Ashley Madison was not for women or queer couples so you can let that argument go

Ashley Madison was a male fantasy. Actually.

I argued in my initial piece that it was ridiculous to talk about the site or the implications of the data breach outside a gendered context and recent evidence has proved it tenfold. Annalee Newitz analyzed the data and confirmed that almost none of the women on Ashley Madison were actually using the site. Namely because they are bots attached to profiles that the company paid people to set up.

She writes:

“What I discovered was that the world of Ashley Madison was a far more dystopian place than anyone had realized. This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.”

In a database of 37 million people, 31 million were men. Newitz estimates that there were maybe 12,000 profiles that belonged to actual, real, live women, despite the fact that 5.5 million profiles are marked “female.” And even among those maybe-12,000, the women’s accounts were mostly inactive.

She writes, “The women’s accounts show so little activity that they might as well not be there.”

So what of some men’s insistence that Ashley Madison was a haven for the downtrodden or marginalized?

What of their insistence that Ashley Madison has nothing at all to do with male entitlement?

Not only does evidence confirm that the vast majority of female profiles were bots, but Ashley Madison was so heavily focused on accomodating heterosexual affairs that, as Newitz reports, they didn’t even bother to create a dialog box for women interested in women.

“Not to put to fine a point on it, the site seems unambiguously geared toward straight men,” she wrote.

“Even if I had wanted to create an account that reflected who I really am as a woman, my profile information would be purged. Or I would be asked to gear my profile toward men, even if I was trying to hook up with women. And that meant I would be contacted by men who had no idea what I looked like, or what I wanted sexually.”

On Wednesday Dan Savage was interviewed on CBC’s q, arguing the the situation wasn’t a “black and white issue.” Throughout the interview he pushed the narrative that the cheater is often “the victim of the marriage,” that people who cheat are “trapped” in marriages they can’t get out of and are “showing loyalty to their spouses in other ways” [besides sexually], and that this choice to cheat was often the best for everyone. While I’m not opposed to the idea that this scenario exists and is likely much more complex than cheater = bad, this possibility does not negate the intentions behind Ashley Madison and its users.

What both Greenwald and Savage tried very hard to do was to make the exception the rule. Savage told host, Shad, about a woman with two special needs children whose husband cut her off from sex five years into their (now 20 year) relationship and refused to allow her to have sex with anyone else. She eventually went on Ashley Madison, Savage says, and “found some comfort with someone else in a similar circumstance.” He asks, “Are we really supposed to say that person is a terrible human being?”

No we are not. Also staaaahp with the sob stories. Savage’s go-to story is literally one out of millions. There are 31 million men on a website (purportedly) aimed at helping heterosexual men find women to have affairs with, but we’re supposed to pretend Ashley Madison is all about helping women in relationships with asexual men?

What about the men, Dan? What about the millions and millions of heterosexual men?

This behaviour seems to be a pattern. When women talk about men’s behaviour we’re told not to. That, rather, we should be talking about the odd woman who buys sex or watches porn. Beyond that, when we talk about the behaviour of heterosexual men, we’re literally erasing the entire communities of gay people.

But you know who literally does not care about either gay people or heterosexual women? Ashley Madison. You could say they were erased from the site, but really they just weren’t there to begin with. Yet those of us who won’t limit our analysis to these practically invisible users are labelled “moralizers.”

Newitz makes clear that her research does not prove that there were no women who used the site at all (certainly some successful affairs came from the site, just not many, considering the number of users) or that women are necessarily uninterested in casual sex with married men, but rather that “Ashley Madison was a site designed for men, by men. And it hit its target market very well.”

