cheat with a user online and when you meet offline, you don’t like them? After all, “the actual meeting could be sometimes disappointing” (155). I ask myself - would it still be considered cheating, if you chatted online and did nothing offline? What if you talked a lot about your personal life online (156) and you become really close to a user, in terms of communication? Is this a form of emotional cheating? Can you cheat on your partner emotionally? If you become good “online friends” with someone of the opposite sex, are you still cheating? Can you even become friends with someone solely based on online interaction for that to be deemed cheating? Most people don’t even consider friendly chat cheating, but if it is considered cheating, most people wouldn’t even know for a fact it’s considered cheating; so, in that case, they would be cheating by accident or not cheating at all. But, remember that on Ashley Madison, people intentionally go on there to cheat, so the pain infidelity causes here is realized beforehand by the cheater and, thereby, inexcusable.

In Elizabeth F. Churchill and Elizabeth S. Goodman’s study “(In)visible Partners…,” their analyses allege you cannot divide or separate online matters from cultural and political incidents of daily life (Churchill and Goodman, 88), meaning what you say or do online can lead to or affect you in cheating offline. They also point out the link between lowering discomfort in online dating and accumulation of divorce (89). Perhaps, divorce is connected to online cheating on internet dating sites. Maybe, people have gotten divorced, because they discovered their spouses joined or even interacted on online dating sites, probably for the purpose of “dating” people other than their spouses. Or these people married someone they met online and then got divorced. Who knows how many people got divorced because of their visits on Ashley Madison?


Ashley Madison somewhat snitches on men’s infidelity, by confessing their main demographic is married men looking for women. Another question is why these men are cheating. While I can’t speak for any man who cheats, I can attempt to brainstorm reasons by observing what these men say they’re looking for from other women on Ashley Madison; perhaps they’re looking for something their wives don’t give them. In my ethnographic study, 35% of those men who were seeking “cyber affair/erotic chat” state they’re looking for specific sexual fantasies, like threesomes, bondage, or oral sex, whereas 45% of those seeking “long term” relationships simply wrote they want sex. 12% of all these men describe themselves as open-minded and nature-loving. 5% of these men say they’re looking for easygoing women; 4% even specify they don’t want possessive women. 8% of long-termers desire to satisfy the women sexually. Here, I understand that not only do these men have sexual needs or fantasies, but emotional needs for excitement that died in their previous relationships or freedom that was suppressed by their controlling mates. Ashley Madison user creativeme1 says, “I am searching for someone to bring some much missed zest and spark. There are many things I would like to experience.” User Eldoradoman22 doesn’t like “whiners or sluts” (perhaps, he had a partner who was promiscuous or needy, and now he’s using cheating as a defense mechanism to get over her or get revenge?). There can be various reasons for cheating, but when a spouse feels obligated to stay in a marriage for the sake of the children, illness, or maybe even abuse, they may resort to emotional and sexual relationships to get that sense of love their spouses may have neglected to show them.

