Do affairs lead to divorce? Noel Biderman, the CEO of AshleyMadison.com, the web's premier site for wannabe adulterers, doesn't think so. With 8.5 million users and paying customers in over 10 countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden, Biderman (a former sports agent turned Internet mogul), believes that if people were more flexible in allowing sexual encounters outside of marriage, there would be fewer divorces. "I didn't invent infidelity," says BIderman. "Or the desire for it."
What he did invent--after learning that between 10 to 30 percent of people on traditional dating sites were married--is a company that is creating both controversy and cash, with $60 million in profits expected this year. Is he an agent of change, an agent provocateur, or both?
I spoke to him about Harry Reid, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Owen Wilson, Courteney Cox, and what his customers have taught him about what American men and women really want.
JB: The timing of Owen Wilson's new movie Hall Pass, where his wife grants him one week off from marriage--must be a public relations gift for your company. It reminds me of the famous Curb Your Enthusiasm episode years ago of getting a pass on his 10th anniversary.
NB: The Hall Pass producers had sent me a script and wanted to use AshleyMadison.com. But it's about two losers who strike out at bars, and then go online and still can't score. I said no because I thought it would derogatory for the brand. At AshleyMadison.com, they could have scored. I heard the movie now used Match.com.
JB: Come on. Not everyone can score. You still have 8 men for every 3 women.
NB: But many do. Otherwise we wouldn't be so successful. But in analyzing the data, overall that is the number, but there are more women in the younger demographics and it's more equal. But with the 40s and 50s group, there are more men.
JB: Is there any country where there are more women wanting affairs?
NB: Australia. There the numbers are 60 percent men, 40 percent women.
JB: To counter criticism that you are creating more divorces by building a business on the backs of broken hearts, you have said that you think AshleyMadison.com helps prevent the break-up of marriages by hooking people up for affairs. Can you elaborate?
NB: We're a sociological experiment on steroids. I've spoken to thousands of people. Unlike some other researchers, psychologists and social workers who talk to couples post-mortem, we are getting subjective data on the genesis of infidelity. We speak to 100 people an hour, 1000 people ever five hours. The majority of people who have an affair use it as a marriage preservation device. What we have found is that they don't want to get divorced, but they have a need or desire they want to fulfill that their partner doesn't want to do. We offer discretion. Unlike Facebook which is all about sharing information, everything here is private. No one gets "friended" or hears when your status has changed.
JB: You are in a unique position to assess what people are wanting outside of their marriage. What do women want?
NB: Some are in sexless marriages or ones without passion. Or just someone to pay attention to them and make them feel attractive. With the idea of cougars with Courteney Cox's [character on Cougar Town], women are more comfortable with younger men and fulfilling their own desires.
JB: So what have you found that men want that they are not getting in their marriages?
NB: Some want to try a different ethnicity. We once joked that it should be called "anal" Madison.com because so many requested someone who would be willing to have anal sex. Because of Paris Hilton, some guys want women to be shaved. The other request is oral sex. But thanks to Bill Clinton, more of the nation now discusses oral sex and more importantly has it in their relationships. In a way, he helped decriminalize it.
JB: I've always had an admiring respect for Hillary Clinton in how she handled Bill Clinton. She knew about his affairs but deep down she understood that he loved her and didn't want to leave the marriage.
NB: The Clintons are a great example of a modern marriage. She could have followed the script and divorced him because his affair became as public as the world has ever known. The ritual then was to walk out the door. But relationships aren't only about sex. You can repair relationships and find a way to reach compromises on your needs. Ultimately her choices benefited her and her family. She is one of the most powerful women on the planet and Bill and her are still together and they just shared their daughter's wedding together.
JB: You have said that leaving a marriage over an affair is a selfish act. Isn't it selfish of the person to have an affair and break a vow?
NB: People have needs. Sex is only a part of marriage. You have children to raise and mortgages to pay and if you look at the data, children in dual parent households do better in school and have less problems with drugs and alcohol. Divorce affects your friends and extended family. So clearly walking out the door because of a severely bruised ego can also be looked at as a selfish act. It's the easy way out. I think the harder choice is to have honest discussions about needs and ways to move forward in a relationship and reach compromises.
JB: It causes more than a bruised ego. Can't you sacrifice your libido for the greater good of the family and find intimacy with your partner? That was the point of the Tom Stoppard's play, The Real Thing. It was a great case for monogamy pointing out we share so much about our lives with others and only have intimate relations with spouses.
NB: True but very few can be monogamous or want to be. Especially if they married at a young age. We need a discussion on redefining what long term relationships require. People are married for a lot longer now.
JB: Do you see why some are troubled that you are making money from infidelity? It appears as though you are encouraging it.
NB: Do you blame the divorce attorney for the divorce? By not having honest conversations about sex in relationships, you get divorces and then a large self-help business where they need to find a villain to sell their services and convince someone at $150 an hour how bad it is that someone cheated. AshleyMadison lets people have affairs without interrupting lives.
JB: You don't know that. Haven't some people hooked up and left their spouses?
NB: Yes, there was an example cited in a book where the couple met and then left their spouses. But then there are the other examples. I was on a radio show the other day and the wife said he could come to our site because with the kids and her work she was tired and only wanted sex once a week. We offered a solution. There are also cases where people are with spouses who are sick with cancer or other problems and cant' have sex. Also with us, it's not an office affair, which has more risk because your spouse or boss could find out about it.
JB: Do you think Americans are too provincial about how they handle monogamy in marriages?
NB: People who want to have an affair are made out to be sociopaths with character flaws. If you cheated, you must be bad, and therefore can't run a country, state or corporation. Why is that the litmus test? There's this marital industrial complex that someone who strays is considered evil and wrong and it's all their fault. That's ridiculous. Look at Eliot Spitzer. He's no longer Governor of New York. He was a great Governor and now is on CNN. His wife forgave him. Why can't everyone else?
JB: I think the issue there was also hypocrisy. He fought against prostitution, and considering his actions should have perhaps lobbied for it. What do you think of prostitution? You now have Harry Reid wanting to close brothels.
NB: You can't suppress human sexuality. It's once again this appalling cultural legacy of people judging someone's sexual desires and the time has come for people to get their heads out of the sand. There's a reason movies like Hall Pass or the marketing campaign of Las Vegas where "What Happens In Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas" with bachelor parties and weekends away are popular. It's out there in the culture that people want this and I would argue it's been good for Las Vegas. Prohibition never works. I was a sports agent and saw how the wives of athletes had this 50 mile rule. As long as it's not at home, they didn't ask questions. When the guys came home off-season they were with their wives and families and no questions asked.
JB: Has anyone ever cheated on you? Have you ever felt that sense of betrayal?
NB: No, I haven't.
JB: You are happily married with two children. Do you plan on having an affair?
NB: I've been married for eight years. But I would try that first before getting a divorce. Marriage is a marathon and has a great value. When I'm 80, I hope to be sitting with my spouse with my grandchildren and proud to have lived a life together. Great societies are built on tolerance. Ultimately, I'm hoping to let others see different perspectives.