The Psychology of Cuckolding, an Insult That’s Become a Male Fantasy

"It's like live porn," says one participant, "but with your favorite person as the star"

February 15, 2023 6:34 am
The painting "Paolo and Francesca" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and a man with binoculars looking on, illustrating the idea of cuckolding
Cuckolding, a term that dates back centuries, is seeing newfound interest in the modern era.

It’s been five years since K, as she prefers to be known, got into what she calls “the lifestyle.” This educated, middle-aged woman, and mother of two children, has sex with other men and then tells her husband of 20 years all about it. On occasion, he watches. They both love it.

“That idea had long been part of our fantasy life, but when I had children my sex drive tanked and my husband and I became disconnected,” she explains. “But we started communicating more openly, part of which was being very honest about our desires. Eventually my husband told me he wanted to make that fantasy a reality. At first, I pushed back hard against that. I thought it was weird, not least because it’s hard enough for wives and mothers to claim our sexuality in a monogamous relationship.”

After four years of discussing their mutual concerns, and recognizing that, as she puts it, “while the idea of having sex with a stranger is objectively hot, there are a lot of things to consider very seriously for anyone in a long relationship, with children,” they decided to go for it. K contacted an old male friend — a friendship that, back in the day, might have been something more — and, in a conversation that must have raised at least one of his eyebrows, put her proposal to him. Some time later, they had sex.

“I expected to feel guilt but actually felt elated, while also being terrified at what reaction my husband might have. But he was just so excited for me. It was an experience that reconnected us,” enthuses K. “This kind of relationship is absolutely about sex. But there’s so much more to it than just that. There’s a mindfulness to it.” 

Since then, they have enlisted a series of men for her to sleep with. When her husband watches, she says, “it’s like live porn, but with your favorite person as the star.”

In another context, K’s husband might be referred to as a cuckold, and very much in a negative way, as the term has historically been used to mock men whose wives are unfaithful. And yet the term is slowly being reimagined as a descriptor of just another form of sexual expression. This January, the second-annual Cuck Week was celebrated, which entailed a flurry of part-celebratory, part-educational podcasts, blog posts and online discussions, all facilitated through the sex and relationships app Mon. (K is the event’s organizer.) Meanwhile, “cuckold” has become a top search term (if not the number one search query) for many porn sites. It seems as though, whether in fantasy or reality, many men like the idea of another man getting it on with their wife.

The popularity of cuckolding in pornography has likely introduced the idea to more couples, including those to whom it may never have otherwise occurred. Of course, there’s a huge difference between fantasizing about your wife having sex with someone else, and the reality of it. 

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Dr. David Ley — a clinical psychologist, and author of Insatiable Wives: Women Who Stray and the Men Who Love Them, a study of cuckolding among heterosexual couples, and one of very few doing serious research into the topic — stresses that one might get off on the fantasy, and be repelled by the reality. The practicalities of cuckolding aren’t exactly easy, either. 

“It requires an incredible amount of negotiation beforehand, and after,” Ley says. “And, let’s be clear, the idea of cuckoldry really isn’t arousing for everybody.” As K adds, some “thirds,” as the selected males are sometimes called, love the idea in theory but fail to rise to the occasion. She stresses the importance of recognizing the emotional complexity of this situation for him too: Is he assisting in the breakup of a marriage? Is he okay with having not just an audience, but a specific audience with rather a lot riding on the situation? 

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here. Why would a husband be interested in sharing his wife sexually at all, given how much it cuts against social norms? Mentions of cuckoldry in literature dating back to the 13th century show male concerns were much more about fears of fathering someone else’s son. There goes the family line. And, then as now, cuckolding isn’t likely to work well for anyone with relationship anxieties or abandonment issues, or who’s a poor communicator with their partner.

Ley points out that, as with any sexual behavior, there are no simple answers to the psychology behind cuckoldry. For some men, it’s a way of exploring bi-sexuality at a distance — through making their wife’s body accessible to another man. That’s why some men like to interact indirectly with another man’s penis by, for example, performing oral sex on their wife after she’s had sex with said man. Some men actively enjoy selecting a man for their female partner. Others get a buzz from sharing their hot wife; these very considerate gents are known as “hotwifers.” There’s even the theory of sperm competition: that the husband ejaculates harder, and with more sperm, during sex with his wife once he knows she’s had sex with another man. 

As K confirms, the hotwives in question have a big stake in this lifestyle too. Historically at least, women were unlikely to introduce the idea of cuckoldry both because of the risk of extra-relationship pregnancy, but also because of the social cost of being perceived as a certain type of woman in anything other than the most avant-garde of circles. Those potential penalties haven’t exactly gone away. 

