The True Story Behind Netflix’s Ashley Madison Docuseries

6 minute read

While Ashley Madison’s users may have a lot of secrets, the website itself, launched in 2001, was never secret about who it was targeting: married people who wanted to have an affair. In fact, its most viral tagline is “Life is Short. Have an Affair.”

Nearly a decade after a 2015 hack exposed personal information about millions of Ashley Madison’s users, a new documentary series on Netflix, out May 15, reveals more about what was going on behind the scenes both at the company and in some of the victims’ families.

Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies, & Scandal features interviews with former members of the site, who appear on camera to talk about their experiences. They share what was going on in their lives that prompted them to join Ashley Madison, and what happened following the hack.

The victims of the Ashley Madison hack

Not everyone was using Ashley Madison in total secret. The first episode of the series features an interview with a couple, Rob and Stephanie, who say Ashley Madison actually helped their marriage, offering an avenue for each of them to explore their sexuality. While Rob's information was exposed in the hack he didn't face blowback in his relationship, because he was already in an open marriage. (Sex, Lies, & Scandal was made without any cooperation from Ashley Madison.)

Rob says in the series that he is interested in dating younger, married women, while Stephanie is a dominatrix and is able to find men who will do sex acts that Rob is not interested in doing. She even gives viewers a tour of her collection of sex toys. They have two rules: Rob always wears a condom and they always tell each other who they are with, basically getting permission from one another to go out with someone else. “I consider myself one of the happiest married men that I know,” Rob says. Likewise, Stephanie loves that “he doesn’t lie to me,” and describes him as a great husband and father.

But many Ashley Madison users have joined the site without their spouses knowing. In the docu-series, Christian YouTube star Sam Rader talks about how he signed up for the site at a time when he became overwhelmed balancing work as an ER nurse in Texas, paying bills, and taking care of his first son. As Rader explains why he made an Ashley Madison account, “I didn’t want to leave my family but I wanted something exciting in my life.”

Soon after starting the account, he ended up finding new fulfillment in his marriage to his wife Nia and says he ignored the account for years. His career making YouTube videos as a family-loving Christian dad was taking off right when the 2015 hack happened. When he saw his name was posted on Twitter in association with the data breach, he immediately told Nia. In the series, she admits how she felt “betrayed’ and “infuriated,” but decided to forgive him immediately because he had not met with any women in person. “I need to accept he’s got some curiosities that I didn’t know about,” she says in the series.

Still from Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal
Still from Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & ScandalCourtesy of Netflix

Many spouses affected by the hack were not as understanding as Nia. Countless marriages ended, and the series focuses on one New Orleans seminary teacher named John, who killed himself after his name was included in the leak.

In the series, John’s wife, Christi, talks about finding his body in their garage. Later, she learned that earlier in the day, John had resigned because the seminary where he taught found out he had an Ashley Madison account because of the hack.

She denounces the “witch hunt” of people who combed through the data breach and outed people like her husband, arguing, “I’m sure there are people who are angry about Ashley Madison, but I blame the secrecy, the cancer of shame that was eating away at him.”

What the Ashley Madison hack revealed

Many male Ashley Madison users who thought they were paying to send messages to real women were actually talking to bots or Ashley Madison employees. The series spotlights a former stripper and adult entertainer named Michelle “Bombshell” McGee, who famously claimed in 2010 that she had had an affair with Sandra Bullock’s husband Jesse James.

While McGee had previously done some promotional work for Ashley Madison, and had an account on the site, she was not actively using it at the time of the hack in 2015. However, she shares, three different men showed up to her performances with gifts for her, believing they were in relationships with her based on conversations they thought they were having with her online. She says she told one man that she didn’t talk to anyone on the website and described his look of sheer terror, “like he was scammed.”

Michelle "Bombshell" McGee in Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal
Michelle “Bombshell” McGee in Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal.Courtesy of Netflix

Many of the fake profiles could be traced to an IP address at an Ashley Madison UK office. “We knew there were fake profiles on the site,” a former Ashley Madison customer service representative named Cathy says in the series. “It wasn’t a secret to us.”

She says staffers were told to fill out profiles with the physical traits male users liked the most. Evan Back, a former vice president of sales at Ashley Madison, explains that bots, powered by a form of artificial intelligence, started sending a message to male users when they realized they were usually too shy to reach out first.

Despite the 2015 hack, Ashley Madison still exists, boasting over 70 million users. In a post-script, the docu-series says Ruby Life, the owners of Ashley Madison, and former CEO Noel Biderman refused to comment on the claims made in the episodes. A spokesperson for Biderman said he’s a committed husband and father. Perhaps the series could save viewers’ marriages; if they find victims’ rationale for setting up accounts relatable, then they can be proactive or even seek counseling. As director Toby Paton says of the film, “There is something quite deep and universal that this touches on and speaks to.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at