London - Mary describes herself as a happily married woman in her forties. She has a child under 10 and met her husband when she was in her first year at university. She is 5ft 4in and calls herself “average-looking”. Last year during a Friday night bout of insomnia, she logged on to the website AshleyMadison.com. “By the Saturday night I was in someone else's bed having sex,” she tells me in a forthright way.
In the 21st century the roadmap to adultery is increasingly electronic. Mary (not her real name) is one of an ever-increasing number using infidelity websites to find fun - or fulfilment - away from the marital bed.
The website Ashley Madison, a decade old and founded by well-spoken Canadian former lawyer Noel Biderman, has 17.8 million members worldwide. It was founded on the spur of an article about the dotcom bubble:
“I remember reading a piece about how the internet had changed our lives,” says Biderman. “One of the things the writer said was she'd never recommend online dating - as you end up with married men. I read that and it jumped off the page: I thought why not build a community dedicated to these people, where they didn't have to pretend to be single?” His “community” now has 700,000 members in the UK.
But it isn't the only site of its kind.
Recently it was revealed in a Freedom of Information request that over a seven-month period, MPs, peers and their staff had clicked on a website called Out Of Town Affairs 52,735 times. The site, which operates in the UK, USA and South Africa, is a home-grown Ashley Madison, whose owners claim they have seen registration rates grow by an unfathomable 5,217 percent in the past 12 months. There are other sites, too, with differing focuses: including Established Men, Martial Affairs, Erotic Affairs and some with names far too pointed to put into print.
All essentially operate on the same principle: you pay a fee (for Out Of Town Affairs it's £25) and then gain access to a shop window of other amorous married people. Home pages may differ in tone. Out Of Town Affairs has shades of the Carry On films with “Start your own illicit affair today. Shhh! it's a secret”, while Ashley Madison goes succinctly for: “Life is Short. Have an Affair.” But the point of them is crystal clear: they are places to find a fling.
Log on and you find your fellow members are a cross-section of life. Pictures range from the coquettishly posed to badly lit soft porn. The mainstay is individuals looking for another partner, but some are couples on the hunt for a ménage à trois.
What type of person visits them then? The answer seems to be pretty much everyone and anyone. According to Out Of Town Affairs, the key age ranges are broad. For men, 26-50; women, 18-45. The major cities - Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, London - are where most “meets”, to use the parlance, take place. The clientele tends towards the urban.
Looking back now, Mary describes her first encounter laughingly: “It was very quick - luckily he was very nice. We'd been chatting on and off all day and then I had this argument with my husband. I'd been drinking and was sitting alone talking to the guy from online and he said: 'Why don't you just come over?' Eventually, he came and picked me up. It sounds dangerous but he said to me: 'Right, we'll have to be bloody quick, my twins are asleep in the back bedroom.' So I knew it was safe,” she says with a laugh. “I call it a drive-by shooting.”
She has no desire to divorce her husband. “We make a good team and family - and he loves me. It is just that my husband no longer requires sex, the physical stuff. I do,” she says. For Mary, the website has been about fulfilment rather than adventure.
The way she uses the site - save for the first occasion - follows this. She posts no pictures nor her real address - unlike most others - but gives out her other details truthfully. Conversations start and if things go well she will give them her “stealth” email address (she also has a “stealth” Skype account). She uses these purely for communication stemming from the site. “Early on, I say: 'I am 47 and I am married and ordinary - if I am not your type, tell me nicely'.”
Rudeness, she says, is rare. “It is a real community - less catty and judgemental than a bar.”
Pictures are exchanged and dates to meet in public are made if all is progressing well. “It depends, but the longest period I've conversed with a man before meeting him is eight months.”
Does she worry about people finding out? “They won't - I take every precaution to ensure they don't. My son asked why he couldn't find me on Skype the other day. I said, because I don't use my real name.”
For others, though, the site is about more than simple fulfilment. For Candy (not her real name) also a member of Ashley Madison for two years, it is about the thrill. “I wanted dirty talk and I wanted sex when I wanted it - and I wanted sex with strangers,” she says. “At home it had got boring.”
She came to the site while randomly surfing. “I saw that it was for people who were currently married and wanted no commitments and I thought - perfect.”
She chatted to people on the website first, but then took it up a notch to phone sex. Her first personal meeting was in a hotel:
“It was amazing: we both worked out the frustrations of our marriages: we climaxed six times and the fire alarm went off - it was great,” she laughs.
It has, she says, changed her life: giving her something to look forward to - “a thrill and command of my own life.”
The way she describes it, the site sounds like a feminist tool, a means to retrieve a downtrodden sexual self, though refrains from using the term. Mary similarly talks of it giving her self-confidence.
Both say they understand the dangers. Candy says she has evolved her own security measures to make her always feel safe. “I have one close friend and tell her whenever I go on meets. She knows how long I will be and I keep my phone on. If there is a problem, she would call the police,” she says.
Morally, neither sees what they do as problematic. Both feel a degree of love for their partners; both want to maintain a normal family life. Both simply want sex on their terms. They look at it practically, rather than philosophically. And neither is in the faintest bit surprised that Britain's politicians are even bigger fans of the sites than they are.
“There is a lot of sordidness out there. But it isn't all like that. To go and sit in a car and kiss someone and not talk about work or supper - it is like being young again,” says Mary. - The Independent