“Yet it does seem that we’re seeing more women identify cuckolding as something they’re interested in,” says Ley. He cites the popularity of a cuckolding website called Venus Connections, with its advice, matchmaking service, events and even merchandise for, as they put it, “the sexually empowered woman who wants it all.” 

“Sometimes there is simply an interest [for men and women alike] in fully exploring the woman’s entire capacity for sex,” Ley adds. “There’s an interest in fulfilling female sexuality.”

While it’s tempting to conclude that this is all about male gratification, and motivated by male desire, Ley’s studies suggest cuckolding doesn’t tend to correlate with indicators of an unhealthy relationship or of disregard for one’s partner. K argues that the experience has been transformative for her and other women like her.

“It is empowering, and that translates into other areas of our lives,” she says. “It allows you to see yourself through a different lens, not least because it’s one thing for your husband to say he finds you sexually attractive — that’s what he’s supposed to say — and another for a ‘stranger’ to say it. It’s flipping sexual stereotypes too, those very specific ways in which society sets us up to view male and female sexuality. They’re diminishing for women. And for men they can be toxic — that expectation that the only masculinity is that dominant, alpha bro one.”

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Intriguingly, the few studies into this phenomenon that have been conducted suggest that the cuckolding fantasy is more prevalent within more conservative, macho societies. Those are the ones in which notions of being a “real man” are intimately connected with those of spousal fidelity. It’s been argued that cuckoldry provides a welcome release from the burdens of having to live out this alpha-male role, or meet the social expectations it entails. But quite what this tells us about the nature of relationships in these more conservative societies is unclear and needs further study, Ley suggests.

There are other possible motivations for this sexual interest, too. More broadly, cuckoldry does seem related to kinks like bondage, discipline and voyeurism, to submission and humiliation, and that’s part of the appeal for K’s husband. Like those, cuckoldry is about subverting norms, expectations and taboos. There’s the ingrained idea that marriages — relationships broadly, but marriages specifically — should be monogamous, and that a man who can’t keep his wife faithful isn’t a real man. A threesome may be one thing, and potentially contained within a marriage or long-term relationship. But to actively give up one’s wife to another feels like it’s breaking the bond of that marriage, like it’s going outside of its scope. Not for nothing is cuckolding far more prevalent in marriages as opposed to non-marital relationships.

“Cuckoldry isn’t a new thing, of course. It’s been around for as long as people have been around,” notes Dr. Justin Lehmiller, social psychologist with the Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want; in surveys conducted by Lehmiller, which ended up in his book, around 52% of American men and around 33% of women fantasize about cuckolding. But, he adds, it has become an increasingly prevalent part of our sexual culture over the last decade. The internet has not only pushed the idea, now it’s actually facilitating it.

“I think often cuckoldry appeals to sensation-seekers, people who may have engaged in breaking other sexual taboos and who then find that once you’ve crossed one boundary it feels less costly to cross another. And this is taboo [in our pro-monogamy culture] because you’re inviting someone else into your bedroom. But put it this way: I’m not surprised by it anymore,” he laughs. “I see it as another form of consensual non-monogamy that’s having a moment now. But of course it’s divisive. Some people are like, that’s hot! And others are like, why the fuck would anyone do that?!

Certainly, from a psycho-sexual standpoint, it’s complex — and deeply so, with many, many variations on the theme. Lehmiller suggests that cuckoldry may even be a way of eroticizing one’s feelings of jealousy or fear of infidelity. Some men he has worked with only became interested in cuckolding on discovering that their wife had been cheating on them. These are ideas that, he adds, need further investigation. 

Is cuckoldry about to go mainstream? It’s not impossible. Ley suggests that cuckolding fantasies appear to be so prevalent that they’re verging on being normative. And as Lehmiller points out, oral and anal sex were once every bit as taboo, but attitudes have changed. Studies suggest that younger generations are, broadly speaking, more open about the role of sexuality within relationships. As K puts it, “They’re learning that they’ve been handed down a bad deal with regards to their sexuality and they’re more ready to challenge it, to address sexuality [in its manifold guises] as just something that’s part of what it means to be human.”

But there is one thing that’s likely to keep cuckoldry a niche endeavor: as David Ley suggests, most of us are not man enough. 

“It actually takes an incredible amount of emotional strength to do this, to free your partner in this way,” he argues. “You have to be more secure in your relationship and to accept that you’re not going to be everything [to your partner]. And that’s very, very tough. Would I do it? I used to say no. But now I think, well, if there was a mechanic, or someone who could clean up the yard too, maybe that would be helpful.”

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