It seems like a given: people who seek affairs online should at least be somewhat concerned about getting caught.
But as the recent Ashley Madison hack showed, many men don’t even care enough to use fake email addresses when seeking extramarital affairs online. Even the well-known reality star Josh Duggar couldn’t be bothered to conceal his identity in the most basic ways when creating an account.
When I created an Ashley Madison account for the purposes of journalism, the men who agreed to talk to me affirmed that getting caught simply wasn’t a concern for them. I’d ask them if they were nervous about it, and they’d simply reply, “no” or “not really.” Also, their actual flesh-on-flesh extramarital activity was pretty scant compared to how often they used the site, as most limited their activities to browsing and flirting.
Still, weren’t they nervous that their wives would find out they were chatting with potential flings online day and night? Not in the least.
I figured these men’s lack of concern over caught would come down to one of two things: denial of their own fallibility (“I’d never get caught!”) or a secret, subconscious desire to burn down their marriage (“maybe I want to get caught…”).
So I checked with Marlene Wasserman, better known as Dr. Eve, a sex therapist and psychologist who is well known in her native South Africa as a leading commentator on our changing sexual mores. I was surprised when she told me the most common answer was neither of those things.
Instead, the issue is that many of these men don’t even see what they’re doing as wrong unless an affair is consummated in real life. To them, scoping out partners online is totally harmless. Even sending intimate photos doesn’t feel like a betrayal when they’re doing it.
Wasserman’s research on the topic goes much farther than my own. With the consent of Ashley Madison’s former CEO, Noel Biderman, she spent three years posing as both a married man and a single woman on the site and quizzed users about their thoughts and feelings surrounding the site. And she, too, was surprised to find that people weren’t nervous in the least about being caught on Ashley Madison.
She’s also a practicing therapist and sexologist who’s seen more than her fair share of clients whose marriages have been rocked by online flirtations and Ashley Madison memberships, many of which have never resulted in physical sexual activity.
“They think it’s not infidelity,” she said of people who cruise Ashley Madison. “It’s only infidelity if they go offline.”
Time and time again, Wasserman says she has seen clients of all genders innocently assert that checking people out online, whether on Ashley Madison or elsewhere, isn’t infidelity. It’s only when she asks how their partners would feel about this that they understand why it could be perceived as cheating.
So how is it possible that people could be messaging possible flings — sometimes even explicitly sexting them and sending photos — and still feel they haven’t crossed a line? Wasserman attributes this to the intimate emotional attachment we have to our iPhones.
“You feel as if you are in your own world and you’ve got your phone in your hand,” she said. “You don’t feel that you’re vulnerable in that space. You’re not sneaking out the door, going to the hotel room. It feels completely comfortable and safe. You lull yourself into safety.”
For that reason, people feel that talking online with potential partners is acceptable. They think cheating only happens if they take the relationship offline.
This dovetails with the explanation given by Sam Rader, a Christian vlogger with a big online following, upon discovery of his paid account.
“I’ve never had an affair with anybody, ever, while I’ve been married with Nia,” he said. “The account was opened out of pure fleshly desires and out of simple curiosity.”
His wife has since forgiven him.
Wasserman has found that many spouses of people who open Ashley Madison accounts don’t have such a tolerant view of such curiousity, and that’s what brings them into her office.
“There’s a sense of naïveté,” she said of Ashley Madison account-holders who get caught and don’t think they have done anything wrong by chatting online or opening an account.
Another interesting finding: when Wasserman asked Ashley Madison users what the worst consequence of their AM use would be, the majority said falling in love with a cyber lover would be the worst possible outcome. This, to both men and women, was scarier than the idea of getting caught.
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