Whether you’ve heard the word “cuckold” from English poet and playwright William Shakespeare or from white nationalist punching-bag Richard Spencer, the meaning is usually negative. The term describes a man whose wife has cheated on him, calling into question his masculinity. But a new analysis now casts cuckoldry in a new light, as psychologists who focus on sexuality say that a remarkable number of Americans find pleasure and empowerment by entertaining and engaging in cuckold fantasies.
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, clinical psychologists David Ley, Ph.D. and Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., along with sex advice columnist Dan Savage, shared the unexpected findings of a national survey they conducted.
In preparation for Lehmiller’s upcoming book, Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help Improve Your Sex Life, Lehmiller surveyed thousands of Americans and found that 58 percent of men and about a third of women had fantasies about cuckolding. To be clear, this means they fantasize about their partner having sex with someone else, either while they watch or while they’re somewhere else. This doesn’t mean they’ve followed through on the fantasy, though.
“Men are more likely to fantasize about cuckolding, and they do it more often — but there are a number of women who have these fantasies as well, which points to the need for more research focused on women’s cuckolding desires,” Lehmiller told CNN.
These survey results turn the historical idea of an ashamed, emasculated cuckold on its head. Instead of being something to be embarrassed about, the researchers say that cuckold fantasies can be about sexual liberation and empowerment.
“Overall, our research found that for the most part, cuckolding tends to be a positive fantasy and behavior,” Ley told CNN. “It doesn’t appear to be evidence of disturbance, of an unhealthy relationship, or of disregard for one’s partner.”
Ever since the term came into being, at least 700 years ago, it’s had a negative connotation. In recent years, though, the term has been taken a step further. Cuckold — “cuck” for short — has taken on a political, racial dimension in the past couple of years. It’s been adopted by the white supremacist alt-right movement to describe conservatives — or “cuckservatives” — who are seen as less strong or “alpha.” The racial component, applied to those who support left-leaning policies that supposedly favor the rights of immigrants and minorities over those of white Americans, implies that a white man would rather his wife have sex with a man of color than protect the rights of white Americans.
In that context, being a cuck is seen as shameful, and even downright un-American. But along with Ley, Lehmiller, and Savage, other prominent voices have arisen to challenge the idea that being a cuckold is something that is disgraceful or negative. Notably, Jill Soloway, creator of the TV shows Transparent and I Love Dick, told Inverse in 2017 that being a cuckold can actually be an enlightened, feminist act since it helps to return sexual power and agency to women:
Let’s humanize the “cuck.” The fact that men duck their heads and say, “no I’m not [a cuck]” is awful, so maybe it’s time to reclaim the word cuck. That’s just a man who allows his wife to be the subject. He allows her to be a full human person who refuses to corroborate the male gaze. The people who use that word are using the imagined gender binary to say there are beautiful women we own, and then there are stupid sluts who we get to talk shit about. If a man allows a woman to name the narrative, suddenly he’s a cuck.
In this way, cuckoldry is less about being emasculated and more about being liberated. The emotional elements are a little more complex than mere desire, though, the way Savage sees it.
“It’s not cuckolding if there isn’t an element of humiliation, degradation or denial,” he told CNN. “Our erotic imaginations have the ability to turn shame lemons into delicious kink lemonade.” As Inverse previously reported in regards to the alleged Donald Trump Pee Tape, humiliation can be sexually arousing, and Savage suggests that this is an essential element of cuckolding fantasies.
The researchers warn, however, that acting on these fantasies is not to be taken lightly. Just because you think it might be hot doesn’t mean you’re emotionally equipped to handle it without sufficient communication.
“We found several personality factors that predict more positive experiences acting on cuckolding fantasies,” Lehmiller told CNN. “For those who have a lot of relationship anxiety or abandonment issues, who lack intimacy and communication, and who aren’t careful, detail-oriented planners, acting on a consensual non-monogamy fantasy could very well be a negative experience.”