TIME Infidelity

Cheaters’ Dating Site Ashley Madison Spied on Its Users

Erin Patrice O'Brien—Getty Images

A service for people seeking affairs secretly analyzed its members' conversations

In a study to be presented at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco on Saturday Aug. 16, Eric Anderson, a professor at the University of Winchester in England claims that women who seek extra-marital affairs usually still love their husbands and are cheating instead of divorcing, because they need more passion. “It is very clear that our model of having sex and love with just one other person for life has failed— and it has failed massively,” says Anderson.

How does he know this? Because he spied on the conversations women were having on Ashley Madison, a website created for the purpose of having an affair. Professor Anderson, who as it turns out is a the “chief science officer” at Ashley Madison, looked at more than 4,000 conversations that 100 women were having with potential paramours. “I monitored their conversation with men on the website, without their knowing that I was monitoring and analyzing their conversations,” he says. “The men did not know either.”

Now, let’s put aside for one second that it’s mighty convenient for a guy paid by a website that promotes cheating among married people to publish a study that finds that cheating probably doesn’t hurt marriages. Let’s put aside too, as a probable clerical error, that the study’s press release calls Anderson a professor of masculinity, sexuality, and sport, but the University of Winchester website lists him merely as Professor of Sports Studies, and that seven of his 10 books are about sports and only one is about relationships.

And while we’re putting things aside, let’s also overlook the fact that in seeking to find out how women feel about their marriages, he drew his subjects entirely from a website that women visit specifically to cheat. And from conversations among people who were seeking to be anonymous and who had ample reason to be less than candid. Almost by definition, any user of Ashley Madison is lying to someone: either her husband, which draws her honesty into question, and/or other users of Ashley Madison, which makes the data highly suspect. Or she has an open marriage, in which case she is not a good subject for a study on cheating.

When asked how he adjusts his figures for this selection bias, Anderson’s answer is simple. “I don’t,” he says. “Most of our knowledge of women who cheat comes from another population via selection bias, those in counselors’ offices. My method is the best way we can do this. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have.” That’s a lot of caveats for a guy who also says he wants the study “to help unravel the stranglehold that our culture has on sex and love.”

Even if we overlook that whole pile of problems, or get around it somehow since it’s a little large to look over, then we still have the basic problem with this study that this guy spied on Ashley Madison users to get his data. He covertly monitored the conversations of people who had come to the website in order to ensure their privacy.

Anderson’s data “included profile information that the women supplied when they signed up for the site (information not made available to other Ashley Madison users)” he writes in the study, as well as information other users could see. “We also acquired all private message conversations that [users] had with men on the website for one month.” Were the users aware that every intimate thing they said in the course of finding an affair partner might be made available to Professors of Sports Studies? Well, sort of. Back when they registered for the site, it was in the terms and conditions. Because everybody reads the user agreement carefully, of course.

Anderson, who likes to use the term “monoganism,” as if mutually agreed fidelity were a cult of some sort, maintains that one of the reasons monogamy is becoming such an imposition on modern couples is a condition he calls “relative sexual deprivation.” His theory is that people feel sexually deprived because thanks to the internet, everybody’s aware that there are many more opportunities to get some nooky that monogamous couples have to let slide. “Individuals evaluate their own standing by comparing their current position with those who have more,” he writes. “Women may therefore look at their monogamous relationships and consider themselves sexually deprived in comparison to what they see occurring in today’s sexualized culture.”

To recap: women want to cheat, not because they don’t love their spouses, but because the internet makes them feel like they’re not getting enough sex and also gives them so many more opportunities to cheat. Places, like, say, Ashley Madison. Which is totally the place you should go, apparently, if you both love your husband and wish to be spied on.

 

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