We asked Noel Biderman, the man behind one of the biggest online-dating sites for people seeking affairs, about his theories on adultery.
Noel in his Bill Clinton tribute room. Photo courtesy of the author
In 2001, Noel Biderman launched what is now one of the biggest online-dating sites in the world for people seeking affairs—AshleyMadison.com. Named for the two most popular girl names in the US at the time, Biderman's brainchild became a multi-million-dollar operation with its targeted service that matched people already in relationships with like-minded hookup candidates.
Almost 15 years later, Biderman—a.k.a. the "King of Infidelity"—is releasing a new book named First Bump based on his over 27 million clients' user data and research conducted with universities like Columbia, Duke, and NYU. The premise? Most men start cheating on their wives during or immediately following pregnancy.
I met Biderman at his Midtown Toronto office to find out why he's putting out a book about such a spurious topic that is sure to piss people off and to dig into how his personal life relates to his business. Guess what? He claims he's never cheated on his wife.
VICE: You come from a law background and what you do now seems a bit different. How did you end up founding AshleyMadison.com?
Noel Biderman: My story begins strangely enough on an airplane. I was reading a [business] magazine that was talking about the dot-com bubble bursting. This was 2001. The journalist, she was saying the dot-com bubble had burst, but the world had already changed. We will never watch pornography the same way. We'll never listen to music the same way. And then [the journalist] said we'll never date the same way—you're not confined to waiting for your mom or your friends to introduce you to someone or college or university being the place. You can actually reach out across the country—across the globe—and find exactly what you're looking for.
What she said about online dating was maybe the most fascinating, which was she herself wouldn't use an online-dating service—at least not yet, given that 30-plus percent of the people on there were actually posing. They weren't single; they were already in relationships. And so that was the so-called light-bulb moment.
If I wasn't a sports attorney—like any other reader who might have read the article—I might have flipped the page. I spent an extraordinary amount of time dealing with domestic situations including unfaithfulness where players would call me and say something like, "My wife wants to come visit me in this city." And I'd be like, "What's the problem?" "Well, my wife from the city is not going to like it." You know you can't marry two women just because you have different residences. It was that bad.
So in a sense, I was already involved with professional infidelity long before I built AshleyMadison.
In your book you talk about how there is a scale of monogamy to polyamory and how it's more of a sexual preference or sexuality. What do you think it will take for society to accept that as a sexuality?
I think you have to look at where the origins of monogamy came from. There's really two that you could point to. One is that Judeo-Christian notion that's 2,000 years old. To move away from that, it could take a counterbalance of time. It will take years for them to build that new condo across the way [points out office window], but a piece of TNT could blow it up overnight. Even if something took 2,000 years, in 20 years we might be able to move away from it.
But at the same time it came from a secondary place. At some point in time, most people started owning things, and we wanted to be able to give our property to our progeny—and absent DNA testing, we had to create rules about that. We didn't want women to be unfaithful so we could no longer identify our progeny; that's actually a deep drive in the societal narrative.
I have two children—nobody would dare challenge me that I can love them both equally—but if I said to someone that I have two wives and I can love them both equally, they would question that ability. For romantic love, we don't believe that we have the capacity to love more than one.
So what it's going to take, I think, is brilliant social science work. If couples in these polyamorous situations are more successful than those in monogamous situations... I mean I'm the first to say defining success by not failing is a terrible way to define success, right. But if we look at divorce rates, couples in open marriages are wildly more successful than monogamous couples.
That is surely a piece of evidence we should all want to study deeper, and then it's going to take that generational change. It's taken a long time for us to be more accepting of same-sex relationships, so my guess, if you're asking me as an expert on infidelity, we're talking about 40 to 80 years before half of society is more fluid with sexuality than where it is today.
As society moves more toward accepting different types of queer identities, where do you think polyamory fits into that?
I think it's the last bastion because it affects the most people. It affects just about everybody on some level, and we seem to have these notions in traditional media [that] we can change everything about society: how we educate, live, eat, equality, rights. But somehow morality has to stay static. It seems like sexuality is that last bastion and infidelity is the very last of it. People will have to be comfortable with every other type of appetite and behavior pattern first before that regular person can actually say we can date, we can love, we can have children—but having a sexual relationship with someone is not any different from shaking hands with them.
