Life is short. Have an affair. That's the hedonistic credo of Ashley Madison, a controversial matchmaking website where husbands and wives can secretly cheat on their spouses, arranging trysts with strangers.
It has proved staggeringly lucrative, boasting 37 million registered users —notably in Britain and the US—and worth an estimated $1 billion. Ashley Madison has over 2.7 lakh users in India.
It might seem as if everyone is having sly affairs, all except Ashley Madison's founder Noel Biderman, who has always sworn that he has never cheated on his wife of eleven years, Amanda. "Not yet," said Biderman, 44, last year, though he assured: "If I wanted to have an affair I would have one."
But the world of Ashley Madison, named by Biderman to conjure up the image of a sexy, sophisticated woman, has come crashing down. And, it brought down Biderman with it.
A computer hack has laid bare the names, email addresses, physical descriptions and detailed sexual preferences of millions who joined the site to philander furtively. Biderman's own emails have also been exposed, revealing that he was arranging clandestine affairs with at least three women, including a student looking for money. He has now stepped down as the company's CEO.
For many, the aftermath has been painful and ugly: divorce proceedings filed, at least two suicides, celebrities shamed and extortion attempts on members. Politicians, YouTube celebrities and activists have been shamed for having personal emails on the site.
Anonymous hackers calling themselves ‘The Impact Team’ are to blame for the data leak, but Biderman, who encouraged you to cheat on your spouse, is the one caught with his trousers down. "Hey Noel, you can admit it's real now," the hackers taunted.
Biderman shared almost 300 emails with a Toronto-based student named Melissa over the past three years, many planning where and when to meet, usually at hotels. They first met at a spa and used Ashley Madison to plot their fling.
The internet entrepreneur apparently felt no qualms about his infidelity but Melissa was tormented by her conscience. She cancelled one tryst on September 18, 2014 at Toronto's Novotel hotel, feeling "guilt-ridden" about her boyfriend who "almost found out last time".
Biderman was seemingly paying Melissa for their arrangement as she added: "I don't want to lose him, as much as I need the money." In the same email she asked Biderman to lend her $1,500. He made a new proposition and a week later emailed her saying: "The money is in my car."
When she interviewed for a job as a customer representative at Ashley Madison's parent company, Avid Life Media, he promised her a good "signing bonus". But on October 15 she told him: "I don't think it's the right kind of environment for me. I don't want to appear ungrateful, I just don't want any issues in my relationship."
In March 2013, Biderman sent a series of emails to a woman in Toronto named Mila whose phone number matches an erotic escort service website, listing her age as 18-20. And Biderman arranged a meeting with another woman in May 2014 writing in one email that he was "fantasising about later this evening".
She responded: "I will be there shortly. How am I to act. I've never done this before. To be honest I'm nervous." Biderman promised to pay for her taxi and said: "No worries. Focus on the food."
Two months later the same woman sent Biderman a sexually explicit image with the text: "Hey handsome, hope you aren't busy this week so far." Biderman is hardly Hollywood leading man material: a balding former lawyer with a scruffy beard. He seems lucky to have landed his attractive raven-haired wife, Amanda, mother of his two children.
"We're incredibly communicative about our sexual needs," he boasted last year. "But if I woke up beside my wife and it was the 200th day we hadn't been intimate with one another and it looked like nothing would change I would cheat so fast. I would cheat long before I would get a divorce. If you have children that you love and a home that you built together and a future that you planned why would you give that up just for sex?"
Critics have attacked Ashley Madison for undermining family values, encouraging infidelity and lacking any moral compass. But Biderman argues: "Controversy is just society reshaping its values. I'm not an elected politician, I'm a businessman. Infidelity is part of the landscape. If we removed every unfaithful man from public office we'd have a very dull society. You wouldn't be able to fill a football team, run a government or have a corporation that can function."
Biderman created Ashley Madison in 2001 after seeing a sportsman he represented having multiple affairs as they travelled to away games. He believed that people would be happier satisfying their sexual desires with others who shared similar expectations, no strings attached.
"People usually go about having an affair in a really stupid way," he says. "Why not build a community for them and let them figure it out for themselves?" Now serving 30 countries, Biderman believes that Ashley Madison is the "saviour" of marriages, keeping spouses satisfied. He even proclaims it a feminist triumph, saying: "I'm giving women the opportunity to behave as liberally as they ever have."
Yet Ashley Madison may not be all it seems. Data exposed by the hack challenges the website's claim that 30 per cent of its clientele are women with a one-to-one ratio among those under 30.
Of the 35 million records released so far only five million—a mere 15 per cent—belonged to women and many of those women appear to be fake profiles invented to boost numbers as "date bait". Analysis by website Gizmodo claims only about 12,000 of the 5.5 million female profiles were real.
Biderman, however, sings the praises of cheating: "Infidelity is like a drug. It makes you feel good."
But, for more than 30 million users, including Biderman, their affairs are no longer undiscovered.
Biderman confessed in an interview that if he caught his own wife cheating on him he would be "devastated". Can he imagine how she feels now?
THE INTERVIEW PEOPLE
* Ashley Madison is a Toronto-based dating site, which helps cheating spouses find a relationship online. Formed in 2001, it has over 37 million users the world over.
* Ashley Madison has over 2.7 lakh users in India. Delhi has the maximum (38,652), followed by Mumbai (33,036). Other prominent cities with a good number of users include Chennai (16,434), Hyderabad (12,825), and Bengaluru (11,561).
* Ashley Madison was recently hacked. As many as 33 million profiles were hacked and published online. The hackers said that the website was encouraging immoral behaviour and did not deliver on its promise of privacy.
* Noel Biderman, the founder of Ashley Madison, stepped down as chief executive officer of Avid Life Media Inc, the parent company of Ashley Madison, after salacious details on his secret life were revealed by hackers. The company has offered a reward of $ 3,80,000 for information about the hackers.
* Ashley Madison has now been sued for emotional distress. The Toronto police are investigating links between the hacking and two suicides in the city.