Since the Ashley Madison hack, when thousands of email addresses and usernames were leaked, interest in the service has been at an all-time high. What motivates people to seek infidelity online, and what happens when those people are found out?
Marlene Wasserman, better known as Dr. Eve, is a sex therapist and psychologist who is well known in her native South Africa as a leading commentator on our changing sexual mores. And since she spent three years embedded on Ashley Madison interviewing men and women alike, she probably knows as much about the service’s users as even the site’s founders do.
Wasserman spoke to 63,600 male and female Ashley Madison users, ages 18 to 55, over the course of three years.
What she found when talking to them surprised her.
Based on her findings both on Ashley Madison and as a couples therapist helping people cope with infidelity, she shared with Tech Insider some common misunderstandings about Ashley Madison.
Here are five surprising misconceptions Wasserman’s research totally busted.
1. People use Ashley Madison because they’re unhappy in their primary relationships.
Conventional wisdom holds that people seek affairs because they’re dissatisfied at home. But when it came to AM users, this wasn’t the case, Wasserman said.
“People date online not because they want to lose their partners or they’re not happy or they want to replace their partners,” she said. “These are people who want to stay in a relationship, but because of the techonology, just [find themselves] suddenly in the lap of infidelity.”
Having created an Ashley Madison account on my own for research purposes, I can attest to the fact that making an account and contacting someone is incredibly easy. It makes sense that someone who would never initiate an affair in real life might create an account out of curiosity, then find themselves going down a slippery slope.
“You’re not saying, ‘I want to kiss the secretary,’ or, ‘I want to have sex with my colleague after work,'” Wasserman said. “It’s not intentional. It’s technology that has brought something out of us we didn’t knew we had.”
2. Everyone on Ashley Madison is trying to meet in real life to have a physical, sexual affair.
Wasserman was surprised to find that many people on Ashley Madison were content to carry on online-only affairs — and their mental health might have benefited.
“It’s really the incredible feeling of being online” and intimately connecting with someone, she said. “People online who are having additional relationships have an enhanced sense of self esteem about the world in general. It’s not because they’re having sex, but they have this other person [online] who’s engaging with them in a deeply personal way.”
People become more intimate with their online partners than they realise — without even meeting them in real life — because they have such an intimate relationship with their phones, Wasserman said.
“You feel as if you are in your own world and you’ve got your phone in your hand, you’re on it all the time,” she said. “You don’t feel vulnerable in that space. You’re not sneaking out the door going to a hotel room. It feels, for you, completely comfortable and safe [to cheat online].”
3. People on Ashley Madison know that they’re cheating and feel guilty about it.
While many Ashley Madison users are content to keep things online-only, there’s a darker flipside to that: many of them strongly believe that since they’re not having traditional sex, their cyber relationships don’t count as infidelity.
As a therapist, Wasserman has had many couples come into her office and disagree on whether infidelity has occurred after one party had a cyber relationship. Wasserman was surprised to see that many people saw nothing wrong with their online relationships and felt zero guilt about having them.
“Nobody felt guilty,” she said. “This was uniquely different from real-life infidelity. The reason is cyber infidelity is so different from real-life infidelity.”
Keeping things online also muddies the waters. People who find new partners online are “enjoying the process” of talking to these strangers.
“Not everybody wants to get offline and have physical exchanges of body fluids, and that’s why they don’t think they’re committing infidelity,” Wasserman said. A client of hers might say, “I don’t feel judged, I feel I can express myself much more, I’m sending photos of myself,” she said.
4. It’s men who push the relationship to a real-life sexual encounter.
Stereotypically, men are considered the initiators when it comes to advancing a relationship and sealing the deal sexually. But on Ashley Madison, Wasserman found this wasn’t the case.
She posed as both a married man and a single woman on the site and found that women were much more aggressive than men when it came to organising a meet-up.
“Women have been the biggest surprise to me online,” she said. “In my lived experience, women were way more keen to go offline than the men. Men are saying, ‘We want to chat.’ The women wanted to meet quicker.”
Women were also more forward when it came to asking for pictures — even intimate ones. She thinks this is because being online makes women feel liberated from worrying about their reputations, which can stymy them sexually in real life encounters.
“In real life, women have to be regulated sexually because we care about our reputations,” she said. “Online, there’s nobody there to regulate you or judge you.”
5. Men are on Ashley Madison for sex while women use it for emotional fulfillment.
Perhaps most surprising of all: women told Wasserman they were mostly looking for satisfying sex online, while men put an emphasis on “kissing and cuddling.”
“They broke all the stereotypes of what we would imagine women want,” she said. “We’re told women want emotional attachment and connection. It wasn’t like that at all. We want no-strings-attached, satisfying sex.”
Meanwhile, men were definitely motivated by sexual experimentation, but when she asked them what they were looking for in an online affair that they didn’t get at home, “what they were looking for was kissing and cuddling,” she said. “That’s what they wanted.”
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