Are you married?
Yes, you got me, 12 wonderful years.
What does your wife think of your business?
Here's my belief in it. Part one is I go to my partner at the time and say, "Listen, I have this idea and this is what I want to do." I think you can have a couple of reactions to that—"You're crazy," which she said. You can say, "Absolutely not, I don't trust you, I don't believe in you, I don't like that," which I think people probably expect her to do. Or she could look at the landscape, look at me, and say, "This is what you want to do? I believe in you. Then do it." So in a sense if anything, it solidified my faith in our choices in one another. Since the day I started this business, she has been with me and has been my biggest cheerleader, my biggest defender.
And I assured her: "Listen, you'll always be able to judge me for the man that I am. This is a business opportunity. I am looking at this professionally. I think I can do really well by it."
Are you in a monogamous relationship?
I am so far, to the best of my knowledge.
When your kids grow up, will you explain to them what you do?
I will. I think, one: We don't give our kids enough credit. They figure things out so why not have the conversation? Two: Honesty is always the best policy especially when it comes to your kids. And three: I'm really confident that they will judge me for the husband they see me being, for the dad that I am, and that the business is secondary to our personal lives. I have a young daughter. Do I worry about one day her coming into my office and crying to me that her boyfriend cheated on her and I'm partly to blame because I threw AshleyMadison into that conversation? Yeah, but I also know the reality, which is with or without AshleyMadison, that could've easily happened.
I'm married and have been for two years. What advice do you have for someone like me who's in the beginning of her marriage?
When I look back on my own courting and formalizing of [my] relationship, part of it is that we never discussed monogamy in any kind of way. We didn't sit down and say we're monogamous now. By the way, how do we define monogamy? What am I allowed to do? Can I watch pornography? Are you OK with that? Are you not? Are strip clubs another thing? Can I touch other people? Like clearly having an affair in a hotel room is out of bounds, but are there any boundaries? I don't think most couples do that, and it's probably a healthy conversation to have because you might be surprised by the boundaries both positive and negative.
I think the second thing is we don't really get a good roadmap of what it's going to look like, and so what I tried to do with First Bump in particular is this is the roadmap I'm seeing. There's no culture or place on Earth you can point to where people don't have affairs. In fact, there's places on Earth where it's prohibited by death and women still do it, and that shows you how deep of a biological drive it is.
And so I would want to know what that roadmap looks like. I would want to know where the potholes exist. Everything we know at this time in history about unfaithfulness is anecdotal. It's a retrospective. It's inaccurate. We know politicians seem to do it and get caught with their pants down and athletes seem to do it, but is it your neighbors? One of the myths we also broke down was that it's women too.
The title of your book is about cheating when a woman is pregnant, but it seems like there's a lot more to it than just that. Why did you pick that as the main thing?
We said what is the single most interesting find or maybe most impactful finding of all the things we've seen? And surely not that coffee drinkers are more unfaithful on average than tea drinkers. What was certainly fundamentally important to me was when do affairs start in marriages?
We've all heard of the seven-year itch. We have this notion that seven years into a relationship we might start hitting a rocky patch. Well, it turns out that's terrible mythology, that that happens really three to four years into a relationship for a whole host of reasons. Again, sociologists will explain that cohabitation breeds indifference, but the biggest factor ends up being that all of the sudden, especially when a first child or pregnancy is on the scene, your sex life goes from 100 mph to zero. Like, literally, there becomes a period of abstinence. Women feel less attractive so there's an emotional side to not wanting to be sexually active for some, not all. There's a healing period of time, and then there's a demands period of time. Having a newborn is tough. It doesn't lead to a lot of intimacy.
So it turns out that most men start thinking about being unfaithful right amongst that change in life. This is when we're seeing them log into our service in millions—we're talking about in droves—looking to explore their first-ever affair. They're saying, "I never thought I would do this before, but oh my god, it's been nine months. She seems to love the child more than me."
They're just ill-prepared for it, and so I'm not blaming, I'm not finger-pointing—I just think that if I was in that life stage again, I would surely as a married man want to know that.
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