By Lucy Dunn (she/her)
CW: Discussions of Adultery, COVID
The world’s leading dating site for married couples, Ashley Madison, is a controversial Canadian set-up that launched in 2015 with the motto: Life’s short; have an affair. The company was built on shaky ethical ground, however as it turns out, it’s promotion of extra-marital affairs was not it’s only moral hiccup.
In 2015, the dating company was attacked by self-proclaimed vigilante hacktivists, ‘The Impact Team’, who operated in objection to the morality of the site. Initially, user details weren’t shared, and the hackers called for the deletion of the site, but after this offer was declined, it led to the eventual data dump of clients’ personal details on the dark web. The data breach also landed the corporation in legal hot water, for which Ashley Madison offered a paid-for deletion service. With the promise of removing all user details off their system, they played to the desired secrecy of its clients. However, the hack revealed this data was never fully deleted.
Following 2019’s turmoil, it would be expected for Ashley Madison’s brand to be in ruins. On the contrary, during the initial lockdown period, the Canadian site claimed that there had been a Covid-related increase in the users of the site. The surge of new members was described in a detailed report release in late 2020, ‘Love Beyond Lockdown’, where the results of six surveys examined some of the reasons that affairs were on the rise. The report concluded with a striking statement that, ‘The future of marriage may be more fluid after a 24/7 lockdown. More married individuals are realizing what most married daters have already come to learn – your “one and only” isn’t always the one or the only…’ So why do adults continue to use the site even after the issues with its data protection were involved? And how does the pandemic accentuate this?
It appears that living on the edge is appealing to some of Ashley Madison’s 65 million members. A report found that due to the lack of sexual intimacy 58% of survey participants experienced from their spouse during lockdown, 46% have crept out to hotels despite Covid-19 restrictions. Perhaps it is this drive for excitement that has resulted in users feeling lackadaisical about the site’s previous security breaches. However, a number of people keep their secret relationships online, as ‘lockdown has not put an end to affairs, cheaters are merely adapting their current methods’. This begs the question: how has lockdown, specifically its digitisation of life as we know it, affected relationships today?
The accelerated move of our life on to our laptops catalysed online dating – eHarmony became more mainstream around 2009, and a number of sites followed in its wake. Tinder, the most notable, registered 1 billion swipes a day in 2014, amongst Hinge, Grindr, and Bumble. Since the pandemic started, the swiping of faces on screens overthrew in-person dating. As unavoidable as this was, the movement of dating online has resulted in the creation of some unending virtual catalogue where people have been reduced to names, ages, ‘fun facts’ and profile pictures.
So what does this mean for our attitudes towards relationships? What was once a longer, more taxing but arguably more meaningful series of encounters now appear flimsy and artificial. Online chats lack a sense of reality and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people talk about how others ‘come across differently online’; it’s not a deliberate fault, it happens by proxy of the interface. Social media causes the creation of an online persona that is an extension of the self – containing your authentic personality to an extent.
Consequently, relationships that start off purely from an online basis may be subject to a number of problems when progressing. Meeting and talking to people on online dating apps confers a sense of familiarity and closeness that isn’t authentic, leading users to feel that actions have less consequences. Essentially, moving dating online causes a shift in the interactions between people to the extent that the concept of the person themselves becomes worthless, a plastic figure that can be played with or binned whenever suits. Moreover, the ease at which you can mould your personality to match the ‘text language’ of another may mean that when you meet in person, you’re meeting an entirely different person than you thought you were speaking to.
It’s almost no surprise, then, that more and more people are signing up to an online affairs site, as if signing up to virtual reality game; it seems like a harmless release of boredom than engagement in ‘hardcore’ cheating. And perhaps there is some validity to the Ashley Madison ideology: will the increasing superfluousness of relationships lead to the decline of traditional monogamous marriages? Has the technologization of dating, inescapable during Covid, inadvertently resulted in a lacking need for one partner and instead provoked desire for more, better, other with the endless choice that dating apps provide? And, as Ashley Madison controversially inquired, is this necessarily a negative?