Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

AMI wasn’t planning to write about the Ashley Madison hack. For one thing, the story is its own proverb: Secrets have a way of spilling. For another, it’s difficult to find a moral angle on the story that doesn’t make me either sympathethic to adulterous men or a champion of militant hackers. There aren’t any heroes here, just different flavors of villains.

But Annalee Newitz at Gizmodo has written an incredible, mind-boggling piece on the website itself. Here’s the short version: There aren’t many women on Ashley Madison. In fact, there are basically none.

In terms of female users who actually utilize the site’s services, the numbers are almost negligible. I’ll let you read the entire piece and follow the fascinating (and at times technical) methods Newitz used to find the truth about Ashley Madison’s clientele, but suffice to say that the website appears to be largely a pornographic con job. As Newitz write:

This isn’t a debauched wonderland of men cheating on their wives. It isn’t even a sadscape of 31 million men competing to attract those 5.5 million women in the database. Instead, it’s like a science fictional future where every woman on Earth is dead, and some Dilbert-like engineer has replaced them with badly-designed robots.

Newitz presents compelling evidence that the overwhelming majority of female accounts are either A) fake accounts run by Ashley Madison staff to keep men on the website or B) throwaway accounts that were never actually utilized. Her technological detective work is impressive; her research indicates, for example, that thousands of female profiles were created directly on the company’s internal computers. Further, these same accounts–that beyond a reasonable doubt appear to be fictitious–post pictures, write “sexy messages,” and interact with the site quite convincingly. It’s a $100 million dollar enterprise, and it’s a complete snow job.

Or is it?  Here’s the thing: I really do believe most men who created Ashley Madison accounts wanted to have sex with somebody. But I also believe that the mere thought that there were thousands of willing women just waiting to accommodate them was its own masturbatory reward. I believe Ashley Madison was profitable not because it understood sex but because it understood porn, and understood that in the world of the internet, the largest and most successful red light district in human history, the fantasy is the reality.

Just based on the overwhelming numbers that Newitz gives, it’s common sense that Ashley Madison’s clientele would catch on. As Newitz writes, one of the sure conclusions we can draw from this is that most men never paid the website for an affair, only for the idea of one. Did those millions of men not suspect that the fix was in? Why didn’t they just give up after a year? Why didn’t some frustrated and technologically gifted client hack its way into the website servers three years ago?

Because, as we’re seeing again and again and again, pornography is anti-sex. Ashley Madison was about providing men with fantasies and fictions, not about living life to the fullest. The company’s motto was “Life Is Short, Have an Affair,” implying some sort of built-in reward system to life where those brave enough to get out of bed–and get out their credit card–were now entitled to the excitement and pleasure that society forbade them. Men gave Ashley Madison their money for the same reason they gave it to Hugh Hefner–he made them feel like gods for a night.