My friend Dale Corvino is a 50-something New York City–area writer and landlord. But in previous decades, as he’ll proudly tell anyone, he was a bisexual sex worker. And among his many assignments over the years as an escort was one in which he was asked by a straight suburban New Jersey couple to come to their house, fake a break-in, tie up the husband, and make him watch while Dale had sex with his wife—and while both Dale and the wife ridiculed the husband for not having either the penis size or the performance skills to adequately please his wife.
“He wanted to be taunted and humiliated by both of us,” recalls Dale, who would slip in via the garage, past the Mercedes, and through the door that led into the couple’s well-appointed contemporary-style ranch, whereupon he saw the wife, who called out, with stilted horror, “Honey, there’s an intruder!”
Continues Dale: “I even wagged my [genital] in his face and said, ‘You don’t measure up to this woman, you can’t take care of her.’ For a supposed straight guy, he was obsessed with big [genitals] and his thing was all about me ruining his wife for him, her never being satisfied by him again. His wife was a very willing participant, but at a certain point, she whispered to me, ‘OK, we’re good,’ and I had to go in the kitchen and sit there and watch Inside Edition and drink a soda while they had sex. Then he came out, paid me, and offered me a ride back to the train to the city. I said I’d walk.”
If that story sounds bananas, it actually reflects two fairly huge genres of online porn and fetish sex, one of which is called “cuckolding,” in which a man takes pleasure in watching another man—usually one with a larger genital endowment, often a Black man—have sex with his wife while both taunt him for being sexually inadequate. The other is called “hotwifing,” basically the same scenario without the taunting, in which the husband is so proud of the trophy that is his “hot wife” that he gets off on sharing her with other men.
Both terms, in fact, have been trending in recent days after Jerry Falwell Jr.—the 58-year-old, Trump-supporting son of famed evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell and president of the evangelical, conservative Liberty University in Virginia, founded by his father—issued a statement saying that his wife, Becki, had had a brief affair with a hot young pool-boy who continued for years to shake them down for money, blackmailing them with threats of exposure. In turn, the former pool-boy, Giancarlo Granda, said that Falwell, while wearing a Speedo, actually enjoyed watching him and Becki have sex—and that they had done so over a period of six years. Ultimately, in the wake of the scandal, Falwell Jr. stepped down as president of Liberty.
Liberals and LGBTQ people have had a field day calling out the hypocrisy of Falwell allegedly having kinks (with more than a whiff of homoeroticism about them) while having spent a lifetime preaching sex only within heterosexual marriage and calling out the “sinfulness” of gay sex. But beyond the hypocrisy factor, the scandal cast a spotlight on the practice (some might say fetish) of watching one’s intimate partner have sex with someone else, or its reverse: having sex with someone else while your intimate partner watches. And it’s not done just by heterosexual couples.
Behind the Kink
What is the appeal—what are the erotics and psychology—behind the practice? Is it normal? Is it healthy? To those last two questions, David Ley, Ph.D., an Albuquerque-based clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist who is the author of Insatiable Wives: Women Who Stray and the Men Who Love Them, says, most of the time, absolutely yes.
“In my research, we’ve found that people who are into this tend to be pretty normal and healthy,” says Ley. “People tell me that it’s better than watching porn, because you know your partner isn’t faking it. For some [straight] men, pursuing this is a vicarious expression of suppressed bisexuality, men who use their wife and her body as a vehicle to engage in sex at a distance with another man. Those men tend to be very focused on getting a partner for their spouse who has a really big penis.”
Also, says Ley, for straight men, watching their female partner have sex with someone else can take a temporary burden off their own pressures of masculinity. “We actually see that guys who are interested in this tend to be more traditionally masculine. Online searches for ‘cuckold’ are much more common in countries, such as Italy, with stronger and more rigid ideas about machismo. Guys say it’s an opportunity to take a vacation from the pressure of having to satisfy their wives. And the taboo of being a cuckold makes it exciting for them.”
Different Dynamics for Gays
Ley says that his research shows that gay male couples engage in this practice too, but with some differences. Straight men, he says, are much more obsessed with watching their partners have sex with a well-endowed Black man. (In European countries, he says, the men’s obsession is with a well-endowed Muslim man.)
“These racial fantasies are a reflection of the social struggle around race,” says Ley. “A lot of people see them as perpetuating racial stigma, but if we want to get rid of racism in sexual fantasies, we have to get rid of racism in society.”
It also appears that—based on the obvious premise that gay men, unlike straight men, have no qualms about having sex with other men—gay men are simply more likely to desire fully participative three-ways than watching scenarios.
“There were a few times when my partner and I did the watching thing,” says Chet (name changed, as have been others in this piece), a 42-year-old Connecticut designer, of his frequent three-ways among him, his husband, and a third guy, “but mostly I wanted to get back into the action and not feel sidelined.”
On the other hand, he says, he enjoyed having sex with his husband while a third guy watched. “It was putting on a show for someone who was clearly turned on,” he says.
Meanwhile, in terms too graphic to print here, Barry, a gay New York City man in his 50s, says that before COVID-19 hit, he loved to hold and make out with his younger boyfriend while a stranger had sex with his boyfriend. “We’re really intimate with each other and vulnerable,” says Barry. “Seeing him objectified excites me. Why? I don’t know. I’m sure it has to do with toilet training or being punished when I was a kid. Who knows? But it’s both my and his fantasy for him to be used.”
Not Just Men
Of course, this practice is often framed as one of male desire, either straight or gay, but experts say that it is also enjoyed by many cisgender women and transgender, gender-nonconforming, and nonbinary people.
