Ever since a certain reality television star began his campaign to become president of the US, the word ‘cuckold’ resurfaced in a very odd and unavoidable way. In case you have somehow missed the last several years of right-wing discourse, the so-called alt-right use ‘cuck’ to imply liberal subservience to a culture of political correctness. This, of course, is a misappropriation of the full version of the word, which is apparently derived from the name of the cuckoo bird. Some female cuckoos change male partners and lay their eggs in other nests—a humiliating act of betrayal (insofar as birds can actually feel humiliated). This is somewhat analogous to the situation of a man who has unknowingly been cheated on by a woman. Hence the word ‘cuckold.’
Historically, being a cuckold indicated unwitting marriage to an adulterous woman—undesirable, by all accounts. But sexual appetites change. A quick search on your porn website of choice will reveals a wealth of cuckold-inspired videos, from amateur hotel liaisons to professional content. With millions of views on the major online porn players and year-on-year increases in Google hits, the cuckold fantasy is indeed alive and well. Cuckolding generally involves a man (the ‘cuckold’) watching his significant other (the ‘hotwife’) fuck someone else (the ‘bull’), often while the cuckold is humiliated (e.g. being told that his dick is unsatisfactory).
This can happen in real-life or as pure masturbatory fantasy. David Ley, a sex therapist and author of the cuckold ethnography Insatiable Wives, has suggested a number of reasons for why men encourage their partners into unfamiliar bedrooms. These include a desire for their partner to be sexually satisfied, a sense of empowering women, the thrill of the taboo and a culture of pornified voyeurism. For men with masochistic preferences, the desire for denial and humiliation may also lead towards cuckolding. As Ley recently put it to CNN: “Our erotic imaginations have the ability to turn shame lemons into delicious kink lemonade.”
Cuckolding appears to be a primarily male fantasy, although theories for why this is the case are a bit thin on the ground. Ley has proposed that men may feel that they have better social status if their partner is judged as sexually desirable by other men. He has also referred to the ‘sperm competition’ theory—the lab-tested idea that if a man watches another man shagging his loved one, his body is biologically primed to produce larger amounts of more effective sperm. Why? So that his sperm wins the ‘competition’ to impregnate a lover.
Regardless of a man’s motivation for cuckolding, expert opinion suggests that it’s a largely positive experience for couples that engage in it. Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the forthcoming book Tell Me What You Want, explains that “most people who are aroused by cuckolding tend to enjoy their fantasies and, of those who have shared and/or acted on their cuckolding desires, the vast majority report positive outcomes.” This is echoed by sex therapist Holly Richmond, who is keen to emphasise that the cuckold fantasy isn’t problematic in and of itself. “There’s nothing weird, abnormal or wrong about engaging with this fantasy cognitively and emotionally, or even taking the fantasy into real life.”
That said, there are some cases where the aforementioned kink lemonade may turn decidedly sour. It’s easy enough to find Reddit regret threads about women leaving their partners after being encouraged into the cuckold lifestyle. This one begins with the story of a man who asked his reluctant girlfriend to join a swinging website. This soon led to a few real-life cuckolding hook-ups, before she ghosted the guy entirely. Another man responded with his experiences of having been left twice by his wife after she took a liking to two of their bulls. Apparently, they’re still together only because they have kids and he can’t give up his cuckolding. Both of these tales initially involved two willing partners. But, as Richmond tells me, relationships can also falter if only one person is sexually invested in the fantasy. “Problems arise, of course, when this isn’t part of their partner’s sexual template, meaning there is nothing arousing for them about this fantasy.”
This was certainly the case for one Reddit user, who described how eight years of cuckold fantasies eventually led to the end of an otherwise healthy relationship. “My only sexual outlet became fantasies about my girlfriend being fucked by a guy/group of guys,” he explained. “Eventually this turned into frustration and I stopped wanting to have sex with her at all.” He felt increasingly alienated from his masculinity and ability to give sexual pleasure, because he was mostly fantasizing about being a passive observer rather than an active participant. “For the record; I am not against playing with this fetish,” he wrote. “But I call it the heroin of fetishes—it has a potential to completely wipe out your whole sexuality and reduce it to replaying this one small fetish scenario over and over.”