This is not about me making a higher-than-thou argument. As I said previously, I do not believe that cheating automatically and necessarily makes you a bad person. Certainly I am not ethically infallible. While I have never had a tremendous amount of trouble maintaining monogamy in my relationships (I’ve also never been in a 20 year relationship before…), never say never. Life will surprise you, no doubt. That said, I’m also in a relationship with someone who, if I felt I really needed to go hook up with someone else (and frankly, I can’t imagine a dick that would demand such urgency… Like, I can’t live without fucking this guy just once!), I’d talk to my partner about it and we’d probably work something out. Last time I asked a boyfriend if I could make out with someone else (someone specific, this wasn’t a general request), he said no. I pouted, but moved on. Like, what is the big deal? Are we all babies who can’t handle it when we don’t immediately get exactly what we want, the moment we feel we want it?

There is an answer to that question and it is (surprise!) a gendered one. Men do believe in instant gratification. That’s why they watch porn and pay for sex. Watching porn and paying for sex is about getting exactly what you want, when you want it, no fuss no muss. This is an integral part of male socialization — learning that your sexual desires are actually needs and that they must be fulfilled in order for you to survive. This is what the narrative surrounding defenses of the sex industry is: “What if he isn’t getting what he needs at home?” “What if he has a hard time meeting women?” “What if he has a disability and requires sexual release but can’t find a consenting partner?” I mean, putting aside the fact that there are plenty of women who have a hard time meeting suitable male partners and that there are plenty of women with disabilities who enjoy and desire sex, yet don’t use that as a means to justify exploiting others, those questions imply that a desire is actually a need.

Same thing goes for justifications for men who cheat. He was unhappy in his marriage but didn’t want to hurt his family so he had to run around behind his wife’s back. What choice did he have! His wife “lost her figure,” what else could he do but find a younger, thinner woman! He was feeling neglected after the kids were born, his wife no longer had energy for him — what else could he do? Was he meant to suffer?

I mean, come on. Sure there are special circumstances that make for reasonable excuses to cheat but a hedonistic culture and a sense of entitlement to sex is a huge part of the cheating-equation. Enough already with the, “What about all the bi-racial, queer, disabled mothers on Ashley Madison who are caring for sick husbands who have broken fingers, tongues, and dicks?” That is not what Ashley Madison was about. Ashley Madison was about fulfilling male fantasies about sex-crazed Stepford Wives just looking for a good time, no strings attached. Men need their egos stroked. That’s also what this is all about — the porn, the buying sex, the cheating, the sleazy behaviour, all of it.

Ashley Madison was literally a male fantasy and acknowledging that reality erases no one. To deny it, rather, represents a rather silly exercise in intentionally pulling the wool over your eyes because it doesn’t suit your narrative and preferred worldview.

Ashley Madison

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • northernTNT

    This whole situation is so funny I want to cry… poor mens

    • Meghan Murphy

      Almost makes ya feel bad for them, doesn’t it?

    • NoAmnestyForPimps

      I don’t feel bad for them AT ALL. Sleazebags…

  • therealcie

    Granted, people have affairs. People will always have affairs. But what kind of amoral douche weasel sets up a service to facilitate and encourage affairs?
    Maybe Glenn Greenwald and Dan Savage should be angry that these poor, unsuspecting wannabe cheaters were duped into joining a service where the number of women is negligible.

    • Meghan Murphy

      It’s pretty disheartening to see such misogyny from gay men… But this has been pointed out many times before (misogyny in the gay community)… Have you read Julie Bindel’s most recent book?

  • Polly MacDavid

    I personally don’t believe the story of the “woman” who was on Ashley Madison because of her “husband” with cancer … I thought the whole thing was made up … probably by a man. If there was such a woman, she would probably find what she was looking for at 1. work or 2. at a different website, not Ashley Madison or 3. she would have bought herself a fucking toy & stayed at home where she was needed by her family … because WTF, her husband has CANCER. & didn’t she also mention kids? Hello? So she also has time for an affair? A job, a sick husband & kids? AND an affair? Pul-leaze! The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

    • Tobysgirl

      Read reviews of vibrators and see how many women say, Better than any man!

    • Tired feminist

      I also think the story was made up by a man – and a man who uses porn. Men addicted to porn think that everyone would think and act like them. Woman has kids a a husband with cancer, but OH HOW COME someone could ever THINK of living without sex! Lol how pathetic.

