8 shocking "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" facts from Netflix's cheating website doc

A docuseries traces the rise of the notorious website for affairs and the data leak that changed everything

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published May 16, 2024 5:34PM (EDT)

Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)

For years, the tagline "Life is short. Have an affair," was a tempting way to lure people in already committed relationships to use the extramarital affair dating website Ashley Madison. For others devoted to their committed relationships, it was their worst nightmare.

At the beginning of the dot com boom in 2001, Ashley Madison became a space where married people or people in relationships could indulge in their secret fantasies outside of their monogamous relationships. Well, that is until the site itself, which reportedly currently has 80 million users worldwide, experienced a targeted hack that resulted in a catastrophic data leak in 2015. The safety and anonymity promised to Ashley Madison users were compromised when their data was exposed to the world. In turn, people gathered and compiled lists of who used the website, publicly shaming users for their infidelities.  

The latest Netflix docuseries, "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" highlights how the website transformed from a low-budget infidelity dating website to a certified cultural pariah and controversial household name that revolutionized the way people in the modern dating world had affairs. The docuseries also details the experiences of former Ashley Madison employees, people who had used the dating service and the fallout from the data leak.

Here are some of the most revealing details from "Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies and Scandal":

Christian influencers Sam and Nia's part in the scandal
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
Two of the main characters in the series are Christian YouTubers Sam and Nia Rader. Their story begins as every relationship does — in love and with plans for the future. The young Texan couple found their footing when they went viral for a video of them performing "Love Is an Open Door" from the Disney movie "Frozen" while driving. The couple hit the jackpot: family vlogging. However, before and during their online fame, Sam used Ashley Madison to have numerous affairs with women who weren't his wife, Nia.
For years, Sam kept up the charade that he was the devoted, loving Christian husband to Nia and father to their two children. However, this changed when Ashley Madison was hacked. In the data leak, Sam's affairs and use of the dating service were exposed.
At first he only told part of the truth. In a YouTube apology video posted to the couple's channel, Sam said at the time, “As you may have seen, my name has been associated with an Ashley Madison account. I’m here to clarify some of this with you guys, ‘cause I owe it to you: I did make the account. I made the account two years ago. This is an issue that is in our past. This was before I got onto YouTube.”

He denied ever having an affair on the website and said, “The account was opened out of pure fleshly desires and out of simple curiosity.” Even Nia bought into that story.


But in the docuseries, Sam admits, “What I said in the video was mostly, pretty much, just all lies. It was just, ‘Protect yourself, man.’”


Ultimately, it's revealed that Sam had been cheating throughout his relationship with Nia through Ashley Madison, at “massage parlors and strip clubs” and “two emotional relationships” with Nia's own friends. 


The couple is still together and have reconciled despite Sam's infidelities. “Nia, she decided she would give me a second chance,” Sam said. “I’ve learned continuing to deeply be in love takes work. There’s a lot of things that I really do regret, but I don’t regret, you know, the hack.”


Nia told Netflix, "I believe that marriages can be healed. It's worth fighting to fix your marriage."

