The hot pink background, the picture of a woman with kissed-away lipstick, her finger with the glistening wedding band against her lips — shh! — and the bold slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”

Originating in Canada in 2001, Ashley Madison is a dating website for married people who want to cheat with other married people. Andreas Kouremenos, the Australian manager, told Crikey it grew from an identified need: “He [founder Noel Biderman] did some research and found that a third to a quarter of people were not being honest about their marital status on traditional singles dating websites. And so he had the idea to build this website.”

The site has more than 5 million members worldwide. Currently operating in 29 countries, Ashley Madison has been in Australia since 2010. Some 900,000 locals have signed up. “Australia has been the fastest-growing market; it seems like the Aussie people have really embraced the service,” Kouremenos said.

“We get a whole lot of responses from people that are supportive and think the site is a brilliant idea and the very fact that it serves a market that was in need. Just the sheer success of the website goes to say that you know there was a market there that wasn’t served properly and is being served better now.” And the opposing view? “This site adds to the moral decay of society, the community is going to hell in a hell basket,” he said.

“We didn’t invent cheating, and it’s going to happen whether we are there or not. We are not so much an impulse thing — this is something that people have thought about for a very long time and have decided to make that step.”

Traditionally, an affair might have begun at the office or through a social network — now it’s just a click away. Jarris Fuller, a veteran private investigator for JFA Brisbane, says the internet has become a focal point for cheaters and reckons infidelity in marriages is becoming more common. “I can also tell you that around 30-40% of infidelity matters now have some kind of internet dating component or origin,” he said.

Guy Vicars from the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors says it’s “easier to cover your infidelity footprint when it’s digital”. “People can be having some sort of extramarital relationship or affair, but they might be at home doing that and so their spouse isn’t going to pick it up as you know in more old-school style infidelity,” he told Crikey.

“It makes it easier for people to fool around with other people. People who may be attracted to someone in the office but wouldn’t dream of doing anything about it; on the internet people take action when in reality they wouldn’t. It’s a sort of pseudo-confidence. The internet allows us to behave in ways that normally we wouldn’t, and that’s the vulnerability to relationships, it makes it easier to do it, easier to cover up. But the consequences are just as bad.”

The Singaporean government seems to agree, with the site being banned in Singapore before its launch.

Kouremenos said: “What these types of sites do is create curiosity, and I think that’s led to the success of the website. A lot of people, well, most people, are publicly against it, but when it comes down to it people are curious and people might go on the website just to check it out and then they might get into it just by looking at it; but then again, if they are not in the mindset that they want to have an affair they might not carry through. But at least the curiosity is there.”

“There’s a lot of stimulus both from the media, friends and sources that people are seeing, and that’s what’s sort of evolving the definition of marriage you know. There’s that bombardment of different styles and ideas. It’s pushing marriage to different domains.”

“‎I was bored with my life in general — it wasn’t all about the sex.”

After hearing about Ashley Madison on Sunrise, Katie (not her real name; all names have been changed to protect their identities) first logged in February. “‎I was bored with my life in general — it wasn’t all about the sex. I wanted to meet new people and have that first connection all over again,” she told Crikey.

She remains married and has no intention to leave her husband. She said the experience has benefited her marriage: “I’m not as bored or as stressed as I was.”

Jessica, a married woman who is in an open marriage, says the site adds a new dimension to her relationship. “My husband mentioned it to me! He had read an article about how much it was growing. I was very sceptical at first. I thought it would be a whole heap of sleazy guys just trying to get laid,” she said. Five months later, she remains a happy user of the website: “I think it’s awesome! I am very lucky though as I have met someone I have really connected with.”

In June 2012, Ashley Madison released a global survey of 123,000 active members. The survey showed 88% of men and 91% of women maintained the affairs as an attempt to save their marriages. Guy Vicars said: “They rationalise their behaviour by saying ‘well, I didn’t actually do anything, and it made me more attentive to you and therefore it’s OK.”

“I think if you look at the research on what makes a good relationship, one of the important things is: when a relationships in trouble, having difficulties or just a bit stale, what we know makes them work better is couples turning into the relationship to fix it. What you’re talking about is someone unilaterally turning out of the relationship without telling their partner they are doing it and then they are saying, ‘oh well, I did it to fix the relationship’. Even if it has that effect it is a unilateral decision. In other words, it’s not a relational decision about how to go about repairing the relationship.”

According to an Australian sex survey conducted in 2010, 13.2% of men and women are either in an open or swinging marriage. An additional 6.4% of men and 8.6% of women are in a committed open relationship. “It’s more of an evolution of marriage,” Kouremenos said.

Vicars counters. “The actions lower us to thinking we can behave in ways that aren’t in our best interest. It’s a bit like eating McDonald’s everyday, it’s just not good for you,” he said.

Peter Fray

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