The founder of a dating service promoting adultery is setting his sights on China’s cheating hearts after a controversial launch in Hong Kong.
“It is a reality of life, we are an unfaithful society,” said Noel Biderman, the founder of the Ashley Madison “married dating” service.
With its slogan “Life is short. Have an affair”, the website boasts more than 20 million users in more than 15 countries.
It has been expanding aggressively, adding Japan and India last year. On Friday it lanched in Hong Kong, where religious and family planning groups have come together to criticise its message.
Biderman said he nevertheless expected his service to be “wildly popular” in the southern Chinese city, noting that the website received around 320,000 Hong Kong hits in the past year without spending anything on marketing.
“That to us indicates massive appetite for this specific product,” Biderman told AFP, citing rising divorce rates in the city.
Government data show 30 out of 100 married couples filed for a divorce in 2011, twice as many as in 1991. The number of divorce cases hit a record high of 21,125 in 2012.
Hong Kong is “in transition when it comes to relationships and marriage and that can lead to an interesting environment,” said Biderman.
“When we put ourselves into that mix, we can do extremely well.”
User “mamama222” was one of the first in Hong Kong to sign up. “I’m looking for various men to fulfil what my husband can’t,” she said on her profile.
In catering to such motivations, Ashley Madison has attracted plenty of criticism from religious groups and social workers.
“We must do everything we can to uphold the values and the stability of” marriage and family, Hong Kong Catholic Diocese reverend Lawrence Lee told AFP.
“This is disrupting marriage and family, what good can it come to?” he added, noting that Chinese people had “great respect for marriage and family.”
A Hong Kong Family Planning Association spokeswoman told AFP: “Infidelity in any form of clandestine extra-marital affair without the partner’s knowledge or consent may hurt the marital relationship and ultimately undermine family integrity”.
The concept of marriage in the city is nevertheless becoming increasingly “fragile”, Chinese University of Hong Kong professor of Social Work Lam Ching-man told AFP.
“Hong Kong people are facing lots of challenges,” Lam said, adding that couples have to deal with an increasing financial burden and other social stresses.
Lam does not believe the website will be as popular in Hong Kong compared to other locations such as Japan which saw a million users sign up in months.
Hong Kong has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, which experts say is driven by financial pressures in a city of extremely high property prices.
Hong Kongers also have a reputation as some of the least active lovers in Asia, ranking low in informal surveys of sexual frequency by British condom manufacturer Durex.
Younger Hong Kong residents typically live at home deep into their 20s or 30s because they can’t afford to marry and move out earlier, meaning that many reside in close proximity to their parents in cramped apartments.
But for Biderman, the city is a possible springboard for an entry into China, home to one of the largest internet markets in the world.
Over 640,000 people from China tried to access Ashley Madison in the past year before it was available, showing “a lot of pent-up demand” in the country, Biderman said.
“If there were 10 times more people trying to log in from China as there were last year because of the Hong Kong launch and it starts to spread virally that way, that could be the impetus for me to take that plunge” he said.
“Bottom line is, people have affairs, they’re having affairs because they don’t want to leave the family,” he said.
“There really is a negative impact in separating a family, there is no corresponding negative impact to an undiscovered affair…The vast majority of people that have affairs, especially on our service, never get discovered.”