Does the stock market flotation of a website promoting affairs show a sexual revolution is gathering speed, asks Helen Croydon.
"Easy-going, adventurous and open-minded but needing adult contact. Hobbies include travel and music." Accompanying the profile of "Matt" on a busy online dating site is a picture of a toned, tanned torso. There is no head shot.
"I'm looking for a passionate relationship. We won't be going shopping or to the cinema but I would hope for good conversation over the occasional glass of something and regular romping." This one from "Hazel", who is in a long-term relationship but "craving something more". Hazel doesn't show her face either - just the back of a head of long, flowing brown hair.
But this isn't the place to display happy holiday snaps. This is a dating site that claims to help people "seek discrete encounters".
You may wince, but AshleyMadison.com, whose tagline cries "life is short, have an affair", has become so successful that it announced this week it aims to raise US$200 million on the stock market to finance international expansion. Since its launch in the UK five years ago, 1.2 million people have signed up, though it's not clear how many are active, paying members and how many have simply registered for an account. The company, which estimates its value at US$1 billion, is Canadian in origin but has chosen London for its public flotation because apparently Brits are "more relaxed about infidelity". Attempts to get investors on board in North America have already failed.
I can attest for the unapologetic attitude of affair-seekers here. Two years ago, as part of research for my book, Screw The Fairytale, I went undercover on another popular cheating site, maritalaffair.co.uk. What, I wanted to know, makes someone actively seek an affair? Are they over-sexed opportunists who can't keep it in their trousers? Or is the prevalence of adultery a symptom of a deeper, social malaise? Unrealistic expectations of modern relationships, perhaps? A misalignment between our culture of independence and our strict rules of full-time commitment?
I met three men. The first was "Robert", a 37-year-old events organiser. On a sunny July day in 2012, wearing a summer dress, modest heels and fake wedding ring, I met him in a chic coffee shop overlooking the River Thames in central London. I'd rehearsed my alibi meticulously - that I'd married my university sweetheart and felt I'd missed out. I needn't have bothered because my dates didn't ask much about me.
I'd only set up my profile three days previously. Within hours I'd received more than 100 messages. Some were too crass to print (and many seemed to think a profile picture displaying their genitals would be better than their face). I chose only to pursue the articulate ones. After all, I was here to gather coherent insights into the adulterous mind.
Robert was well-spoken, average-looking and in good shape. He'd been married for 12 years and had two young children. "I'm happy with what I have at home but I want more." He explained. "The dynamic changed between me and my wife after children. The focus became them. Before I married, I was a strong-minded, independent person with lots of interests. I played sport and would visit friends in different places. One day, I looked at the mirror and thought, 'what happened to you?' I felt hemmed in. All my decisions were influenced by the fact that I was married."
My next two dates expressed similar sentiments. "James", was a 52-year-old entrepreneur. "My home life is fine, my wife and I get on, but somewhere down the line we stopped kissing and we don't have intimacy any more," he explained. "We have sex every Sunday but the routine gets boring." Later he added: "All my friends say they love their wives but they've become more like friends."
I started to spot a theme. Every man I met or communicated with via phone or message stressed that they still loved their spouse but craved the excitement of a new romance. One said he wanted to "look forward to seeing someone again". Another said he enjoyed the idea of "getting to know someone".
I loathed their deceit in joining such a secretive site, but I also learnt from them. They all spoke of two separate desires: first, the friendship and security provided by a long-term relationship; second, the excitement of a new love affair. Perhaps we all have a need for both. They seemed disillusioned, as if they'd been let down by the promise that marriage would provide all-in-one fulfilment of both needs. Yes, they wanted sex, but I sensed sex was only part of it. They also craved the buzz of a new romantic relationship.
This may not sound revolutionary. Most of us enter into commitment knowing it won't be one long honeymoon. We know it requires work to keep love and passion alive. So is it right for a company to cash in on this struggle? In effect, taking financial advantage of our weaknesses, instead of bolstering the noble institution of monogamous marriage?
The Canadian founder of AshleyMadison.com, Noel Biderman, says it's simply business: "Other companies have been doing that for years. The business of affairs is worth trillions. Hotels, restaurants, luxury gifts, jewellery. The reason we've been so successful is because monogamy is counter to our DNA... What we've done is created a platform where likeminded individuals can be more honest and open about their intentions than they could be on eHarmony or Match."
I only got to meet the men, but it isn't just men doing the dirty. Ashley Madison refuses to give a breakdown of its female-to-male membership ratio. It admits there are more men overall, but within the most popular age-range (30 to 45) the ratio "looks nearer to one on one," with female membership increasing 10 per cent faster than men. "Men have always been seen as the adulterous sex, but only because they had the means. Women now have the same access. If a woman is adulterous, it isn't that she's behaving like a man, she's behaving like a human being," says Biderman.
Sociologist Catherine Hakim, who analysed swathes of research on extramarital affairs for her book The New Rules, says: "These sites make it much easier to do things the 'French way,' by having a discreet affair. The reason most people get caught out is because they have an affair with someone too close to home: a colleague, a neighbour, a mutual friend. These websites mean you can meet outside your social circle so fewer accidents happen. In the past, affairs were problematic because of the danger of pregnancy. Since the contraceptive revolution, affairs become more of an entertainment, a diversion, something without consequence."
So are adultery websites the next stage in revolutionising sexual behaviour, in the way the Pill did in the 1960s? Are they helping us behave in a way that better suits our nature than monogamous marriage? Pam Spurr, a psychologist and author of Sex Academy, says it isn't so simple. "When a partner puts their energy into pursuing a fling, it takes away from the energy they could be putting into their relationship," she argues. "Instead of thinking they will never get what they want in their sex life, they should try coaxing their partner into experimenting. You might think you're risking nothing because you're having an affair with a like-minded person. But these things have a way of getting discovered, leading to untold heartache."
We can be warned endlessly about the dangers, but while there is such a strong desire for people to seek affairs scores of savvy entrepreneurs will look for ways to commercialise the process. Throughout history, women have profited financially from the sexual desires of men. In Japan, geisha girls received a healthy income from patrons in exchange for their playful and charming company. In ancient China, a concubine could secure a good lifestyle by attracting a married man. In Europe, royal mistresses acquired political influence.
These days, women have more options when it comes to making a living. They also have the means to pursue their own sexual gratification. And they are no longer the only ones cashing in. The commercialisation of adultery is centuries old. It's just the way we do business, and the people behind it, that have changed.