  • Lucia Lolita

    Oh my. Colour me shocked. Not.

  • Thiea

    Hi Meghan! Long time reader, first time posting. Is there a particular reason q*eer was selected for this article and not lgbtq?
    Side note: Dan Savage is a raging racist and misogynist so I’m never surprised to see him defending nonsense.

  • Samantha

    I love Glenn Greenwald, but he’s way off on this one. You make great points here–a haven for the less hetero set this is/was not. It’d be like claiming strip clubs are liberatory for lesbians trapped in straight marriages.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I’m a big fan of his but, like you, was disappointed to see him take up this argument…

    • tinfoil hattie

      I’ve liked him less and less over the years. Sooner or later, every well-known liberal feminist dude shows that he is actually not very feminist at all.

      • Meghan Murphy

        Sad but true.

      • Unree

        Upvoted, but I don’t think Greenwald has claimed to be a feminist. For me the key thing to remember about men like him is that we’re not playing on the same team. I say that as a HUGE fan of Greenwald’s courageous and effective resistance to the national security state.

        Maybe he’s still doing great things on that front, I don’t know. But Greenwald doesn’t think a woman is as valuable or important as a man. Despite being gay, he identifies more closely with the anonymous hordes of married straight guys on Ashley Madison–who for all he knows might be Dick Cheney voters or A.I. bots–than with women who share his progressive politics, straight or queer.

        For most women in North America, his heroism is remote. Kind of comparable to Jimmy Carter’s (very different of course) achievements against Guinea worm. I admire, but I don’t directly benefit.

        • Meghan Murphy

          Yeah… Seems to be the case for most if not all progressive men. I was so disappointed by Dave Zirin, who has done such great work w/r/t male violence against women but then apparently supports the full decriminalization of prostitution https://twitter.com/MeghanEMurphy/status/630887902969335808

          Jimmy Carter, it should be noted, has been extremely active in the feminist fight against prostitution/trafficking and advocating for the Nordic model…

      • Tobysgirl

        Look at man (in this case, Glenn Greenwald). Observe size of man’s ego (in this case, so big he can hardly fit through doorways). When have you met a man with a Jupiter-sized ego who is sympathetic to feminist causes? Isn’t it all about Glenn Greenwald?

  • calabasa

    That’s really sad though…that they were all bots…

  • calabasa

    I mean, I imagine this dystopian future where men have nothing but virtual sex (which feels completely real) with partners who only exist in a computer…possibly AI, but possibly just programmed (virtual bots), more likely something in between as they work up to AI (but would they really want full intelligence and agency in a programmed female designed to replace a prostitute or a fantasy girlfriend? For some yes–destined to get heartbroken, like the protagonist in “Her”–notice the title was still the object pronoun anyway, revealing she was still supposed to be an object for him, originally–for many others, who prefer the full control of fantasies to relationships, definitely no). I imagine all these men expending all of their sexual/romantic energy in these virtual fantasies, alienated from real human interaction by their “needs…”

  • Sarah Slamen

    Great analysis from the get-go and of course you ended up correct. Also, thank you for putting the nail in Greenwald’s self-important, Libertarian, hand-wringing coffin. What a hill to die on. Ever since Glenn jetted off to Brazil and took up with someone half his age, he has enjoyed posturing as one of these “sophisticated sexual” prophets.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for sharing those links with us here!

  • Medusa Jordan

    I am confused. If AM was a hookup site for het men and there were virtually no women to hook up with how did it work?

    • Meghan Murphy

      A lot of men wasted a lot of time and money on the site… That said, there were still some real women using the site from the sounds of it. It’s just that when you look at the numbers, the difference b/t male and female users is stark.

  • corvid

    Uggghhhh. I am soooo tired of the sex industry and things like AM hiding behind Queer culture, twisting it to act as a shield to ward off feminist analysis.

