BEIJING—It’s difficult to know what to make of Noel Biderman, CEO of the infidelity-promoting, match-making website AshleyMadison.com, as he breaks down his business and plans for the future.
Biderman grows philosophical at times, claiming it is monogamy that “fractures the family unit and not infidelity.” The married father of two talks of his network’s ultimate mission: to facilitate the perfect affair. But his is not a swinger’s site seeking out society’s more adventurous couples. It is a platform for adultery—an act considered sinful by most cultures. So who is Biderman really: the Alfred Kinsey of infidelity, or the devil’s advocate? Whatever the answer, the man has a vision—one he’s implemented in 38 countries. And now that vision includes China.
And why not? Last year, Ashley Madison, which launched just before Mother’s Day in 2002 and now has a self-reported 26 million members, began its East Asia expansion, entering Japan in June, Hong Kong in August, and Taiwan in November. (Rolling out the site in a given country typically involves work such as buying the URL there, translating the site, hiring customer-service staff who speak the local language, unveiling a marketing campaign, and adjusting the payment system for the fees men incur to send messages to other members.)
Still, it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government allowing such a website to exist in a country where the family unit is prized and sexual conservatism is widespread, let alone one where the Internet is tightly controlled. Ashley Madison is blocked in mainland China, and attempts to load the site without a virtual private network (VPN) result in the notice: “Access Denied: Access to this site has been rejected due to current policy.”
Biderman admits that his ambitions in China are just that—ambitions. “[W]e don’t have a mandate here saying that by Q3 in 2014 we have to be live and active [in China],” he explains, adding that the climate there is particularly complex. “When we launch into Mexico, we might speak to our lawyers down there, we will speak to our e-commerce partner on credit cards and local payment methods, and then we say, ‘Infidelity exists in Mexico. We are going to do well,’ and whatever. We are kind of doing it different with China. We are going to have a true business plan, like what GE would have.”
Preemptively defending his venture from the type of criticism it might meet in China, the Toronto-based Biderman maintains that the site is no different than what he considers Ashley Madison’s greatest competitor: the workplace. “Nobody would ever blame the workplace for [infidelity] in the way that they wouldn’t blame a hotel room or a mobile phone,” he says. “It is not an inanimate object’s fault.”
“China, France, there is not a culture on the planet where you can’t find infidelity,” he continues. “Even in places where it is prohibited by law and where people can meet severe punishment, they still have affairs. They still have affairs because for them it is a biological need.”
From its name (a mash-up of two popular baby names for girls) to its pink color scheme, Ashley Madison actively courts women in addition to men. But how would that play in China, where it has historically been more permissible for men to cheat on their spouses than for women to do so?
“Men were allowed to have multiple wives, concubines [in ancient China] and there were the classes of women—the entertainers, the prostitutes—who men were allowed to visit,” says James Farrer, a professor of sociology at Tokyo’s Sophia University who studies the sex cultures of China and Japan. “But women were never allowed to. Women who indulged themselves in these things were certainly not seen as good or free of sin, not as pure or virtuous. It was a very gendered thing, and I think that the difference now is that women and men both can indulge themselves in this sort of thing in China.”
Indeed, a 2012 study conducted by Chinese and Western researchers revealed rates of infidelity—both commercial and non-commercial—among Chinese men and women of 13.6 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively (respondents, aged 18-49, were either married or in a stable relationship). While Chinese men hovered around the median 13.2-percent infidelity rate of the 36 other countries included in the report, Chinese women were far more likely to cheat than women elsewhere—well above the median of 0.8 percent and trailing only Norway, Britain, and Cameroon (while topping the U.S., France, Australia, and Italy).
Why would Chinese women demonstrate a greater propensity for adultery than women in France, where sexual attitudes are often portrayed as remarkably liberal? Or than American women, who are bombarded by infidelity in TV shows and movies, not to mention among the celebrities that star in such entertainment?
“China is a society that has emphasized women’s independence and women’s equality,” says Farrer. “Socialism was not a passing thing. It had a big impact on the way that women saw themselves. So Chinese women feel as though they have a right to the things that Chinese men have a right to. And when you talk to women about infidelity in China, they will often say, ‘Well, men do it. Why can’t we?’”
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.
* * *
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”).
“In Hong Kong, [infidelity] seems to be almost culturally accepted,” Biderman says. “We have seen virality—women posting on their Facebook, ‘Hey, I joined Ashley Madison.’ We don’t have a viral business. You don’t tend to tell your friends about the success you have on Ashley Madison. That is part of why our growth has been the way that it has.”
Biderman acknowledges that he may need to compromise when dealing with authorities in Beijing, and concedes that a Chinese version of Ashley Madison could look very different than its sister sites. “It might be much more of a social network that people who are married join to talk to other people about marital problems,” he suggests.
Ultimately, however, he seems determined to make his business succeed in the Middle Kingdom.
“I don’t think that there is any government that I have encountered, or society, that doesn’t see itself as conservative and into preserving family values,” he says. “I think that what you tend to find is that as you explore it deeper, nobody who is at least being honest denies the presence of infidelity. And so, it can be improved upon and lead to less family breakdowns.”