The Sleazy Rise and Humiliating Fall of Ashley Madison


The 2015 hacking of adulterous dating website Ashley Madison was a crime, and yet precious few felt sorry for those who were impacted by this offense, be they the company’s CEO and his employees or the 37 million users who were outed as cheaters. Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal, a three-part Netflix docuseries from directors Zoe Hutton and Gagan Rehill, focuses on a couple of sob stories—including a popular Christian vlogging couple caught in the cheating crossfire—which detail the fallout from this headline-making incident, all in an effort to put a human face on a tawdry scandal. No matter the tears and critiques dispensed by those individuals, however, there’s little here to lose sleep over—unless, of course, your profile was in one of the two infamous data dumps.

Arriving a year after Hulu and ABC News’ The Ashley Madison Affair, Netflix’s Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal (May 15) is a standard-issue recap of this saga, told through the eyes of a handful of insiders, journalists, and families that were devastated by the release of their confidential information. It begins with Evan Back, Ashley Madison’s former VP of sales, who joined the company in 2007 thanks to his childhood friend Noel Biderman, who had recently been hired as the start-up’s CEO after original founder Darren Morgenstern couldn’t find a way to make the business catch fire. Darren’s brother Marc participates in these proceedings, discussing the early difficulty of selling a site that was all about infidelity. He confesses that Biderman was Ashley Madison’s agent of transformative change, ushering in an era of immense growth thanks to his out-front promotion of the brand on any and every talk show that would book him.

Given Ashley Madison’s salaciousness, Biderman quickly became a TV fixture, raising the company’s profile and helping it make money hand over fist. It wasn’t long before expansion took the site around the globe, complete with nation-specific advertising campaigns that cheekily pushed the promise of covert extramarital satisfaction. In archival interview clips (since he didn’t agree to participate in this series), Biderman touts the beneficial aspects of Ashley Madison, claiming that it actually saved marriages by letting people explore their unfulfilled dreams without destroying the unions they loved and relied upon as the bedrock foundations of their lives. Suffice it to say, those arguments don’t sound any more convincing now than they did then; Biderman comes across as a sleazy huckster pretending to be an upstanding gentleman—an image he cultivated with the assistance of wife Amanda, who joined him on television and posed for billboard advertisements, asserting all along that they were in a monogamous relationship.

No answer is provided to the question of whether Amanda truly believed that her husband, the “king of infidelity,” was a one-woman-only guy. What isn’t debatable, though, is that Biderman never resonated as trustworthy, and it was thus impossible to feel too bad about the July 13, 2015, online attack that served as his—and millions of his clients’—brutal comeuppance. Orchestrated by a collective that called itself The Impact Team, the hackers announced that if Ashley Madison didn’t shut down within 30 days, they’d release the personal information of all 37 million account holders. Thrust into turmoil, Biderman and his panicked companions hired Swedish cybersecurity experts Joel Eriksson and André Catry to track down who was behind this breach. Alas, they came up with nothing, and on August 18, the floodgates opened.

While Catry initially suspected that Biderman might have had something to do with the hack (because the site believed that all publicity is good publicity), a second hack that contained all of Biderman’s personal and professional emails put that idea to rest. More than just revealing him to be an adulterer, this information exposed the wide-scale fraud being perpetrated by Ashley Madison, whose pledges of cybersecurity excellence (look at all those award badges on the homepage!) were a lie, and whose female users were largely fake accounts either manned by company employees or by bots. In other words, most men were paying through the nose and risking their marriages, reputations, and careers to chat with non-existent women. All in all, it was about as big a losing proposition as one could imagine.

The Cam Model Addict Who Murdered His Whole Family

Much of this has been reported ad nauseam during the past decade, so Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal adds a human element by portraying individuals who were affected by the hack. The lion’s share of that attention goes to Sam and Nia Rader, a Texas couple whose seemingly perfect life as Christian vloggers was upended by the revelation that Sam had spent time on Ashley Madison. Sam and Nia’s story is told through lots of confessional interviews and their online videos, with Sam contending that he was motivated by a lack of self-esteem (and a longing for first-love excitement) rather than sex. Yet like so much of what’s said in this docuseries, his comments must be taken with a giant grain of salt, especially since he implies that, even aside from Ashley Madison, he strayed from the marital path for years and continually lied about it to his spouse.

Rob in Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal.

Rob in Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal.


Despite Sam’s anguished recitation of his missteps, Ashley Madison: Sex, Lies & Scandal fails to make him sympathetic. Similarly, its attempts to paint the media and public’s gleeful fascination with the hack—and the cheaters who were being shamed—as unseemly and cruel are largely unsuccessful. Even when it concentrates on Christi, whose seminary-teacher husband committed suicide because of the data dump, the docuseries doesn’t get far in making viewers feel bad for taking “self-righteous” delight in seeing louts grapple with the consequences of their risky actions. In the end, the blame for these ruined lives and fortunes falls squarely on those who willingly chose to do what they did, knowing full well the obvious potential costs. As a result, Hutton and Rehill’s non-fiction investigation is most notable for simply shining a light on the lengths people will go to indulge their selfish desires—a notion borne out by the fact that Sam and Nia are still together, as well as by Ashley Madison’s continued operation.

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