  • Cangle

    This is classic. To see Greenwald and Savage revealed in their manly ruffled feathers over a GIGANTIC disconnect from gendered reality is priceless. This. Why. I look to feminist writers, teachers and thought leaders in the world and see why females HAVE to become leaders. The most progressive males are oblivious to their blinders. The core of patriarchy – shut up the women and they better comply with access to nookie.

  • Misanthropia

    Ugh men are so pathetic it doesn’t surprise me in the least bit.

  • Unree

    Greenwald has been especially disgraceful. As has been pointed out elsewhere, he doesn’t care about the harm of upskirt photos or revenge porn. Those victims are MORE innocent, not less innocent, than Ashley Madison clients.

    -snark-/Silly girlz, don’t you know you have to be a person to deserve privacy and dignity/-end snark-.

    • Meghan Murphy

      So he’s no different than Owen Jones and Dan Savage in that regard. I’m so disappointed.

    • Samantha

      I tried googling both of those & couldn’t find it…could you post? Perhaps my affection for Greenwald is very wrongly placed. Yikes.

      • Unree

        It wasn’t that he said he didn’t care — only that he didn’t write about those invasions the way he devoted so much time to the terrible, awful attack on privacy by the Ashley Madison hackers. Before I posted what I wrote, I did google to confirm my memory of his silence.

        • Samantha

          Gotcha. Silence on those issues speaks volumes, like you said, because that *is* his bailiwick as well. I guess dudes’ privacy online is more important. Sigh.

  • John Sartoris

    I used to have great respect for Greenwald, and still have respect for his helping Snowden. That being said, he’s become very erratic in his journalism choices lately–his defense of Gawker’s journalism “quality” being one–as well as his commitment to substantial objectivity in his judgments. Gay men can be erased in discussion of male patriarchy, this wasn’t such a discussion.

    Also, I have to admire your daring in asking your boyfriend if you could make out with someone else. if I had asked that of my wife when we were dating, I would be have been doing much more than pouting.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I asked because I honestly thought he’d say yes. He was a pretty laid-back, open minded person in many ways and was raised in an unconventional fashion, on the island, on a bus… He wasn’t a super jealous person and I kinda just figured he wouldn’t care. He was like, “Um, no?” I was like, “really?” And he was like, “Yeah no!” I ended up hooking up with the guy last summer anyway, in between boyfriends, so nbd. I don’t know, I’d always just rather be honest about that stuff… I want a partner who is my friend and therefore who I can talk to about things I think and feel. I certainly have not always or even mostly been in relationships like that, but that is what I want from a partner. Not an open relationship by any means (I couldn’t handle that AT ALL), but at least one where I can be myself… I mean, I wasn’t needing to sleep with the guy and I figured making out with someone once was nbd.

      • John Sartoris

        Well, I think it’s excellent you had that open-ended relationship, and it’s cool you two had that rapport. I may just be getting old, but my wife and I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and most of the men and women I knew wouldn’t want their boyfriend or girlfriend making out with someone else, even if they weren’t the jealous types. It was more a matter of reservation of romantic intimacy.

        Anyway, that’s no judgment at all, and I completely believe couples should set their own rules, regardless of what others think. So, thanks for answering my question.

        • Meghan Murphy

          We didn’t have an open-ended relationship. Certainly I don’t think it’s acceptable for my boyfriend to go around making out with other people. It’s not like a normal thing that I ask to make out with others, but sometimes I suppose it comes up. To be perfectly honest (and I can’t justify this so don’t ask me to), I’ve always felt it should be ok for me to make out with others if I want to, whereas there is no way in hell I’d greenlight my bf hooking up with someone else. I don’t actually go around making out with other people when I’m in a relationship and trust myself not to do so if I thought or knew it would hurt my partner, so it’s not a real thing that’s happened yet, it’s just a (perhaps irrational) belief I’ve always had, likely connected to my opinion that male cheaters are sleazy assholes whereas the women I know who’ve cheated are not.

