James was a full head and shoulders taller than me, with black hair tousled loose from his conservative hair style just before he walked into the bar. He had the broad shoulders and soft, thick middle of a former athlete who could still do well in a Saturday afternoon game of touch football. His eyes were a light, surprising green over his short, boyish nose.
I hadn’t been able to see his eyes well in the photo he’d sent me the day before: James on a boat somewhere, a drink in his hand, a broad smile under his sunglasses. I liked him immediately.
An hour and a round of margaritas later, we fled the terrible music of the bar where we’d met up for the peace of a lovely park a half-mile away. We sat in my front seat and talked about movies we loved while a lit fountain burbled up in front of us. I put my right hand on his thigh. He covered it with his left. He was wearing his wedding ring.
I never met a man from Ashley Madison who ever took his ring off.
The release of private user information from the Ashley Madison hack has raised a lot of questions. Some questions about recognizable names are trumpeted from news sources that don’t usually make infidelity rumors front page news.
Most of those questions are being painfully asked and answered by couples in their own homes – with more than 30 million registered users outed, the famous ones are the few. One of the questions I have seen asked over and over in the comments section of any article is: What kind of woman signs up for Ashley Madison?
I do. I did. I made an account in 2014 and met a half dozen married and partnered men for sex. If there’s such a person as “Ashley Madison,” I’m her.
I don’t look or act the way you may think I do. I’m cute, not beautiful, in my early 30s. I have a corporate career. I don’t have an Instagram account or take duck-faced selfies. I have never owned any piece of clothing with writing across the ass. Most of the times I met with married men for drinks or lunch, I’m sure they looked like a business meetings, not dates, to outsiders.
Women like me were rarer on Ashley Madison than the company liked to actively represent to male users, but I’m not special.
Before I signed up for Ashley Madison, I’d never so much as had an unsanctioned drunken smooch, even in a long-distance relationship in my early 20s.
I loved sexual variety and adventure when I was single, but when I was in a relationship all of that energy focused inward on my partner. We would become each other’s undiscovered countries; I never got tired of exploring anyone I was ever with.
I wasn’t one of those people who just can’t stay monogamous no matter what part of life infidelity burns down around them. I was the opposite. I craved to sexually grow and learn with one man.
For the first two months I dated the man who would become my fiancé, I also dated other people. I was adamantly clear about it; I wanted him to understand the boundaries of our relationship.
He accepted that, told me he’d wait as long as I wanted, but that he’d also known from our first date that he didn’t want to be with anyone but me. We had wonderful sex, a passionate connection and craving for each other that soon made me lose interest in anyone else.
After we became exclusive, I spent half my nights at his place. We’d have sex until we fell asleep and again when we woke up. We were a great match. I had finally found the man who could be my friend and partner in and out of the bedroom.
While I knew from experience that the frenetic frequency of the first months would mellow out, it never occurred to me that sex would be a problem for us.
Within a year, we lived together. Within a year, we had gone from sex four or five times a week to sex once or twice a month. He went from happily helping me get off in other ways when he didn’t feel like intercourse to complaining that taking the five to 10 minutes it usually took for me to have an orgasm was going to make him late for work or late to sleep.
His life was full of school, work, and family stress. It was so easy to slide down the slope of both of us making excuses. He fixated on improving his education to advance his career, but everything was seeping into more hopeless places for him.
Where my sexuality had always been a great comfort and relief of stress for me, his sank deeper into his personal darkness with each day.
We talked openly about whether or not he was depressed. Both of us had lived with partners before who had clinical depression; both of us thought he was only down because of his circumstances.
He still got up every day, went to school, went to work. He enjoyed some of the things he did before, though he grew less open and more irritable, especially when under pressure.
I loved him so fearsomely. We had awful sex where he had a pained expression on his face the whole time. I fought for our relationship. I stopped taking hormonal birth control and switched back to condoms because we only had sex every two or three months. We got engaged and joyfully planned a wedding for which we never set a date.
Three years later, I took my engagement ring off and slipped it into a tiny box in my purse before I met green-eyed James for margaritas.
I used Ashley Madison because having sex with a man who was already with someone else was the best way to make sure he would be discreet and less likely to get attached to me.
I never wanted to have a romantic relationship with a married man, definitely not one that would divert any of his emotional energy away from his family.
I didn’t want to date anyone, waste his time when I was deeply in love with someone it was impossible to be with in the way that I wanted. If we both started off with equal needs and expectations, it was easier to control damage for people neither of us wanted to hurt.
I needed to have some kind of pressure valve for the physical ache that I felt not having sexual contact with another person. I masturbated multiple times a day, when I could get the privacy. If masturbation were enough, the human race would have gone extinct 20 years after the invention of the AA battery.
I needed to control my frustration until my fiancé either got help or could live without my total financial and emotional support. I’ve never been more grateful to not have kids.
For every man I met up with from Ashley Madison, I talked to 10 where nothing but a little flirtation happened. Every man I talked to said he’d gone through dozens of inactive (or maybe never active) women’s profiles and that few of the women who answered their messages actually wanted to meet.
If you found a friend or lover’s e-mail address in the leak, from my experience, there’s a better chance nothing ever happened than that it did. Savvier men used e-mail addresses for Ashley Madison that they didn’t use for anything else.
Before I made my Ashley Madison profile, I read every relationship advice column I could find, looking for some kind of answer. I read dozens that calmly explained to people in my position that health issues, stress, and depression were to blame; improved diet and exercise, patience, and therapy were the solution.
Not one told me how long to wait, what percentage of our life together we could live before I could consider “terribly dysfunctional” to be our real sex life and the first, functional months to be the aberration.
All of them told me to break up with him when he repeatedly refused to go to therapy with me or to discuss opening up our relationship so I could have my needs met without cheating.
None of them told me what to do if breaking up meant derailing him in school, probably forever, because he would no longer have my financial support and didn’t have any other viable options. None of them told me what I felt in the ache in my stomach, which is that fidelity can be broken by letting a sexual relationship die as much as it can by starting a new one with someone else.
I never found an answer. This was the best I could do.