- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

As online dating has lost the stigma once attached to it and millions of people flood big sites such as Match.com looking for love, niche dating sites have begun to proliferate to help narrow the field.

There are services for all sorts of people looking for something specific: animal lovers, gays, vegetarians, blacks, Christians, black Christians. One of the best known is JDate, the Jewish dating site. Yet its 700,000 members are a mere third of the number attracted to another site that has been under the radar until recently.

AshleyMadison.com has 2.2 million members and just launched a million-dollar advertising campaign - but national networks think America isn’t quite ready for a dating site for the already attached.

AshleyMadison’s new 35-second television commercial features an insomniac man lying next to a slightly zaftig woman. He sneaks out of the room holding his clothes. “Most of us can recover from a one-night stand with the wrong woman,” a narrator intones. Cut to a photograph of the man and woman together - on their wedding day. “But not when it’s every night for the rest of our lives. Isn’t it time for AshleyMadison.com?”

The site specializes in connecting people who are already partnered but seeking no-strings-attached affairs.

The company bought ad time on channels including ESPN, CNN, Fox News Channel and Spike, but the networks seemed to have second thoughts. ESPN, for one, says it has instructed its affiliates to quit airing the ad.

The company’s site went live at the beginning of 2002, but the new ad campaign marks the first time it has sought a mainstream audience. It used to advertise during airings of “The Jerry Springer Show.”

It’s having trouble getting the new ads to stay in place. A billboard in New York’s Times Square showed a couple entering a hotel room and urged, “Life is short. Have an affair in New York City.” It was removed after just three days.

“They got a call from one of the hotel operators across the street,” reports Noel Biderman, president and chief executive of the Toronto-based Ashley Madison Agency. “They said they were going to burn it down if they don’t take it down.”

The CEO can’t see what all the fuss is about when those same networks air ads with tag lines such as “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

“I am not going to convince anyone to have an affair. I don’t have that power of persuasion,” he says. “What I can do is get someone who’s made that decision to try AshleyMadison.” It’s a lot safer than messing around in the workplace or getting a “lady of the night,” the happily married father of two says rather quaintly.

“It’s like dumping raw sewage into the culture,” complains Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, who says she has had her own ads turned down by networks. “We live in a Hollywood culture that celebrates infidelity.”

Mr. Biderman agrees on that last point: He seems to think Hollywood already has done the work of making cheating look good. He notes that some recent movies widely considered romantic - including “Titanic” and “The Bridges of Madison County” - focused on cheaters. Of course, literature has had more than its share of sympathetic adulterers - think Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” - for centuries. “It speaks to the human condition,” he says.

His site certainly has struck a chord. In just 6 1/2 years, with very little advertising, it has attracted those couple million members. On a recent afternoon in the District, just before most people are thinking about leaving work, AshleyMadison had close to 50,000 locals online.

“That’s really socially significant,” says University at Buffalo American studies professor Elayne Rapping, a media and gender expert who was shocked to hear how many people are looking for extramarital affairs online.

She’s never surprised to hear that men at the top - such as former presidential candidate John Edwards - cheat. Having a broader section of society - and particularly women - on the prowl is different.

“The divorce rate is down, and people are staying together for any number of reasons. It’s a kind of conservative period. But what this is saying is that a lot of people who are staying in their marriage are doing so not because they’re happy, but for some other reason,” she says. “Maybe for socially acceptable reasons, people are staying in their marriages and going outside of them for satisfaction.”

She thinks the possibilities of the Internet are more likely to have given rise to the phenomenon than the seemingly endless examples of big-name cheaters like Mr. Edwards. Media can play a role, though. “I do think when people see these ads on mainstream TV, those who have always fantasized may be more willing to act on it,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to advertise it.”

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, applauds ESPN. She says national networks give the site “a sense of legitimacy” by allowing it to advertise.

“Instead of a race to the bottom, maybe we can start climbing our way out of the gutter,” she says. “This [site] could be used by blackmailers, this could be used for prostitution, and just the fact that it’s catering to married people, it’s encouraging the destruction of marriages. It encourages bringing harm to your spouse.”

Miss Wright wonders about those 2.2 million members. “It could be a calculated business move on AshleyMadison’s part to get double fees - first people who are trolling for adulterers and then those who are checking on their spouses,” she speculates.

The fact that AshleyMadison is thriving at the same time it’s finding it hard to let people know that it’s thriving points to a division in American society.

“It’s an interesting irony, because if you look historically at attitudes to adultery and affairs, we’re actually more judgmental and more negative about them than we’ve ever been,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History” and professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state. “I’ve taken lots of oral histories from women who were married in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. A surprising number said, ‘I found out my husband visited prostitutes, but what can you do?’”

The Internet and other modern conveniences make it easier for that adulterous minority to cheat, she says.

Jenny Block, author of the recently released book “Open: Love, Sex & Life in an Open Marriage,” thinks a private-versus-public distinction is at work in America today.

“In private, we’ve become very comfortable with adultery. Some people think that’s the cost of doing business: Marriage is hard, it’s work, how can you possibly get through it any other way?” says Ms. Block, who notes she doesn’t promote open relationships, only honesty within whatever relationship a couple chooses. “Publicly, we’re nowhere near accepting it.”

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