Using Women as Product

One of the revelations to come out of the recent blow-up of Ashley Madison is that nearly all of the site’s female users are fake profiles. Relative to the number of men using the site, the number of real women actually interacting with men looking to have affairs is nearly zero. Annalee Newitz then invites us to ask whether Ashley Madison deliberately set out to create a site in which married men paid for the privilege of pursuing non-existent women, or whether they simply ended up operating that way after they failed to attract a non-trivial number of women to the site. Either way, the end result is that tens of millions of men are putting money into Ashley Madison and almost no extramarital affairs are resulting from those expenditures. The site is just ripping off tens of millions of married men who want to cheat on their wives. You have about as good a chance of winning the lottery as a man has of scoring an affair through Ashley Madison.

One of the first elements in Newitz’s reporting that raised alarm bells for me was the news that women don’t pay for anything on the site. I repeat: everything on Ashley Madison is free if you’re a woman. And yet somehow, real women are nearly non-existent as site users. (Nearly all of the female profiles are fake.) Why is that?

A lot of lingering questions remain, but a major one is whether the site was deliberately conceived as a honeypot to snare men, or if it grew into that by the time these emails were sent in 2012 and 2013. Biderman, who created the site in 2001, said in an interview with Bloomberg News that Ashley Madison was focused on attracting women, not men:

Ashley Madison is what Biderman calls a “female-focused brand.” Everything from the site’s girly colors to the name is meant to entice those elusive XX chromosomes, the target of ladies’ night two-for-one drink specials the world over.

There, I think we have the answer. Biderman viewed female users comparably to a bar offering discounted drinks to women. The point of having “ladies’ night” at bars is that they’re not really interested in attracting women as customers. They’re using women to bring men to the bar. Ladies’ night isn’t for women’s benefit. We’re the bait, not the target.

It’s a similar phenomenon at Ashley Madison: the site isn’t there for women. They don’t charge women to use the site, which means all their revenue comes from men. Which means men are the ones they really need to attract. In this business model, women aren’t customers. They’re product. Men get marketing, and women get quality control. For example:

Just looking at Ashley Madison advertisements, it’s unclear how exactly he tried to target women. All the ads are aimed at men, and many depict wives as repulsive and terrifying. What woman (especially a married woman) would feel drawn to a site that depicts her that way?

Plus, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to create an account on Ashley Madison if you’re a woman. When I was researching this article, I opened several fake Ashley Madison accounts — one male, and two female (one straight; one bi). I posted fake pictures and information in all three. But within seconds, my fake picture and self-description were erased from the straight female account, and when I tried to replace them I was told they would be posted later, “pending approval.”

Really? “Pending approval”? They seem to be afraid they might let in some women who aren’t cute enough for their paying male customers. Might some men cancel their accounts if they have to browse through the profiles of a few women who are not that much better-looking than the men ogling them?

Anyway. I don’t quite know if I can answer the question of whether AM was fraudulent from the get-go, or if it merely succeeded that way. I do think that AM’s executives knew exactly what they were doing. They designed their business around using women as a product, and it worked really well for them. They made tons of money off men who want to cheat on their wives and not get caught. I have a hard time believing that anyone can be that successful while having to make up for having failed to attract the audience they wanted. It was never a “female-focused brand.” It’s always been about the men.

Which is not to say that I feel especially sorry for the men who comprise AM’s user base. They’re not there to practice ethical non-monogamy; OKC accommodates ethical non-monogamy. They’re spending money on AM because they need discretion. There are people who need discretion in their dating endeavors because they’re queer in countries where being queer is against the law, for example, but MOST of the users we’re dealing with are not coping with oppression, they’re acting out of entitlement. If AM stops making money after this data breach, it won’t really be because the site is ineffective so much as because the security failure scored their customers expensive divorce settlements. I have a hard time feeling sorry for the sort of people who respond to this type of advertising. It’s a shame that their money has lined the pockets of even more awful people, though. So, if AM goes belly-up following this data breach: cool. Surely there are less obnoxious ways for people to seek partners with the secrecy they need.