How many real women are actually using Ashley Madison?
I have no idea, but I can vouch for one.
About a year ago, I found myself overcome by ennui. Having been unfaithful to my (handsome, hilarious and very nearly perfect) husband in the past, I was familiar with the buzz of infidelity, and I wanted to get high again. I'd read about the Ashley Madison website in a magazine article a year or two before, filing the data away for potential future use. Not long after, I looked online to see what the website purported to deliver. As a woman, my registration was free. My interest was immediately piqued.
Skeptical, I provided very little identifying information on my profile at registration. I wanted to hunt without being hunted, and was afraid I'd be found out. By a neighbor. By a friend's husband. By an acquaintance. Or, most horrifyingly, by my father (he was never on the website that I know of, but this remained my most prominent and irrational fear). The personal details I did eventually include were guarded and vanilla. "Not sure what I am doing on here. I have a wonderful husband but ... I'm in my 30's, enjoy my profession, love my adorable family. I like sports and the outdoors. My favorite book is Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, my favorite movie is Steel Magnolias, and my favorite band is The Grateful Dead."
I surfed the profiles of men I never doubted to be real. I looked for handsome faces, some semblance of professional success, and proper grammar/punctuation. It wasn't quite like shopping for shoes at Nordstrom, where everything is beautifully displayed and screams "Buy me! Buy me!" -- but the selection was certainly better than the Goodwill thrift shop down the road. I initiated contact with a few men I found attractive. We exchanged AM messages and then moved the conversation to our personal email accounts. Only then would I provide my real name and a photo. I continued with vague explanations of my extramarital pursuit, but was clear that my husband was the one for me, with no intention of destroying anything on anyone’s home front.
When I finally did feel comfortable to post a (faraway and sunglassed) photo on my AM profile, I was bombarded with likes and winks and invitations to view private photo galleries. At first, it was kind of fun. So many men! So many men who could potentially be mine! Then it became overwhelming. The sheer volume diluted the experience, making it more overstimulating than stimulating. I liked it better when I was doing the shopping.
Yet there was still a deeply addictive quality to it all.
One man once asked me if all the Internet attention "gave me high self-esteem.” I can say with confidence that non-specific, voluminous "likes" and "winks" and generic compliments had very little effect on my own self-worth. I wish it were that easy. Interestingly, men kept telling me how “normal” I seemed. This was the closest to flattered that I felt, a form of reassurance that despite this totally inappropriate, amoral and dishonest venture, I was still A-OK at my core. In hindsight, I recognize “normal” as code for “real” -- not a sex worker, not a robot, but a regular woman.
And the dick-pics. Oh the dick-pics. I didn't even know this was a thing. I still don't want it to be a thing. It seriously shouldn't be a thing.
I finally chatted with someone I found interesting. We’ll call him Dave. We had excellent Internet chemistry, banter that gave me butterflies - only then did I start to entertain the reality of an in-person meeting. It took some persuasion on his part. But I felt little bursts of dopamine activate my neurons during our online chats when I should have been working, playing a game with my son, or going to bed on time. As soon as I conceded that I would meet with him at a restaurant midway between his work and my house, I also resolved to meet with a total of five other men. It was part sociological experiment, part romantic venture and part a thrill-seeking foray into this very secret cheaters’ life.
When I was a young girl, I told my dad that when I grew up I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or pilot and have boyfriends all over the world. “That’s called a high-class hooker, my dear,” he responded.
I have struggled on and off over the years with relationships and the realities of monogamy. But when I met my now-husband, and we worked through a lot of the baggage I brought into the relationship, I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. To adventure together. Raise children together. Grow old together. In sickness and in health. For better or worse. So we got married. And I was faithful. For almost a year.
We once entertained the idea of having an open marriage. Or, he entertained my idea of having an open marriage. But when I did go ahead and sleep with another man and confessed the tryst to my husband, he told me in no uncertain terms that the “open marriage” was off the table. I complied, but then secretly embarked on a more prolonged affair with a local man I met online. Again, I confessed my indiscretion. My husband was hurt, horrified and needed time to reevaluate our relationship. We lived apart for a few months, he threatened divorce, and we went to counseling. Ultimately, he chose forgiveness. And for a few more years I remained faithful.
In reflecting on my proclivity for infidelity, I can only describe it as a kind of sensation seeking -- the addictive quality of falling for someone new -- and a propensity for self-destruction -- reinforcing pathological defense mechanisms. Sure, there’s the sex. And that part is great, sometimes even amazing. But for me, it’s not about a secret kink, an insatiable sexual appetite. or not getting enough attention at home. It’s the novelty of someone else. The intensity. The escape. The possibility. The falling ...
As soon as I met my first AM suitor, Dave, in person at the restaurant, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. The online chemistry didn’t translate into real-life chemistry. While I may be easy, I’m still picky. And when, after a cocktail and some awkward conversation, he said quite loudly, “So are we gonna fuck?” I definitely knew it wasn’t going to happen.
Dave was a well-educated man, just a few years my senior. We initially connected over a little-known but well-loved vacation spot. He was cute in a nerdy sort of way, and we developed a quick and witty rapport. I shared things that I seldom discuss with even my closest friends. He reciprocated. We stayed up late chatting, and he often made me laugh out loud. He's married to his college sweetheart, and his wife became pregnant with their third child over the course of our friendship. Having had one extramarital relationship with a single woman he met on OkCupid, he turned to Ashley Madison in search of chemistry with an already-partnered woman. He told me that he didn't feel like he was getting what he needed from his marriage, wanting more in the way of emotional intimacy. He was also open to more varied sexual experiences.
