By Foster Klug & Youkyung Lee / The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea—A wealthy man sneaks away for a tryst that he suggests will “reduce friction” with his wife. A woman in Seoul looks for a “side relationship” to a marriage that has lost its spark.
Both are using the Ashley Madison cheating web site, which is making a lucrative, controversial splash in South Korea in the wake of a landmark ruling earlier this year that decriminalizes adultery. So great is the interest here that company executives expect it to be a top-3 market globally for them in five years, after the United States and Canada.
Executives say a large number of women are signing up, taking advantage of increasing access to disposable cash and the freedom to do what men have always done. Not all is equal, however: The consequences of getting caught remain much greater for women here than they are for men.
Here’s a look at how the cheating web site’s debut shows hints of both change and persistent sexism in this traditionally conservative country.
Ashley Madison, which operates in 46 countries and has 36 million members, launched here in April 2014, and within the first two weeks more than 50,000 people had signed up.
Then South Korea shut down the web site, citing a six-decade-old anti-adultery law. It was not a shocking move for a country that bars people from viewing pornography or reading rival North Korea’s propaganda-filled media, but Ashley Madison sued. Then, in February, a court separately struck down the anti-adultery law.
The ban was lifted, and Ashley Madison again took off. In its first two weeks after reopening, more than 100,000 new members signed up, generating $400,000 in revenue.
Ashley Madison is seen as the first company in South Korea to aggressively promote itself as a dating web site for married people, though other online dating web sites and chatting services have long been used as channels for affairs or prostitution.
Among the surprises, the company says, is that more women than men under the age of 45, its most lucrative group, have signed up.
“Men have always had affairs,” Paul Keable, a company spokesman, said in an interview. “The problem for women is that the consequences have been much graver. Women have a greater economic level and independence than they had previously, so they’re able to access the thing they’ve always wanted but could never do before. That’s what you’re seeing in Korea.”
“Add some spice”
A 34-year-old Southeast Asian woman in Seoul, who has been married to a Korean man for five years, has had plenty of online conversations with Korean men on Ashley Madison but has arranged only one meeting in person.
The woman has also been chatting with an American with a Korean wife who lives in Hawaii but makes regular visits to the country. She refused to give her name because she said exposure would mean divorce and losing her two young children.
The woman, who lives in central Seoul, hasn’t cheated yet, she said, because she hasn’t found the right person.
“This is the perfect way to see if he’s out there,” she said. She wants “a side relationship within my relationship.”
She said things “are generally OK” with her husband, but she craves more attention.
“I don’t really want to change the situation I’m in now; I just want to add some spice. I want to have someone to whom I could retreat to for a short time before I go back to reality.”
Successful men caught cheating usually suffer no career setbacks and often stay married, said Cho Kyungae, a senior counselor at the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations, an independent, nonprofit group that has provided legal and marriage counseling for more than 150,000 couples or families.
For a woman, however, the damage is “irreparable”—huge social stigma that can include the loss of not only her job but her family, Cho said.
“Society’s view is: ‘How could someone’s wife dare to do that? Isn’t she ashamed as a mother?’” Cho said.
Although the Korean media have been mildly critical of Ashley Madison starting its business here, adultery is increasingly talked about publicly. For instance, a popular Korean soap opera centers on an affair between a middle-aged married woman and a younger man.
Min Hong-chul, a lawmaker for the New Politics Alliance for Democracy party, recently proposed in parliament to allow censors greater leeway in blocking “harmful information,” which could pave the way for stopping Internet and other media—such as the Ashley Madison site—that Min says are undermining family values. The bill proposal will likely enjoy strong conservative support but its prospects are uncertain.
Min said South Korea’s traditional values began to erode during the 1980s, which saw a meteoric economic rise and the widespread acceptance of more permissive Western ideas. While this brought wealth and greater human rights, it also led to one of the highest divorce rates among developed countries, he said.
“My ego hurts”
A man who would seem to have it all—a well-paid CEO job and a beautiful wife and child—is looking for what he says he lacks through Ashley Madison.
The man, who also refused to be named because he’s worried about the repercussions of using an adultery dating site, said he loves his wife but can’t remember the last time he had sex with her.
After eight years of marriage, she is consumed with their child, he said, and is too tired for sex. He said that when she is still asleep in the morning and he gets no breakfast before work, he feels like he is nothing but “a machine that makes money.”
From his office computer, he exchanges messages with women on the Ashley Madison site that include sexual jokes, complaints about his wife and worries about his sex life.
He recently had sex with a woman he met on the site. He said he also gave her some money, after she tearfully said she struggled to buy baby food.
He feels sorry for his wife because of the cheating, he said by phone. “But if you look at it in a different way, it does reduce friction with her. When she refuses to sleep with me because she’s too tired, my ego hurts.”
If he caught his wife having an affair, however, he’d divorce her.
His feeling, he said, would be: “How could you cheat on me when I’ve made so much money [for the family]?”