Carol L. Glasser, Belinda Robnett, and Cynthia Feliciano wrote about a study on race-ethnic appearance preferences in “Internet Daters’ Body Type Preferences…” Here, they used a study of 5,810 Yahoo heterosexual dating profiles, where they found Latino and African-American men are more likely to prefer larger, curvier female body types, and Caucasian and Asian men are more probable to favouring thinner and more toned female body types (Feliciano, Glasser, & Robnett, 14). They also indicate men, more than women, want and can explain a certain body type or type of beauty they prefer (15). I can argue men are stereotyped to cheat more than women, because they are that concerned with how a woman looks and constantly searching and acquiring their “perfect woman,” even when they already have that woman. I can argue men can’t control their testosterone and high sex drive, and anyone that seems really attractive they are naturally inclined to sleep with. But, the media has proven male celebrities have been cheating on their gorgeous, successful, also famous wives with conventionally less attractive female strippers or prostitutes. Take Halle Berry for instance. Her husband cheated on her, even though she’s one of the best-looking black female celebrities in Hollywood. So, just because your man cheats on you doesn’t mean you’re ugly or he found someone better-looking. Sometimes, he feels the “need” to get a prostitute fantasy – or at least a fantasy only a prostitute would be willing to perform - out of his system. Another theory is that people tend to yearn for their own kind. While attractiveness is subjective, it’s been said that attractive people go for attractive people, average people go for other average people, and less attractive people go for less attractive people. This can explain how this article’s past research demonstrates one’s own body type impacts the body types wanted in possible dates (Cachelin et. al, 2002) (16). In my ethnographic study, since Ashley Madison is specifically targeted to cheating men and my chosen profiles don’t suggest what kind of female body types they prefer, I decided to look at the same men’s profiles and see if they correspond with the preference of the idealized muscular masculine body type (15). According to my study, only 28% consider themselves fit, 13% muscular, 5% consider themselves to be shapely/toned, 4% consider themselves to be “a few pounds over,” 7% slim, and most – 40% - consider themselves to be average/medium-sized. So, in this case, most men here on Ashley Madison may want an average-sized person like themselves. In the (Ellison et al. 2006) study, they only surveyed those with pictures to check if people really lied about what their bodies are like in person based on comparisons to their pictures. They discovered people were mostly honest, because they expected to be introduced to their online dates face-to-face; but when they don’t tell their truth, it’s only slightly - about their weight or age (30). In my study, most appeared to bargain up to their pictures, while those who said they were only “a few pounds over” looked more than that from pics that usually only showed their faces. 13% don’t even show their faces and 50% of long-termers don’t seem to look how they say they do.

Speaking of which, Jeffrey T. Hancock and Catalina L. Toma explore this issue in their article “Putting Your Best Face Forward…” They discuss a study on the precision of 54 internet dating pictures posted on by straight daters. While online daters assessed their pictures as somewhat truthful to how they really look now, independent judges evaluated about 33% of pictures as not truthful (Hancock & Toma, 367). However, again, when face-to-face meeting is foreshadowed, the lying involved tends to be slight rather than abundant, and sugar-coating rather than really underestimating (368). You can apply this to cheating, by asking yourself if the lying or cheating involved here online is really as bad as lying or cheating offline. Some may say whether online or offline, cheating and lying are still bad. Even if you distort or camouflage the truth slightly, people may speculate what you’re hiding is shameful. But, just like photos are only so entirely truthful that they only capture a certain angle or add 10 pounds (370), people can edit their ideas only so much online. Even if people are honest about the personal information on their profiles and what they tell you online, they can’t tell you everything simultaneously. They can only depict a partial snapshot of themselves; the rest is up to you. However, in previous work, lying about pictures was deemed the least socially acceptable by daters, along with lying about relationship status (Toma et al., 2008) (370).

Now, I will concentrate on my media sources and what they say about Ashley Madison and online cheating. First, we will discuss the connection between online cheating and casual sex. In MSN Money’s article “When cheating on your spouse is big business,” they talk about one of the businessmen, Noel Biderman, behind AshleyMadison.com. He reveals there is an “affair guarantee” that will reimburse you your money, if you don’t find someone in the first 3 months. Well worth your $249 (1) if you do pay for the guarantee and then get your money back, but quite pricey enough to motivate you to cheat in 3 months time. This article also shocks us with a staggering statistic: over 50% of both genders confess to cheating within a relationship a minimum of one time (1). Of course, this cheating wouldn’t be expected to establish long-term relationships. One would predict it resulting in casual sex.


Peter Wilson wrote an article for CanWest News called “Online cheats looking for love.” Like the previous article, he exposes some other statistics, like that some 26% of Canadians confessed to cheating on their spouses, because they used the internet for dating. 18% of Canadians said when they resorted to dating sites, they’re really wanting casual sex. However, these events of cheating are more probable to lead to cybersex, where there’s no literal physical contact (Wilson, 1). In Charlie Fidelman’s article “If adultery is your game, the Internet is your place,” Helen Fisher – a Rutgers University anthropologist – says men usually just want casual sex, so they decrease their standards and broaden their horizons (Fidelman, 3), meaning they don’t look for one specific type of woman or restrict their choices to only those “attractive” women. They play the field and choose anyone to fulfill their sexual desires very quickly, hence the “casual sex” notion. Sometimes this just requires oral sex or quick sex.These statements further prove my hypothesis about casual sex and how men vie for it – especially through quick internet connection. But, now, I’d like to relate the next two articles to an important strategy in my ethnography: the reason I chose only men for my basis of studies. Are men really more likely to cheat, and, if so, does the internet facilitate or prove it?