Next I met with a man whom we'll call The LDS Lawyer. His AM profile pictures were high-quality and showcased his many mountain adventures. I'm a sucker for an outdoor alpha male. Doing my pre-meeting detective work, I discovered we shared a mutual Facebook friend. This was both comforting and bizarre. It is a small world after all, and I was hoping to make my world feel bigger, not smaller. We met for drinks at a bar during work hours. He told me right away that he was interested. I was reticent. Sure, I was attracted to him. But he drank three cocktails to my one (it was still daytime), and he and his wife had an interesting sort of arrangement (I felt he had less to lose than I did). I pushed for more conversation, more get-to-know-you kind of talk. He asked me if he could kiss me, and I blushed and shied away. For a minute. Then I went for a drive with him to a park, and we fooled around in the back of his Durango like teenagers.
The LDS Lawyer and I continued to meet like this for several months, fooling around, but never actually having sex. I liked him well enough, but when he confessed that he masturbated to the thought of impregnating me and professed that he was "mildly" in love with me, I broke off the relationship.
The third man I met, I'lll call Texas Ranger. His was one of the first profile photos I noticed, and he wasn't immediately responsive to my initial message. He must have a life outside of technology and pursuit of extramarital affairs, I thought, that is downright sexy in this day and age. I later learned he was training in the mountains in Peru, and messaged me after a day spent jumping out of planes. We exchanged a few emails and agreed to meet at a bar.
Texas Ranger looked smaller and had thinner hair than in his photos. Nonetheless, I was immediately attracted, drawn to him as if we’d known each other for years. We drank whiskey and discussed the confines of monogamy. We exchanged travel stories. I talked passionately about my work, and pressed him for details about his confidential military job. He asked smart questions, and actually listened to the answers. But in a thoughtful, aloof sort of way. He described himself as someone who desired to meet and expand, to discover and know. He wasn’t married, opposed to the institution, in fact, but was with a “fantastic partner,” whom he had “no business straying from.” This alone connected us.
Despite the genuine chemistry with Texas Ranger, I met with a fourth man, let’s call him Not A Doctor, at his apartment. I emailed him beforehand: “Since meeting at your place is somewhat shady, just promise me that if you rape and kill me that you’ll tell my family where to find the body, and not that we met via AM." He was in the process of divorcing his wife, a relationship that, per my prodding, seemed volatile and doomed from the start. He was on AM because he wanted to meet women who weren't looking for serious commitment. He physically came on strong -- caressing my thighs, kissing my neck, trying to unbutton my dress. I resisted, and pushed him away. "You like this, don't you," he said coyly. The physical attention actually made me uncomfortable, but ultimately I conceded that this was all part of the adventure. After we fooled around, I insisted on knowing more about him, about his failed marriage, about the women he'd met on Ashley Madison, about his job in medical sales. As my curfew approached, he walked me -- and his little dog -- to my car. I kissed him on the cheek, knowing we'd never see each other again.
And to round out my commitment to meet with five different men, I met the fifth and final AM suitor at one of my favorite coffee shops downtown. Let’s call him Idaho. I knew immediately, before even approaching the table where he was sitting, with perfectly erect posture and drinking his coffee black, that I wasn't interested. He just wasn't my type. He had recently relocated to the city for a new job, living apart from his wife and kids in an entirely different state. He was fully committed to staying with his family, but he and his wife were no longer physical in any way, because of her mental health issues and medication regimen. He was nice enough, but not a person I wanted to sleep with, let alone cheat on my husband with. He asked if he could see me again, I declined, attributing my reticence to my lack of clarity about the whole venture. We politely bid each other adieu. And I still couldn’t get Texas Ranger out of my head.
Texas Ranger and I have been in some version of a relationship for nearly a year now. At times it has enhanced my marriage, inspiring me to go down on my husband, reminding me that my man is as good as it gets. And at other times this relationship totally undermines my marriage, creating resentment over my responsibilities and time constraints, making me question my chosen life path. Technically speaking, Texas Ranger and I have no future together. He loves his girlfriend and intends to propose marriage. I love my husband and intend to become pregnant with another child. But I just can’t give him up. For one, I sincerely like him, but also there’s an addictive quality to it all. I crave him, I get my fix, and then I want more. My insatiable appetite, not just for the sex, but for the whole confusing mix of physical and emotional feelings, persists. Maybe it’s the escape from real life. The exploration of something new. The thrill of falling for someone else. But ironically, there’s also a very isolating quality to infidelity. There is no one to talk to about it all, to reflect on my actions, to process the big picture. I can’t talk to my lover about my husband. I can't seek advice for marital spats or discuss fertility woes. And I can't talk to my husband about my lover. I can't brag to him about the amazing sex, or cry to him with the heartbreak that is being involved with a man who loves someone else. None of it makes any sense to me yet, and the secrecy draws me further, not closer, from the people in my life. In my search for excitement, romance, connection and intimacy, I’m as alone as I’ve ever been. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the point.