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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.