The slogan runs “Life’s Short. Have An Affair.” That is what I have spent the last three days trying to do.
Millions of adulterous users of the website AshleyMadison – which bills itself as a dating site for married people – have spent this week worrying about having their membership and their cheating secrets revealed after a group calling itself ImpactTeam hacked into their profiles.
Some commentators have rejoiced in what they see as a deserved comeuppance for those who have been indulging in digital infidelity, while others argue the users are victims of a grave breach of privacy.
While it has been assumed that the scandal would sound the site’s death knell, it has also generated a vast amount of free publicity – and led even those of us who would never dream of cheating, less still giving away our personal details to a website to do so, wondering what it would be like to enter an online den of marital cheaters.
Priming myself not to lie or deceive, I set up a profile. I hit the first hurdle when both usernames NaughtyBoy88 and NaughtyBoy1988 are taken. I’m also dismayed to find that NaughtyBoy69 is also unavailable. I settle for PlayAway88.
Two hours later my inbox is still ringing hollow – not a single response. Testing if the experience is gender-specific, I coax a female colleague (see right) into signing up to a rival site. She emails me moments later: “I haven’t even finished setting up my bio and I’ve been ‘favourited’ twice.”
I vow to get proactive. Which, it transpires, involves taking out my credit card. Aping a provincial nightclub, women are granted full use of the site free of charge, while men have to pay.
I stump up £65 for 100 credits and get messaging. I go for the innocuous: “Hi, how are you? What are you looking for on this?” and take an indiscriminate copy-and-paste approach. Within three minutes, I’ve spent the lot. I’ve approached just 13 women, – around £3 a pop.
On a separate account, posing as a woman, I get chatting to a male user. I reveal I’m a journalist and he is happy to discuss his experiences. He’s been a member for three months and has parted with £350. I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t just sign up for the Affair Guarantee Package of 2,000 credits at a reasonable £229.80.
While I um and ah about forking out another wedge, the messages start to arrive. One is old enough to be my mother and has a username that, without giving too much away, is an instruction to engage part of my mouth with a baked good she has in her possession. Another user says she’s looking for: “A passionate one-night stand like there is no tomorrow”. But they are outnumbered by a second group of twentysomethings who are just as straightforward. “A sugar daddy,” comes one succinct response to my introductory question.
I part with another £75 for 200 credits. The site invites me to spend it at every turn, and users were even charged £15 to delete their profile prior to the hack. Avid Life Media, the site’s parent company, is yet to announce a course of action. A spokesperson declined to comment, but instead pointed me to a press release which stated: “At this time, we have been able to secure our sites. We are working with law enforcement agencies, which are investigating. Any and all parties responsible for this act of cyber–terrorism will be held responsible.”
For now, the site is still charging, apparently banking on the impulsivity that drives online gambling. ‘BECOME A PRIORITY MAN!’ one banner screams – for £29.70 a month. There’s the option to send digital gifts: a teddy bear, a rose or a sapphire necklace (at £16!). Women can dispatch theirs free of charge.
After a few dead-end conversations, a flashing box invites me to “call collect” with a user. I swap the last of my credits for 30 minutes of live chat. A message pops up “hi can give you a strip show right now… would you like to watch me?” I am directed to a live webcam site but with one eye on my expenses claim, I decide to call it a day and let the flood of red-lip emojis cascade over me.
Ashley Madison isn’t the only option for online cheaters. Within seconds of joining the 1.01 million “genuine” users of illicitencounters.com for The Independent’s “investigation”, I have nine new messages from potential suitors and 25 profile views. As a new user, my profile is given prime place in the gallery of fresh young meat for the taking.
By lunchtime my mailbox flashes with 55 messages. A few are from the same persistent man, who tells me he “just wants to talk to me” because “it’s refreshing to see a genuine person on here and not some troller”. He sounds lonely – his family is away in the countryside and he works in London Monday to Friday, longing for someone to “share a glass with”.
Browsing through the website’s members’ pages, I see about 18,760 men in London aged 40-49 signed up to the site, compared with 4,730 women in the same age range. It’s no wonder I’m being hounded as one of just 30 women under 30 years old with an active account – the ones messaging me know it too, trying to attract my attention with openers such as “pick me!” and “bet you’re inundated right now…”.
By 4pm I have 120 new messages. Some advertise themselves as religious; most are older men who know they are out of my preferred age range, but “just want to say hi anyway”.
Of course there are explicit messages but most are polite, friendly – verging on begging letters. Their stories are largely the same old cliché: stuck in a loveless marriage and seeking a thrill to ease the mid-life crisis.
Chat-up lines range from “one woman’s fresh meat is another’s stale smorgasboard [sic]” to “are you a tea or a coffee person?” An unnerving number advertise themselves as “clean” and phrases such as “weekends are a no-go” are casually dropped in as a cold reminder of unknowing families who sit waiting for daddy to come home on Friday night.
One user in his forties and working in finance says he wants to whisk me away for a weekend by the sea. He says he stayed with his partner only because she announced she was pregnant. “Being the nice guy I am, I offered to stick around,” he tells me.Reuse content