Evolutionary psychology teaches that survival and reproduction have driven the formation of our brains and mental drives. What we find attractive and unattractive feels intrinsic, but in fact emerged out of biological success; those who found different things attractive and unattractive didn’t make it forward.
How precise you can get from this initial framework is a tough question. A lot of evo-psych explanations for particulars can sound like just-so stories, unfalsifiable conjecture. Nevertheless, the basic logic of evo-psych seems solid, and gives us a baseline of what we should expect and what we should be surprised by in human behavior.
I addressed the counterintuitive nature of suicide from this perspective in Letter to Anwei, which at first seems to make very little sense evolutionarily. But how about another counterintuitive phenomenon?
I refer to the fetish of cuckoldry.
For those who don’t know, cuckoldry by its most basic definition refers to a husband whose wife sleeps with other men. The term is derived from the cuckoo bird, for its strategy of laying eggs in other nests, in hopes that the host bird will unknowingly raise the parasitic cuckoo baby. A cuckolded husband might similarly wind up having to raise another man’s child.
But beyond the mere state of cuckolding (wife) or being cuckolded (husband), “cuckoldry” can refer to something far more interesting and baffling. Cuckoldry is also a sexual fetish: Certain guys claim to get off on watching other men fuck their wives or girlfriends.
Psychologically speaking, this seems like it should be impossible. If survival and reproduction are the forces that drove the formation of our brain and our desires, why would there be any desire for, or enjoyment out of, intentionally defeating that drive? For a pair-bonding mammal like humans, watching another male screw your spouse is evolutionary death. At the very least, it’s risking a very high investment in a dead-end for your own line.
Yet clearly it’s a real fetish:
One survey of 4,000 men conducted by the Kinsey Institute researcher and social psychologist Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D., found 58% of men had fantasies about sharing their partner with other men.Mind Body Green
I get the impression that these statistics are being inflated, mostly by conflating the prevalence of search-terms with the actual desire. Nevertheless, even if only 10% of this supposed 58% were legitimate, 5.8% of the male population would still be extraordinarily high for what one might expect from an evolutionary psychology perspective.
So how could this happen?
Off the bat, we have to discuss a subject that cannot be ignored when talking about taboos like cuckoldry, and that is pornography. I think it is pretty common knowledge now that pornography can overstimulate men, sexually. Like cocaine frying the pleasure-centers of the brain and permanently changing the baseline threshold for what is “pleasurable,” excessive pornography use might very well ratchet up what men need in order to get turned on. This ratcheting up seems to have no limits, as far as what direction it might go or how far. Cuckoldry is among the most popular search terms on porn sites, and so through repetition, there might be some kind of normalizing effect. In short, pornography use might be artificially creating a fetish that really wasn’t that big before
But this may or may not actually be what’s going on — at least, perhaps not the whole picture. After all, why would men be going to cuckoldry specifically when there are literally hundreds of thousands of other fetishes they might search for instead? It’s not as though pornography is good for you so long as it isn’t geared towards cuckoldry. Perhaps the relationship between cuckoldry as a fetish and pornography is a symptom of something more interesting.
What I have in mind is entirely speculative, but I think is worth contemplating.
If stereotypes are to be believed, there seem to be two major types of cuckolds: first, conservative Christians (e.g., the recent case of Jerry Falwell Jr.); second, liberal intellectuals (or, at least, liberals who think that they’re intellectual).
What both types of men have in common is that they overhumanize their wives.
