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Why Get Divorced Over Ashley Madison?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Now we know that men comprised pretty much all the active users of Ashley Madison, a site that professed to facilitate extramarital affairs. This raises two questions: What were they paying for, and why are they committing suicide and divorcing because their profiles were found in a database stolen and released by hackers?

Journalist Annalee Newitz conducted a thorough analysis of the data dump and published the results on Gizmodo. The main finding: Of the 5.5 million allegedly female profiles on the site, only 9,700 ever responded to a message. In other words, the 5.9 million men who answered messages on the site were corresponding with fake accounts, some of which Newitz traced to Ashley Madison servers. If these accurately approximate the number of active accounts -- and my own less-systematic research into the database suggests they do -- there was two-thousandths of a willing woman for every willing man.

Not long ago, I couldn't believe the ratio was that bad. Even though "adult dating" sites are known to have a lot of fake female profiles, I figured Ashley Madison fell somewhere between these sleazy, misogynistic outfits and vanilla dating sites, which have lots of real women in search of relationships. I thought so in part because journalists have published first-person accounts of meeting multiple living, breathing women on Ashley Madison.

I don't know what to make of these pieces now, but I have a theory why a hapless German Ashley Madison user, who gave an anonymous interview to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung this week after his wife left and took the kids with her, "confessed" to sleeping with two women he'd met on Ashley Madison. He wasn't too convincing on the details: "I can't remember much about the women," he said. "One was clearly older, one clearly younger, both unhappily married, no kids. In bed we understood each other well but otherwise we didn't have much to say." My guess would be that he was inventing as he went -- just to make the interviewer think he wasn't a complete loser who failed to find a partner. 

Men can be vain and boastful that way. Any man feeling the urge to be unfaithful could easily go to a prostitute -- at least here in Germany, where prostitution is open, legal and duly taxed. But that's not what many men want. They need to be liked, if not necessarily loved. They want everything to be real, not an act. They're not willing to pay a sex worker, but they don't mind paying a site that promises to find a match for them even though they are married.

The men of Ashley Madison were paying for a dream of flirting with, impressing, conquering a woman. It wasn't happening, though -- all they got was messages from bots and fake accounts. Perhaps some of the Ashley Madison denizens were satisfied with those: Straying in real life is a tough, potentially costly decision.

It's harder to understand how some of those men's marriages got so bad that just the presence of their e-mails in the data dump, with no evidence of physical disloyalty (we know now there was almost no chance of it), could lead to divorce or even suicide. One of the suicides linked to the Ashley Madison hack probably had nothing to do with it. An overstressed captain in the San Antonio Police Department found his e-mail in the database and discussed it with his wife. "He knew I would support him," she was quoted as saying after he'd killed himself.

One could use any e-mail to register on Ashley Madison, so many registrations must have used fake addresses or hijacked someone's real address. To some partners -- almost exclusively wives, as it is now clear -- that might not have mattered if they were already looking for a reason to split up.

The hack reveals little new about the security of our personal data, the honesty of dating site owners or the relevance of the information that can be found about us online. It adds even less new information about men's dreams of being sexually irresistible to women. It does, however, shed merciless light on the fragility of human relationships.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net