According to research into the subject, two of the most important precursors for infidelity are sexual history and opportunity. Studies show that the more sexually active a person is prior to marriage, the more likely that person is to cheat. And people in China appear to be growing more liberal on sexual relations—particularly the young, educated, and upwardly mobile. In 2012, for instance, a survey from Insight China magazine revealed that more than 70 percent of respondents had engaged in premarital sex. Still, the trend doesn’t hold across China. “Although the percentage of Chinese women who engage in premarital sex has skyrocketed in urban areas from 15 percent in 1990 to more than 50 percent in 2010, conservative attitudes toward sex, even in big cities like Shanghai, remain largely intact,” journalist Richard Burger wrote in 2012.
Then there’s opportunity. The media has lavished attention on China’s ernai—the mistresses kept by wealthy Chinese men and celebrated for exposing their companion’s corruption when spurned. For men, most opportunities for adultery stem from money, work, or both, with men “more likely both to have more exposure [to opportunities to cheat] and to be responsive when exposed,” according to the 2012 infidelity study. The same report found that high income levels had little to no effect on a Chinese woman’s tendency to cheat.
Another phenomenon associated with infidelity in China involves women married to partners whose income is modest. These women are sometimes interested in “trading up” should the chance arise. “I would say that working-class women who are not happy with their marriages are sometimes actually looking for a better deal rather than just trying to enjoy themselves,” Farrer says.
“And then there is the phenomenon of women who are married to men who have money but are not available, are not around, and they are looking for affection,” Farrer adds. “And there, I think it is more looking for some kind of sexual or romantic fulfillment rather than just trading up.”
For Chinese women, opportunity may come in the form of participation in the country’s labor force. “One thing that China has is very high rates of female labor-force participation,” Farrer says. “So women work, and women who are out in the labor force have more chance to meet men, and therefore far more chance to hook up with somebody, and women sitting at home have less chance.”
According to World Bank statistics, 70 percent of China’s female population (aged 15-64) participated in the country’s workforce in 2012, compared to 84 percent of the male population. Some of these young women are working far from their hometown and their parents’ disapproving gaze, away from the responsibilities of children, and sometimes separated from their romantic partner.
In China, Farrer says, sex has traditionally been seen as something that comes later in life and is earned. “In the West and even in Japan, sex is seen as sort of like child’s play. It is something that young people get up to, a thing people do for amusement,” he notes. “In China, it is seen as something that adults do.”
“It is more legitimate for a guy who has already made a lot of money to indulge himself in this kind of stuff because he has already made it, whereas young people, who don’t have any resources, any money or social status, should be working hard to get that stuff and shouldn’t be fooling around,” Farrer continues.
But while there may be a cultural basis for extramarital affairs in China, that doesn’t mean the practice is widely accepted. Divorce rates are also on the rise in the country—and surveys suggest adultery is a big reason why. In 2012, China’s crude divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 people) stood at 2.3 percent according to the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs, compared to 3.6 percent in the U.S. in 2011. In China’s more cosmopolitan cities, the divorce-to-marriage ratio (the number of divorces compared to the number of marriages in a given year) has soared: In 2013, the ratios for Shanghai and Beijing were 41 and 33 percent, respectively, compared to 31 percent for Shanghai and 23 percent for Beijing in 2007.
Are these marriages ending because of infidelity, or is the increased prevalence of divorce de-emphasizing the importance of marriage, thus making infidelity (and the risk of getting caught) less of a deterrent? The answer is elusive.
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Ashley Madison’s expansion into Hong Kong has offered Biderman valuable lessons as he contemplates a foray into China—new data inputs for a budding field he calls “Adultropology” (a phrase trademarked by the company).
In Hong Kong, Biderman has noticed outliers that make him bullish about the Chinese market. “What we see a lot with Hong Kong are a lot of profiles registered outside of Hong Kong and then utilized in Hong Kong—what we would call ‘the travel notion,’” he says. “Being a hundred kilometers from home, who is going to ever find out? That is a great time and place to have an affair.”
According to Biderman, more than 55 percent of the “travelers” who visit Ashley Madison Hong Kong are from mainland China, having set up their accounts through VPNs or while traveling to the territory. In the Hong Kong market, “we have a huge percentage of single women who have joined up to this service, more so than anywhere else,” he says.
Some women on Ashley Madison Hong Kong are philosophical about their pursuit of an affair (“enjoy life before it ends”), others ironic (seeking “a married men [sic] who understands and respects family values and importance of being discreet”), and still others straightforward (“looking for various men to fulfill what my husband can’t”; “looking for a hot stud”).