“With some straight couples I see, this has been initiated by the man, because the woman is already cheating and the man has eroticized it,” says Heather McPherson, M.A., LPC-S, LMFT-S, a Denver-based licensed therapist and certified sex therapist who runs Sexual Health Alliance, what she calls the country’s largest sex-therapy certification program for health care providers.
“But I’ve also had women clients who initiate this,” she says. “The first few times they do it, they can still be really concerned for their partner, wanting to let go but worried” their partner is going to freak out. “And I’ve absolutely seen the reverse, where women find it pleasurable to watch their male partner really satisfy another woman. They tend to feel more openly proud of watching them perform than men, she says, who are more inclined to get off on feeling humiliated and emasculated.
One man who’s found a great deal of pleasure in this realm with both his current and former girlfriends is Sam, a self-described “heteroflexible” 54-year-old California therapist. With his current girlfriend, he says, they started with her going alone to another couple’s house and having sex with the man while sending Sam texts and pictures. They then advanced to inviting a man over to have sex with her while he watched.
He calls a past experience in which he was cuckolded “one of the most powerful experiences in my life. My mother was very dominant with my father and very scared of masculine sexual energy, teaching me that I was a bad boy to show that. So to see my girlfriend being turned on by another guy’s really dominant masculinity was powerful and allowed me to release that energy inside of me and step into my manhood.”
And certainly this phenomenon is not limited to cisgender heterosexual couples and gay men. “The terms ‘cuckolding’ and ‘hotwifing’ are very heteronormative,” says fellow TheBody contributor Jaime M. Grant, Ph.D., a D.C.-based queer sex-workshop leader.
Grant, who identifies as femme, says that she has long enjoyed procuring other femme women to watch them make love to her butch lovers, and that she would arrange such details as the hotel room and the camera.
“Butch women have taken so many hits for queer women [in public society], having so much heterosexist and racist shit put on them constantly, that I love seeing my butch partner feel powerful and desired in a world that has always said to them, ‘You are never going to be hot or powerful,’” she says. “As a femme partner, the first time I figured this out, [I got so sexually aroused that] I had multiple orgasms just talking about [this scenario] with my butch partner.”
Grant says she thinks that a lot of the practice of watching, or being watched by, one’s partner is about “pushing shame buttons that are pleasurable. People don’t really talk about shame and vulnerability, but the partners who are most available to us need [to see] us in these very places that we think of as debased or ‘less than.’ A lot of people avoid shame in day-to-day life, and as a queer person, you’re fighting it constantly, but it’s liberating to be in that space with someone who loves you versus who is trying to do you harm.”
Hence, she says, she can see how transgressive sex practices like cuckolding might be liberating for right-wing fundamentalist Christians like Falwell Jr. “In that world, there’s so much rigidity about what you can and can’t want. They all lie to themselves and suppress things and have so many huge shame pits to fall into. So that supports the idea that a guy would get off watching his wife with someone else. Now she’s this terrible dirty whore, but she’s doing this for him, so you can see all the layers of power and shame there.”
Grant is echoed by Colin Lentz, M.S.W., LMSW, a gay New York City therapist focusing on sex who describes most of his clientele as queer. “Cuckolding is partly about someone else bringing something to the table that you cannot, which is parallel to when we watch porn and imagine ourselves participating,” he says. “You get to experience your own lack very visibly.”
And that, he says, can be humiliating—in a hot way. “One of the ways we’ve adapted to manage trauma is by eroticizing it,” he says. “Trauma is a part of you that breaks off and is not integrated with the rest of how you understand yourself, but if we can translate those experiences into something that can be pursued for pleasure, then we can feel good about it. Being unable to hide or obscure what’s inadequate about you can be liberating.”
Lentz says that couples interested in exploring bringing a third in for watching purposes should proceed thoughtfully. “Good sex in a relationship is about good communication,” he says, “and good communication is really about being nonjudgmental when people bring up things that excite them. As with any kind of kink exploration, there has to be sensitivity to what each person wants and how to manage it when things take a turn, such as if the third party starts using [degrading] cuckold language in what is not really an agreed-upon cuckold scene.”
Such advice might come in handy for Rosemary, a 50-something married woman in Florida who says that, in her last marriage, an open relationship, her then-husband would get aroused to hear her accounts of sexploits with other men. “He didn’t want to watch, but he loved the details, and he was even friends with some of the other guys,” she says. “He would say, ‘I love to think of other men desiring you.’”
She says she thinks it would be fun to have her current husband watch her have sex with other people, “but I’d be more open to doing that with another woman. I’d love to do that, but I don’t have anyone to do it with.” This writer referred her to the popular website FetLife, which bills itself as “the social network for the BDSM, fetish, and kinky community.”
Lentz also says he hopes that, jeers about moral hypocrisy aside, the Falwell story reminds us “that we would all do well to have compassion and understanding for sexual proclivities that are not the same as our own. However you feel about Jerry Falwell, the situation underscores that this [kink] exists on our sexual landscape.”
As for my ex–sex-worker friend Dale, after he’d pocketed his cash and slipped away from his cuckolding clients, he’d not heard the last of them.
“The guy would constantly text and call me on the premise that he was going to hire me again,” he says, “but I think he really just wanted to process with me. He wanted to make sure that nobody knew and said he didn’t want to be embarrassed. I thought to myself, ‘His whole scene is humiliation, but he’s worried about being embarrassed?’ I think he was getting off on all these phone calls with me, which he wasn’t paying for, so they became a huge waste of my time.
“All my kinkiest clients,” he adds, “were in New Jersey.”