In Canada NewsWire article “Date.com poll finds Men less likely to be monogamous,” 15% of males said they would search for others while in a relationship (1). 7% of men and 3% of women felt it was acceptable to have sex with others, while in a dedicated relationship. It continues to say some males are afraid of commitment, and that’s why they constantly search for other women (2). I think men tend to relate sex more to a need that must be physically met for survival, whereas women connect sex more to emotional commitment or romance. Men have a hard time expressing their romantic feelings and then being portrayed as weak, so they’re afraid to take that risk and commit.


But Yuki Hayashi’s Flare article “Love – Exciting and New” begs to differ, implying that humans in general – not just men – are expected to be polygamous. It questions whether humans are really biologically conditioned to be with one person for the rest of their lives. The prevalence of divorce (almost 50% of Canadian marriages conclude in divorce) appears to state maybe a type of serial monogamy (i.e. an open relationship) is more the standard today (Hayashi, 2). Morgenstern claims the individual you married at 25 may no longer be compatible with you (2); perhaps you or your desires have changed.

In conclusion, my hypothesis appears to be correct: men – being more likely to cheat – slightly lie about their looks and search for casual sex on the internet. Ashley Madison is a site that supports this statistic, inviting married men to cheat on their wives with condoning women. People cheat on dating sites i.e. Ashley Madison, because they can talk to whoever they want – wherever they want – with a click on their labtops and under secret identities. But cheating site or no cheating site, people will talk to each other online and be held responsible for their actions beyond the internet. The computer’s not the one talking or kissing or having sex; it’s YOU.


Works Cited

Canada NewsWire. “Date.com Poll Finds Men Less Likely to be Monogamous.” 3 June

2004; 15 Jan 2010.

Canada Newswire. “GMI Poll Reveals That Canadians Use Internet More for Friendship

Than for Casual Sex.” 1 Feb 2006; 15 Jan 2010.

Churchill, Elizabeth F. & Elizabeth S. Goodman. “(In)visible Partners: People,

Algorithms, and Business Models in Online Dating.” American Anthropological

Association. Epic 2008: 86-100. Web. 24 Feb 2010.

Ellison, Nicole B.; Gibbs, Jennifer L.; & Rebecca D. Heino. “Self-Presentation in Online

Personals: The Role of Anticipated Future Interaction, Self-Disclosure, and Perceived

Success in Internet Dating.” Communication Research 33 (2) (2006): 152-177. Web.

26 Feb 2010.

Feliciano, Cynthia; Glasser, Carol L.; & Belinda Robnett. “Internet Daters’ Body Type

Preferences: Race-Ethnic and Gender Differences.” Sex Roles 61 (2009): 14-33. Web.

26 Feb 2010 (Department of Sociology, University of California).

Fidelman, Charlie. “If Adultery is Your Game, The Internet is Your Place.” CanWest

News. 30 Apr 2004; 15 Jan 2010.

Gold, Kerry. “When Cheating On Your Spouse is Big Business.” MSN Money. 31 Oct

2009; 15 Jan 2010.

Hancock, Jeffrey T. & Catalina L. Toma. “Putting Your Best Face Forward: The

Accuracy of Online Dating Photographs.” Journal of Communication 59 (2009): 367-

386. Web. 26 Feb 2010.

Hayashi, Yuki. “Love – Exciting and New.” Flare. July 2006; 15 Jan 2010.

Jones, Rachel & Martin Ortlieb. “Online Place and Person-Making: Matters of the Heart

and Self-Expression.” Cultural Transitions. Epic 2006. 214-228. Web. 24 Feb 2010.

Mitchell, Jared. “Infidelity Inc.” National Post. December 2004.

Wilson, Peter. “Online Cheats Looking for Love.” CanWest News. 7 Feb 2006; 15 Jan

2010.

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