For Christians, the man is supposed to take the role of God in the house. As patriarchal as this sounds (and, in fact, is), it is actually a very high standard, one which many pastors love to highlight, especially the way in which all men fall short. Set as a standard to emulate, Jesus comes across as asexual, and Paul writes that sexuality is itself a temptation, and that it is better to live as he does (celibate). In fact, Jesus himself makes this clear, in his own words:
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.Matthew 19:11-12
Like Paul, Jesus acknowledges that not everyone can restrain themselves. But sex is still something dirty; something unholy. Despite the attempts of progressive pastors today to Make Sex Godly Again (“God invented sex!”), this attitude permeates more conservative Christian culture. The virgin woman becomes something holy — Mother Mary, or Madonna, we might say. The “good wife,” the one who is your “best friend,” your “life partner,” and all other variety of good Christian associative virtues and phrases, becomes humanized to the point of sanctity:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church…Ephesians 5:25-29
How can degree of purification be possible if sex itself is an uncomfortable spot or stain?
It is important to note that there is not really an equivalent standard for women. Among Catholics, the virgin Mary sort of comes close, but is not set as an ideal in nearly the explicit manner with which Paul sets the ideal of Jesus as the standard for all husbands.
Like the Christian, the liberal-intellectual man (whose own ideology is itself an outgrowth of Christianity, as I wrote about in Holy Nihilism) views women as morally and perhaps intellectually superior to men. As a feminist, he sees women simultaneously as an oppressed gender, yet also as a thriving, uniquely adapted to a more globalized world due to their (general) tendency towards cooperation over competition, lower levels of “toxic” testosterone, and historically lower representation among the war-fighting and conquering men, who are now looked down upon as morally backwards, if not outright evil. Piggybacking upon Christian values and sexual dynamics, the liberal intellectual has found a secular justification for arriving at more or less the same conclusion: women are, in their natural form, saints. Conversely, men are — in their natural form — something pathetic and immoral due to their stupidity, social ineptness, unreliability, violence, cruelty, shallowness, and above all… their sexuality.
In their overhumanization (sanctification) of their female partner, the conservative-Christian/liberal-intellectual still feels his own sexual urges, but feels somehow spiritually unworthy to be married to his partner. He feels “lucky” that she chose him — undeserving as he is. Yet this moralistic reverence for women is distinctly asexual. This puts the sexual man in a dilemma, which leads us to a possible condition which might explain the origins of cuckoldry as a fetish.
Sigmund Freud once wrote about the “Madonna-Whore complex,” which broadly describes a tendency to view women as either promiscuous whores or saintly virgins, and more specifically describes a condition in which a man cannot get sexually aroused in a committed relationship. While Freud’s explanation as to how this condition comes about is a little dubious, the condition itself seems to accurately capture a sexual attitude in many men, and is described by a host of other observant artists and writers, such as Tiziano Vecelli and James Joyce.
Put bluntly, men who come to see women as above their native animal nature will view them also as above the animal act of sex. Sex is, perhaps, the most animalistic, atavistic act a human might perform. When ideology is deeply tied to the idea that whatever divinity exists in humans — be it Christian spirituality or liberal moral superiority — also separates humans from and above animals, then acts which remind us of our true animal nature will always seem degrading.
When a husband willingly watches his wife get fucked by another man, that animalistic gap between his own “dirty” mind and the “pure” wife (pure in his own mind) is bridged. Perhaps at the cost of his marriage or his own self-respect, he achieves a kind of catharsis where Woman is brought down to his own moral level. There is a kind of relaxation from the impossible tension caused by his worldview, be it Christianity or Feminism. The ideological overhumanization of woman-kind is purged, and while the real-world long-term effects will be predictably disastrous, the desire is rendered logically understandable.
It’s hard to imagine a situation in which that kind of catharsis would actually be worthwhile in the longrun. But it does seem worthwhile to perhaps avoid the need for such a catharsis in the first place, and if this speculation is correct, then the way to stave of the psychological tug of cuckoldry appears straightforward:
Don’t overhumanize your spouse.
Treat them with love and respect, talk with them and all that. But always remember that they are animals. To expect them to be saints or gods and rise above these natural instincts is not just a recipe for disappointment; it is actually a recipe to misunderstand your partner at a more basic level. It’s a failure to empathize with their real thoughts and feelings which are tied in deeply with a primordial, distinctly unsacred mammalian brain.