Sex & Relationships

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Ashley Madison Scandal

Fembots and fraudsters and lawyers. Oh, my!

As you probably know, Ashley Madison, the website offering to connect people for extramarital affairs, was detonated recently when a group known as Impact Team hacked its database and released a ginormous file containing the private info, including sexual preferences and credit card numbers, of 37 million users. Shockwaves ripped through homes around the globe as spouses realized that not only were their significant others liars and cheats, but nincompoops who used their real email addresses to explore extracurricular sex. Let’s explore the latest fallout.

1. As many as 1 in 6 married men in the U.S. may have been an active user.

Over at Forbes, Emma Johnson crunched the numbers and got a stunning result. She notes that according to Gizmodo.com, there look to be around 20 million male accounts revealed in the hack that show signs of email checking. If half these men were in the U.S., that leaves us with 10 million of the 61.2 million married men in the country. So there you have it: 1 out of 6 have been doing a bit of coloring outside the lines on Ashley Madison.

For Johnson, this revelation leads to more significant math: “The Ashley Madison hack should be a powerful wakeup call for women who tell themselves that their marriage is fail-proof, and they don’t have to take responsibility for their own financial wellbeing.” In other words, if you don’t want to be married to a guy who makes sexy time on websites, better make sure you can afford to go your own way. Alimony ain’t what it used to be.

2. A lot of these dudes were chatting with sophisticated fembots.

Investigation by Gizmodo’s Annalee Newitz suggests that a large number of female profiles on the site were fakes. There were only 5.5 million female accounts to begin with out of 37 million total. As Newitz explains, “Ashley Madison created more than 70,000 female bots to send male users millions of fake messages, hoping to create the illusion of a vast playland of available women.” So men sitting at their computers getting turned on by naughty messages were often chatting with non-existent women — and paying for the privilege. Newitz finds that “for many members, these robo-encounters could come roughly every few minutes.”

How do fembots flirt? Like this, as the hack reveals:

Hmmmm, when I was younger I used to sleep with my friend’s boyfriends. I guess old habits die hard although I could never sleep with their husbands.

And this:

I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?

But never this:

I’m a bit of code cashing in on your gullibility, LOL!

The bots could even talk dirty in multiple languages. Newitz has shown that the company made boatloads of money with this hustle. Leaked emails reveal that when the bots, or “engagers,” as Avid Life, Ashley Madison’s parent company called them, were turned off, the number of “guests” who became paying customers slumped. When they turned them back on, revenues went from $60,000 per month to $110,500. Is this the robot revolution we’ve been waiting for?

3. An Ashley Madison spokesmodel says the site is run by “shady snakes.”

Michelle “Bombshell” McGee, famed for having an affair with Sandra Bullock’s husband, was hired as an Ashley Madison spokesmodel in 2010. She let Inside Edition in on her view that the website is run by “shady snakes” who used her profile (which she didn’t use) to send fake messages to men. She doesn’t buy the company’s line that there were plenty of real women looking for hanky-panky on the site: “I think there are actually women on there but the real women are scam artists or porn girls looking to generate more income to the website. But almost all of them are fake profiles that Ashley Madison posted so they can maintain control.”

4. If you’re a male journo who bragged of your ability to chat up women on Ashley Madison, you sound kinda stupid now.

Charles J. Orlando wrote a titillating piece on YourTango of his “research” in an article, "Why Women Cheat: A Married Man Goes Undercover On Ashley Madison.” After getting the OK from his wife, despite acknowledging that he was once quite the Don Juan, Orlando gets busy.

Assuming that the site is 30 percent women (a gross overestimate as we now know), Orlando decides he “needed to stand out against all the other guys.” So he posts his real picture (you can judge for yourself whether that was a strong play) and musters all his literary and psychological finesse to create an alluring profile: not too eager, not too nice. He’s stoked when he finds 30 messages in his in-box the first night. Before long he is chatting to somebody called “SexyCat,” and “SexyCat wasn't the only one,” he gushes. “I discovered that to satisfy their deep longing for passion with minimal risk, many women sign up for Ashley Madison to have virtual sex via chat.”

He concludes that because these naughty ladies do not seem to want to meet up in person, his literary allure must be quite something:

“In each session, I attempted to take things to the next level—an in-person meeting—but no-go. Most of these women seemed comfortable in getting what they needed online. It was arm's-length cheating for them (and perhaps one-handed typing). I hope I didn't disappoint them and that virtual cigarettes were ablaze in post-coital, pixelated afterglow of my cybersex adventures.”