This guy isn’t alone in his negative cuckolding experiences. Mac* is a 39-year-old American man who has struggled with the cuckold fantasy for seven years. He experiences low self-esteem and believes that this, alongside a dying sexual spark in his long-term relationship, contributed to him fantasizing about his partner’s infidelity. “My SO has also never been with anyone else, so there's something taboo and hot about her losing control and giving into her basic sexual instincts,” he says. As Mac became more and more fixated on the idea of watching his lover sleep with other men, he began to obsessively think of different ways to make it a reality. “I started thinking about it at work, planning what I would say or do when I got home to get my SO into it."
Mac’s girlfriend occasionally played along with him, but also expressed her distaste for the idea. Richmond says that it’s common for partners to view the fantasy through an emotional lens, which can lead to negative feelings.
“Women in this position often express that they feel their partners should get jealous, and want to keep them away from other men and to themselves, like in a traditional monogamous relationship,” she explains. “This gets translated into feeling unloved or unwanted.” Richmond suggests that couples in this situation should try to talk about the origins of the fantasy under the guidance of a therapist. Obviously, this isn’t financially possible for everyone. Either way, Richmond tells me that it’s useful to put rules and boundaries in place that make each person feel heard, safe and supported within the framework of the relationship.
For some couples, this leads to pursuing the cuckold fantasy in real life; for others, it leads to occasional role-play. After having a chat with his significant other, Mac realized that he’d become obsessed by his own sexual feelings and was no longer focused on pleasing his lover. Mac prioritized their romantic connection and agreed to no longer bring his fantasy into the bedroom.
The above story is familiar to 28-year-old Amber*, whose former boyfriend told her about his hotwifing fetish early on in their relationship. “It made me uncomfortable, but I also didn't want to be negative about his kinks,” she says. Amber considers herself a pretty kinky person who is open and sex-positive, but found that her boyfriend was solely focused on his own sexual needs. “He started whispering to me that it would be so hot for me to bone other guys, or go to a glory hole,” she recalls. “He also had a ‘bimbo’ kink that seems to often go along with the hotwife thing, where he'd tell me I needed to dye my hair or get implants, to the end of looking ‘fuckable.’”
Initially, Amber role-played with him, even though she didn’t really enjoy it. “The more I tried to appease his fetish, the less interested he seemed in actual sex with me,” she says. At her boyfriend’s behest, Amber tried a solution that would seemingly satisfy them both. She started to have multiple sexual partners—all of whom were aware of her relationship status—and would tell her boyfriend about her escapades. This proved to be a lightbulb moment in what was becoming an increasingly toxic relationship. “They made me realize that I wasn't getting my needs met by my actual boyfriend, despite going beyond what I was initially comfortable with for his sake, and that I was having better sex with near strangers.”
While Mac recognized his partner’s displeasure with the cuckold fantasy and eventually discussed it with her, Amber’s attempts to talk to her boyfriend were repeatedly shunned. Communication and mutual enjoyment are the bedrocks to any relationship and Richmond points out that this is especially important when it comes to fetishes and fantasies: “What turns us on is what turns us on, end of story, as long as it’s consensual and pleasurable.” Through listening to his partner and acknowledging her concerns, Mac has started to overcome his difficulties. He detoxed from sex and porn for around a month and planned dates with no sexual strings attached. Concurrently, he got into healthy eating and hitting the gym. “I really worked on improving myself and my relationship with my SO,” he explains. “I'm not fully ‘recovered’ yet, but I'm working on it.”
Unfortunately for Amber, her boyfriend was never prepared to listen. She realized that he wasn’t willing to change, at least not for her, and broke off the relationship. Amber believes that cuckolding is distinct from other fantasies because it directly eroticizes the relationship itself, rather than body parts or objects that are obtainable within or outside of coupledom. “I think that's why a lot of these men do ultimately try to include it in the bedroom,” she suggests. “To varying degrees, the actual relationship between them and their partner has the potential to be turned into a stream of sexual gratification.”
Ultimately, Amber had a negative experience with hotwifing that caused significant emotional hurt. She’s very clear on her advice to men interested in the cuckold fantasy: “I'd encourage men who have these types of fantasies to be self-aware about how they sexually interact with their partner, so that they ensure pleasure is mutual and that she's not being bombarded or suffocated by this fetish,” she says. “To be mindful that they're treating their partner as a person first and foremost, rather than an object that can provide sexual gratification.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Follow Richard on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE CA.