Noel Biderman puts Ashley Madison on the map: For better or worse
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
The person responsible for the creation of Ashley Madison's transformation was its founder and CEO Noel Biderman. Part of his contribution was the website's name, picked from a list of popular girls' names. Thus Ashley Madison was born, meaning to appeal to upper middle-class suburbanites. However, the website itself wasn't pulling in subscribers so Biderman had to change gears. As a former sports lawyer, he reportedly was able to make the site successful because he knew the market due to knowing his many athlete clients who had affairs.
Biderman's version of Ashley Madison drove home that this was a dating site that only worked because of the secrecy of the affairs (i.e. it's not just about cheating but also not getting caught.) He also implemented that men on the site would have to buy credits to message people, essentially paying to play.
However, marketing the site proved to be difficult because of its messaging. The steamy commercials were banned on major television channels. However, that did not stop Biderman from advertising his product. Biderman and his wife paraded around on talk shows talking about Ashley Madison and their own monogamous relationship. Biderman even said, "Marriage is preserved by infidelity." Surprisingly, the backlash from the moral conservative Christian outrage helped to increase membership. In 2015, the site had hit 35 million global subscribers.
Moreover, the site's popularity also put a target on its back when it was hacked by a group that threatened to shut it down. The data leak also exposed something nefarious: Biderman had numerous affairs himself and had solicited legal teenagers to engage in sex with him. He was eventually ousted as CEO in 2015.
An anonymous group called the Impact Team hacked Ashley Madison in 2015
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
The hack heard around the world was implemented by a group called the Impact Team. The hackers had demanded that the website be shut down or else they would leak the information of more than 30 million users in 30 days, seemingly also targeting Biderman for undisclosed reasons. The docuseries stated that it could have been an ideologically motivated attack, emphasizing that the company's mission was immoral. Swiftly after the Impact Team's demands were not met, they leaked the private information of users. 
A private cybersecurity team brought in by the company's board had suspicions that Biderman was behind the attacks but none of their leads had amounted to anything concrete. Ashley Madison had even offered a $500,000 reward to find the hackers responsible. But that didn't work, and in a second data leak, Biderman was exposed for having an interest in girls as young as 18 and 19 years old. However, cybersecurity journalist Joseph Cox had been investigating the Impact Team's presence and found them through the dark web. He exchanged conversations with them, alluding to their vendetta against Biderman and the CEO defrauding the company. The Impact Team's identity was never brought to light.
Damaged marriages and mental health at risk
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
The docuseries highlighted that the fallout of the leak fractured marriages but also led to a mental health crisis with its users many of whom were exposed on lists made public, for people to easily target users. This led to an increased public fascination and shaming of those same users. 
One of the interviewees, Christi Gibson, shared that her husband John, a minister and professor at the New Orleans Baptist theological seminary, killed himself because he had been fired for his usage of Ashley Madison. He left a note that Gibson said expressed remorsefulness and shame attached to his use of the website and the eventual data leak.
Regardless of the pain people had being connected to the scandal, others piled onto the frenzy around the data leak. An Australian radio show would even expose people's partners on air.
The discretion Ashley Madison promised was a lie
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)

The site's entire premise was that people could have affairs that would remain secret through the website. So, Ashley Madison told its users that it would wipe their data and digital footprint for a price. According to the docuseries and former Ashley Madison employees, many users used this feature thinking it would protect them . . . but it was all false.


They paid for data protection and discretion and none of their data was ever deleted or wiped. It was not as advertised. The fallout of the leak was even more devastating to users because they were promised a false sense of security by people like Biderman.

Mostly men used the site, while some of the women were bots
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)

For years, Biderman and Ashley Madison had stated that the site was a progressive place for men and women to equally engage in affairs. However, the docuseries revealed that there were actually fewer women in Ashley Madison than reported by the site. 


Also, another bombshell revelation was that there were actually numerous fake profiles of women. The profiles were traced back to an IP address from Ashley Madison's headquarters. Yes, in order to lure in more men, bots were created to inflate the ranks.

During the leak, celebrity marriages were put on blast
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)

There were many celebrities and well-connected people exposed in the leak. In the docuseries, "Jersey Shore" star Snooki's (aka Nicole Polizzi) husband Jionni LaValle was one of the named people. At the time of the leak, the reality television star denied the allegations surrounding her husband. She said, "I'm lucky if he knows how to even use a computer, yet go on Ashley Madison to cheat on me." In the docuseries, Snooki also "denied that her husband, Jionni LaValle, had an Ashley Madison account."


The series also highlighted former "Real Housewives of New York" cast member Kristen Taekman's husband Josh was also accused of having an account. Josh said, “I signed up for the site foolishly and ignorantly with a group of friends and I deeply apologize for any embarrassment or pain I have brought to my wife and family. We both look forward to moving past this and getting on with our lives.” 


Alongside, convicted sex offender Josh Duggar from the reality television show "19 Kids and Counting." Duggar is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for child pornography charges. Duggar said in a statement after the leak, "I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife."


Even President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden was supposedly exposed although he denied having an account on the website. “I am certain that the account in question is not mine,” Biden said to CNN. “This account was clearly set up by someone else without my knowledge, and I first learned about the account in question from the media.”


The docuseries stated that in the leak about 15,000 military and government emails were connected to the dating service.

Ashley Madison is still successfully running
Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalAshley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (Netflix)
While Ashley Madison has gone through a cultural reckoning because of the data breach and the ousting of its long-time CEO, Biderman, the site still exists. However, it has undergone a rebrand. The company was able to bounce back from the leak and continues to market itself as “the No. 1 married dating app.” Now, the brand markets itself to people looking for a "discreet" side relationship. In spring 2024, Ashley Madison claims to have more than 80 million global subscribers.

"Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal" is streaming on Netflix.

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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