  • Kesh Meshi

    I’ve long thought that Savage’s weird preserve-the-marriage at all costs mantra is a holdover from his lapsed Catholicism.

    Also, apparently his father left his mother for another woman, and I think that might inform his judgment there as well. As if, had his father had permission to cheat, maybe he wouldn’t have left. But most cheaters I’ve known who left their spouses were looking for a way out. My father would always make sure to have another potential wife lined up before the marriage broke up; he was ultimately married five times.

    • Meghan Murphy

      This is a solid analysis. Much appreciated.

  • ellis j

    Hey don’t call LGBT+ couples “queer” couples. That word is still a slur.

  • Sabine

    Bravo Meghan, a brilliant cut-through-the-crap article!

    “Enough already with the, “What about all the bi-racial, queer, disabled mothers on Ashley Madison who are caring for sick husbands who have broken fingers, tongues, and dicks?””
    That made me laugh out loud. So true!!! Yes, let’s look at 0.00001% of these people and hold them up as representative of the whole. It’s so transparently desperate and fooling nobody who has at least half a functioning brain cell….

  • esuth

    I’ve been thinking about this story constantly and am trying to formulate a coherent theory on it – in short, I think the men on this site knew they weren’t talking to real women. Cheating on your wife is easy and anonymous, if you want it to be. These men chose to pay to have their information forever connected to the site, and very few of them actually had any affairs. I’m sure some of them were duped – signed up in a moment of curiosity, realized that there weren’t any real women there, and were unable to delete their involvement. But I think a lot of them must have known they were chatting with bots, and been turned on by the thrill of doing something wrong but not too wrong. That’s why all the accusations of prudery and Puritanism are such bullshit – how can we be pearl-clutching sex-hating feminists if there’s literally no sex going on?

    I can’t help thinking of the legalized sex industry in places like Nevada, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands, where men pay lots of money to other men for access to women’s bodies. Ashley Madison represents another (literal) step towards female dehumanization – men paying lots of money to other men for the idea of women who want to fuck them existing.

    • Meghan Murphy

      “I can’t help thinking of the legalized sex industry in places like Nevada, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands, where men pay lots of money to other men for access to women’s bodies. Ashley Madison represents another (literal) step towards female dehumanization – men paying lots of money to other men for the idea of women who want to fuck them existing.”

      YES! Exactly.

    • Nom Nom

      No men signing for that site was duped, everybody went there and wanted to cheat on their wife, don’t make victims out of these jerks.

      • esuth

        I’m not saying they’re victims, I’m saying that men who actually want to cheat on their wives don’t need a website to do it. The ones who were duped were the ones who actually wanted to have affairs and realized that the site was a bad way to do it. The ones who remained and paid to send messages to bots for months and years against any evidence that they were real women are a little more interesting to me. Like, what were they paying for?

        • niheja

          I think you greatly underestimate men’s ability to delude themselves, but I agree with you that the men on AM did not simply want affairs. They were buying an image of themselves as just too sexy or more avant garde or whatever than the other people in their lives.

          • esuth

            Lol, no one ever went broke betting on men’s ability to delude themselves

    • will

      “men pay[ ] lots of money to other men for the idea [that] women who want to fuck them”

      Truth.

  • Misanthropia

    The increased cheating in men is a direct consequence of male entitlement and the lack of accountability that is placed on the man in the relationship. People think that he’s cheating because his wife is unappealing now or that she doesn’t give him sexual access all the time (surprise surprise women are human beings with boundaries and personal spaces and such), thus blaming her for what he does and there is also this other thing that I’ve seen where people try to excuse his behaviour by saying that he has a high sex drive and he can’t do this monogamy thing all the time and he needs to go and ‘spread his seed’ which is also another total bs argument that tries to take the blame off him.

  • Daughter of Achelous

    These ads are clearly appealing to a het male fantasy. I mean LOOK at ’em!

  • ChoderlosdeLaclos

    You’re very funny, Meghan Murphy.