Prachi Dev*, a 34-year-old event manager from Mumbai dominates the boardroom. However, her bedroom lacks the spark and excitement she has always yearned for. A Bengali Kshatriya, she entered an arranged marriage a decade ago due to pressure from her conservative parents. There was neither love nor any sexual compatibility with her 37-year-old husband right from the start. But she stayed on just to appease her family.
Four years ago, Dev joined an extramarital dating app at the insistence of a few close friends. Initially, she was apprehensive of taking this step but with time, she began to enjoy the attention of attractive men. Two years ago, she met a 29-year-old photographer from her city who fulfilled both her emotional and physical needs. As a result, Dev’s happiness knows no bounds. In a patriarchal society like India where marriage has been considered sacrosanct and monogamous relationships are the order of the day, it is a sea change to witness extramarital relationships being normalised like never before.
Shortly after France-based extramarital dating app Gleeden was launched in India in 2017, it attracted more than 1.2 lakh users. Today, the number stands at 2 million, which include married people and those who have been in committed relationships for a while. While the majority of users hail from Tier 1 cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kochi, Gurgaon, and Ahmedabad, Tier 2 cities have also experienced substantial growth. The demographics highlight 65% of Gleeden’s members being men between 30 and 50 years old, while 35% of its user base comprises women in the age bracket of 25-35 years.
Similarly, when Ashley Madison — claimed to be the world’s first married dating website — came to India, over 1.3 million users signed up on the portal. Although the reasons to find discreet relationships may differ, there’s certainly a common desire for something less confining than traditional monogamy; a desire that Indians, par for the course, have explored immensely through pop culture.
In the 1980s, the Amitabh Bachchan-Jaya Bachchan-Rekha starrer Silsila raked up a storm for bringing the real life romance of its lead pair to celluloid. While the film set the cash registers ringing, director Yash Chopra received flak from a section of society for turning the spotlight on extramarital affairs. The blockbuster was followed by the release of another semi-autobiographical film Arth, allegedly based on director Mahesh Bhatt’s extramarital relationship with actress Parveen Babi. Adultery and infidelity have been common themes in Bollywood films, but it has always riled up the sanskari brigade, particularly if a married woman is at the centre of the film.
In 2007, Anurag Basu explored the loneliness of urban Indian women in Life In a…Metro, while Karan Johar-directorial Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna delved deep into the lives of two couples who were unhappily married. Unsurprisingly, the film was trashed for its content — bringing to the forefront how Indian society is uncomfortable with broaching subjects like infidelity and seeking love outside marriage.
Since the 2000s, however, winds of change have gradually begun to blow on the back of the rising popularity of OTT platforms. The difference lies in the eyes of the audience today — GenZ and millennials are probably far more accepting about the changing dynamics of relationships than their predecessors. No wonder, then, that HBO’s Game of Thrones featured adultery in generous measure while breaking streaming charts in India. Moreover, Bollywood films like Gehraiyaan, Manmarziyaan and Haseen Dillruba amassed high viewership and were appreciated for their nuanced take on extramarital relationships.
“Although monogamy has been viewed as a fundamental ideal in Indian society, adultery has always existed. This is demonstrated by the Supreme Court’s decriminalisation of adultery in 2018,” shares Gleeden India’s country manager, Sybil Shiddell.
Extramarital affairs might sometimes be motivated by sex or the lack of it in ongoing relationships. But the psychological aspects of adultery cannot be neglected. The lack of attention, concern, or affection from a partner is one of the most common reasons why individuals look for relationships outside of marriage, across the globe. Statistically, 65% of female Ashley Madison members around the world don’t believe in monogamy and see more of a benefit from non-monogamy than men do, particularly in the areas of mental health, family life, personal finance, and individual sexuality, according to Isabella Mise, senior director of communications at Ashley Madison.
Back in India, the narrative highlights a radical shift — of how women seek to break from the shackles of the conventional marriage model.
A survey was conducted in February 2023 by Gleeden, in partnership with global market research company Ipsos, across 12 Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities. The study revealed surprising insights, with 57% of the 1,503 Indians surveyed acknowledging having cheated on their spouses at least once; 53% of the ‘cheaters’ were women.
