The data of some 37 million Ashley Madison users—just three million shy of the cheating site’s total clientele—has been released in a massive and very messy security breach. In the wake of the leak, an enterprising digital agency called Tecnilógica mapped out the locations of 30 million Ashley Madison subscribers across the globe, and analyzed the data to determine the gender balance of users. In total, around 85 percent of the sample were male.
The lopsided distribution of gender among Ashley Madison users probably comes as little surprise, because both conventional wisdom and sociological research has long indicated that men cheat more than women. But according to Dr. Kristen Mark, a sex and relationship researcher at the University of Kentucky, traditional assumptions about the rates of cheating among the sexes may be incorrect. In fact, in a 2009 study that examined predictors of infidelity in heterosexual couples, Mark and two other researchers found that women cheated just as frequently as men.
“We didn’t see a significant gender difference in infidelity,” Mark explained. “I think that older research, in early 2000s or in the ‘90s, was really showing a consistent trend of men cheating more than women, but I think that that was even an artificial trend, because now women are much more comfortable talking about sexuality than they were even then. And so perhaps they’re more comfortable also answering questions honestly when it’s in an online, anonymous setting.”
If men and women are equally likely to step out on a significant other, they do not always cheat in the same ways. “I think men are more likely to seek out the opportunity,” Mark said. “And women are more likely to [have an affair] if the opportunity comes to them and they happen to not be satisfied, or not feel compatible in their relationships.” It is this distinction, perhaps, that can account for Ashley Madison’s disproportionately male membership: an attached woman may be willing to sleep with a man she meets as she goes about her daily life, but she is less likely to peruse the Internet, looking for a hook-up.
Men and women also seem to cheat for different reasons. Popular culture dictates that men cheat because they want sex, whereas women seek an emotional connection that their marriage no longer provides. It seems like a clichéd, almost dated generalization, but there is truth to it. In 2014, theU.K. dating site EliteSingles surveyed 667 men and women about why they had strayed from their partners. Most men (55 percent) could not identify a reason for being unfaithful. The next most popular answer among male participants (28 percent) was “I wanted to have sex with someone else.” Women respondents tended to give more emotionally-driven reasons for cheating: boredom in their relationship (35 percent), or falling in love with a new person (27 percent).
Alyssa Siegel, a sex therapy and relationship counselor, has seen such trends played out among her patients. “[Women often cheat because] in their marriage, they are not being appreciated, or really seen and heard,” she said of her clients. “They don’t necessarily feel particularly attractive, or they don’t feel particularly loved. And so they find that sense of connection, or that feeling of being really desired, outside of the marriage from someone else. For men … it’s more based upon the sex itself. [An affair can give them] the feeling of [being] strong, and confident, and sexy, which maybe they don’t feel with their wives or their partners anymore.”
In Dr. Mark’s study on infidelity, women subjects were more likely to identify relationship factors—like happiness in a relationship and perceived sexual compatibility—as motivators for cheating. Male participants, on the other hand, tended to point to sexual excitation as a primary incentive. Interestingly, the study also found that problems with sexual functioning could prompt men to seek romance outside of their primary relationship.
“Men who had sexual problems ended up being more likely to engage in infidelity, which was an interesting finding,” Mark told Women in the World. “We thought that that could be explained because perhaps men who experience sexual problems might have more insecurity in the bedroom, and therefore want to try and get rid of some of that sexual frustration outside of their primary relationship.” In other words, complex emotions—and not just sexual urges—can drive men to an affair.
And when women cheat, sometimes it really is just about sex. In August of last year, Ashley Madison commissioned a study of 100 heterosexual, married women between the ages of 35 and 45, who were registered with the site. Researchers discovered that a significant majority (67 percent) of their subjects were looking for romantic passion—including sex—outside of their marriage. But not a single one of the participants reported any interest in leaving their husbands. According to Eric Anderson, a professor of masculinity, sexuality, and sport at the University of Winchester and the chief science officer at Ashley Madison, these results “reflect not martial disharmony, but the sexual monotony that is a social fact of the nature of long-term monogamous relationships.”
It’s a convenient sound byte from the so-called “chief science officer” of a website that facilitates affairs among married people. And yet it’s also hard to deny that monogamy can put a damper on passion. Long-term relationships offer comfort and security, which are lovely, but somewhat antithetical to an exhilarating romantic life.
“Because of media portrayals of sex and whatnot, [we think] sex is supposed to be really hot, and really spontaneous, and really exciting, and really intense,” Siegel told Women in the World. “That kind of sex does typically only happen with someone new. Part of the reason for that is it’s all fantasy. When you’re having sex with someone new, you don’t really know them, and they don’t really know you, so you’re projecting your idea of who you want them to be on them, as they are on you … That tends to be really appealing to some people.”
It goes without saying that the pursuit of such extramarital fantasies can destroy relationships and cause intense emotional pain. The fallout of the Ashley Madison breach has shown that trolling for affairs in the Internet age carries the additional risk of public exposure and humiliation—for men and women alike.