Orlando surmises that “there isn't one ‘type’ of woman looking to cheat online.” You can say that again. Some are fembots. And guess what, buddy? Fembots don't smoke.

The real humans getting pleasure here are the greedy owners of Ashley Madison.

5. Even Larry Flynt is freaked out.

The Ashley Madison hack is a big headache for the porn industry and other hookup sites that rely on people to share their fantasies and desires online. NBCnews reports that online adult entertainment accounts for more than 10 percent of Internet traffic, so this is big money we’re talking about.

Mr. Free Speech himself, Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt, warns people worried about hacking to get used to the idea that online privacy doesn’t exist: "Don't do or say anything you wouldn't want to read about on the front page of the New York Times.” Ouch.

6. Sex researchers are really excited.

Polling people on their sexual habits is extremely time-consuming, difficult to do in large numbers, and gets responses that may or may not be honest. So naturally sex researchers are captivated by the idea of millions upon millions of Ashley Madison users whose demographic details, sexual preferences and habits are there for the searching. Even if you screen out the obvious fake accounts, you’d still be left with a trove of info far bigger than any phone or Internet survey could deliver.

Some are wondering whether using info from a criminal hack is ethical, or even legal. Opinions vary. Psychological researchers aren’t supposed to disclose any information about subjects that would allow someone to personally identify them. They would need to strip out things like names and street addresses to get past this obstacle. Then there’s the issue of informed consent. Do you go to every person and ask for permission to use the data? Other researchers argue that now the info is in the public domain, it’s free for the taking.

7. Oops, your minister had an Ashley Madison account.

Hardly any profession has escaped the cloud of embarrassment hanging over this scandal. Lawmakers both Republican and Democrat, mayors, judges, NASA folks, billionaires, school employees, White House workers, military personnel, theologians, and ministers — seems like everybody and their granddad had an account. Some offer lame excuses when caught. Other fess up and try to do damage control.

Christians, you’re in luck, says Rev. Franklin Graham, the evangelist son of the famed Rev. Billy Graham: God will forgive the cheaters. The Heavenly Father probably had an Ashley Madison account, too.

8. Ashley Madison may have actually worked for gay women.

One of the weird revelations from Annalee Newitz’s research is that female users on Ashley Madison had a much better chance of connecting with real people because they were not the target of fembot activity — especially if they weren’t looking for straight men.

As Newitz reveals, “it would seem that the only members of Ashley Madison who aren’t inundated by spam and randos are women who seek trysts with other women or couples.” She concludes that “hiding in a haze of spam bots, women were connecting with each other and with men. We don’t know how many, nor how often, but we know they were doing it.”

Some gay users are concerned about being outed because of the hack, though, especially in places where the law could punish them. That’s scary. 

9. Ashley Madison may be in deep doo doo.

Beyond reputational damage, Ashley Madison will likely face legal battles. Multiple class-action lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and Canada, seeking over $1 billion so far. The company’s failure to protect customer data is the big complaint, especially because Ashley Madison’s parent company raked in millions selling $19 “full delete” packages that obviously didn’t work for users who wanted to shut down and remove their accounts.

Alas, there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. To see the whole database where all the sex preferences and chat histories are available, you need pretty sophisticated computer skills. But anybody can check to see if an email address was included in the hack on sites like haveibeenpawned.

So where the hell was the Federal Trade Commission while what appears to be a giant scam was going on since 2001? Experts are saying that the FTC may be investigating but not saying anything since it isn't required to make public statements. Attorney James Ward told Forbes that the notoriety of the case makes it highly likely that action will be taken.

On the other hand, the fact that the parent company, Avid Life, is Canadian raises the question of the FTC’s jurisdiction. But the regulators have pursued Canadian companies before, so they may well do so in this case. Or they could let their counterparts across the border deal with it.

10. Ashley Madison claims its numbers are up anyway.

According to Ashley Madison, people are still signing up for the site even after the hack. It claims that “hundreds of thousands” — even actual women — have joined:

“Despite having our business and customers attacked, we are growing….This past week alone, hundreds of thousands of new users signed up for the Ashley Madison platform — including 87,596 women.”

Hmmm. If these women are real — and there’s not much reason to take Ashley Madison’s word for it — are they being paid? Something's fishy, because the sad news to would-be cheaters who think hot women are just dying to have sex for free with their paunchy, balding selves for the thrill of it need a serious reality check. Real ladies are just not that into you. 

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

 

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