“Indian women today are far more in touch with their sexual or emotional needs. They no longer want to be repressed by the burden of making sacrifices to keep the relationship intact,” points out Ruchi Ruuh, a relationship counsellor from Delhi. “Many women claim to lean on dating apps for sexual encounters while others want to explore their sexuality. Some also want attention or validation,” she continues.
With India being fraught by misogyny for centuries, men have been the frontrunners in infidelity, largely owing to their historical control over personal finances and societal mobility. Sex educator and intimacy coach, Pallavi Barnwal, argues how men have always had the licence to cheat, while women have faced dire consequences — from being ostracised to becoming pregnant, or even killed. Today, women have economic independence and can access the pill, allowing them the freedom to gradually explore relationships on their own terms.
“For an independent, working woman of today, the question that may give her sleepless nights is if she’s still as attractive as others. While most married women continue to be fearful of infidelity, they are treading these waters albeit with caution. The feeling of remorse is no longer seen because a woman now knows what she deserves,” says Barnwal. “If she doesn’t get it in her marriage, she will look for it elsewhere.”
Another finding from the Ipsos poll relates to an increase in open relationships within marriages, pointing towards a shift of how people are willing to look for relationship models that closely match their own preferences, regardless of traditional boundaries.
Anant Sagar*, a 45-year-old corporate communications professional based in Bengaluru, is dating two other women, while being married. His wife, a 27-year-old sales associate, enjoys sexual adventures with men her age. She even prefers to hang out with them for their progressive attitude — a point that highlights the interesting interplay between age, social life, and infidelity itself. “Non-monogamy is a ubiquitous desire,” adds Mise. “While many people will have long and healthy monogamous relationships, there are millions of others around the world who eventually come to realise that having one sexual or romantic partner for the rest of their life just won’t work for them.”
Over the last decade, there has been a rise in extramarital relationships for greater autonomy over needs and desires if they remain unfulfilled in an existing relationship. Consensual non-monogomy (CNM) is becoming increasingly common with many couples being unable to part ways due to shared assets, children, or for social status, explains Ruuh.
Moreover, with a change in the subculture of sex, there is a shift from deep-rooted, traditional, archaic values around sexuality to a more progressive, radical belief and attitude. Barnwal believes that sex is making its way from bedrooms to chatrooms, which is where sexual tension is concentrated in the current context. “There’s already sexual chemistry flowing between two people, which gets intensified upon meeting; this interlude or the in-between is what gives a lot of couples the courage to take the next step outside their marriage,” she says. “Nobody, I believe, steps out of home one fine day proclaiming that they are going to cheat.”
Secrets and Security
While these apps offer easy avenues to be seen and validated by like-minded people, there are growing concerns around the safety and protection of identities of users. In 2015, Ashley Madison was at the centre of a hacking attempt that exposed its users’ real names, credit card details and even erotic desires; a high-profile event that resulted in rampant online extortion and multiple lawsuits to the tune of $11.2 million.
To avoid any such leak and safeguard member identities, apps have learned a lesson and decided to be extra cautious when it comes to digital security. Gleeden has put in place a range of security measures, such as not keeping any of their member’s personal information in files, or offering discreet terms on customers’ banking statements. “Since we are committed to offering a platform that prioritises anonymity, we place utmost value on our users’ privacy. This reduces any chance of information being compromised in the event of a data breach,” confirms Shiddell.
Furthermore, Gleeden follows a thorough moderation procedure. Every profile and piece of content on the platform is reviewed and approved by their moderation staff, who are on call 24/7. Texts or images regarded as offensive, indecent, or fraudulent are automatically rejected. This proactive strategy makes sure that their users are shielded from offensive or improper content.
“Equally significant to mention is how Gleeden provides free membership for women everywhere, since they support gender equality and give women the power to decide what they want. There is also a fee for men to use some functions on the platform,” adds Shiddell.
All in all, a rise in extramarital apps is a rather positive move with users being allowed the freedom to discuss their marital status with honesty. Often, other dating sites have a similar user base but the propensity to be open is far less just for the fear of being judged or labelled. “While society has become hedonistic, it is also heartening to see how people are exploring boundaries without entitlement. The shift is inevitable but understanding and learning how to navigate this change is important,” concludes Ruuh.
*Names changed upon request
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