While infidelity is as old as the institution of marriage itself, the historical roots of the “Ashley Madison Affair” trace back about a century, to the operations of mail-order patent medicine makers. Part charlatans, part direct-marketing pioneers, they were the first to profit from identifying and marketing to people with specific illnesses, including ones, like syphilis, bearing social stigma.
Beginning in the 1890s, newspapers, posters, and handbills advertised treatments and advice for sufferers of “male weaknesses,” a euphemism for venereal disease and impotence. In its ads, the Interstate Remedy Company offered to send “free” information about these afflictions, always in a “plain, ordinary envelope.” Confidentiality and discretion were assured (as they later were by Ashley Madison to its prospective users.) One need only write the company, providing name, address, and medical condition, in order to be helped.
After mailing the person a generic pamphlet on kidney or bladder disease, Interstate Remedy would then send a shipment of its “medicine” to an express office near the correspondent, advising him of this and the payment terms. If the man refused to pay, a series of increasingly threatening letters arrived, some invoking legal action. Some men eventually paid, largely out of fear that their condition would be disclosed. In turn, they were rewarded with more shipments of useless treatments and more harassing letters.
In similar fashion, another patent medicine outfit sent its remedy for venereal disease to men who had written for free health information. If a man balked at paying, he was advised that another man “in your town” had written for help, allowing the company to “turn over your shipment to him, explaining the circumstances.”
Patent medicine dealers were not above threats to reveal the condition to a man’s family or employer. There were also reports of suicide among these ensnared, distraught men, as there are today with men linked to Ashley Madison.
The targets of these schemes were typically young, low-educated men. The high levels of social shame and popular ignorance surrounding sexuality and sexual health provided fertile ground for extortionist selling tactics involving “men’s diseases.”
Letters sent to patent medicine firms did not typically remain there. Letters like these – millions in fact – were later bought and sold as commodities.
By the early 1900s, a half dozen “letter brokers” operated in New York. These firms acquired and sold mailing lists as well as the letters sent by people to patent medicine houses. The Guild Company advertised itself in 1908 as the “largest letter brokerage in the world,” with “millions” of letters for sale or rent. Its mailing lists and customer letters were organized by dozens of conditions, including consumption, rheumatism, and syphilis.
Letter brokers bought mailing lists and letters from nostrum makers, later re-selling them mostly to start-up patent medicine concerns. As a result, as one observer noted, the “once victimized party” then ended up in “constant receipt of new circulars describing the virtues of new ‘pearls,’ or pills, or special apparatus.”
Mail-order patent medicine firms created forms of economic value and social relations that would not have occurred had their goods sold anonymously in stores. (Or, similarly, if the would-be adulterer had visited a pick-up bar instead of an on-line database.) A man in receipt of a free booklet on gonorrhea may have initially viewed this exchange as harmless or even beneficial. So too might have tire-kickers at Ashley Madison, indulging more curiosity than infidelitous course-of-action.
But in disclosing personal information linked to socially stigmatized behavior or disease, both parties entered a knowledge-power nexus that was both asymmetrical and ready-made for individual exploitation.
This is why Ashley Madison could charge $19 to people seeking a “full delete” of their account’s information. Infidelity’s lingering social taboo, along with fear of discovery by spouse or family, provided the necessary motivation to pay.
It’s also why, as reports indicate, Ashley Madison did not appear to have fully erased this information, even when paid to do so. This is because Ashley Madison was only nominally in the business of facilitating extra-marital liaisons. The emerging evidence pointing to very high men-to-women ratios and fake female profiles in the firm’s client database would suggest that adulterous affairs were, for men, more aspirational than operational.
But a database of millions of would-be adulterers has commercial value, since it can’t be replicated by census takers or conventional market research. It’s unique and proprietary (at least until recently), and thus a marketable commodity – not unlike the mailing lists and letters of syphilis sufferers a century ago.
The economic value of this data is today being tested by the bevy of on-line hustlers targeting Ashley Madison clients with blackmail, phishing, and identity theft scams. These ethically deplorable actions, however, are less a product of the Internet Age than a reconfiguring of practices initiated by the mail-order patent medicine industry in the late nineteenth century.