Author and blogger Chris Ryan guest hosted the Savage Love sex advice column this week. It's a great read, and a wonderful plug for Ryan's new book, Sex at Dawn. The first letter he answered was from a woman whose husband wanted to watch her have sex with another man, a request she fulfilled. But, as she described the enjoyment her husband had at watching her and having "after" sex with her, with the other man's ejaculate inside her, the wife became concerned that maybe her husband was gay. Ryan and Savage's responses normalized the desire and behavior, suggesting that the husband was heterosexual, and was driven by the biological impetus of sperm competition, and voyeurism. I like Ryan's responses, especially the nonpathological view, but think that this is a very complex behavior, with a lot more reasons behind it.
So, I thought I would use this posting to explore these issues, and invite discussion of what these various reasons might be. Even though this practice of wife-sharing focuses on the wife's sexuality, in my experience, this is almost always (99% of the time) prompted by the husband's request. Wives simply do not often or unprompted go to their husbands and request they have permission to have sex with other men. I will tell you that in the research for my book, I heard lots of varied reasons for this desire from various husbands. Some of the reasons were nice, and some were not so nice. I think a discussion of this phenomenon deserves consideration of all the reasons and motivations. So - here you go - my list of the motivations, based upon my research, behind why men would be interested in watching their wives with other men:
• Voyeurism - many folks suggest that we live in a "pornified culture," where most men of college-age and older have seen pornography, and use it as a part of their sexual repertoire. If they are used to such a voyeuristic process in their sexuality, there is some legitimacy to suggesting they may incorporate it into their marital sexuality. Watching your wife have sex with another man may be a next step, or progression, from watching yourselves have sex by having a mirror on the ceiling during sex, then using a video camera during sex, and then finally watching one's spouse with someone else. Many men told me "My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world to me, I'd rather watch her having sex than some porn actress I don't know."
• Sperm competition - as Christopher Ryan, author Terry Gould, and researchers Baker and Bellis have suggested, there is a biological response playing out here, that affects a male sexual drive. After watching their wife with another man, the husband is prompted biologically to have longer, more vigorous sex, has a shorter refractory period between erections, ejaculates harder, and his ejaculate contains more sperm. Nearly every couple I interviewed told me that after an episode of the wife having sex with another man, the couple felt like they were "in heat."
• The Thrill of the Taboo - there are few things in our society as stigmatized as a husband whose wife is unfaithful. Historically, such men have been beaten, ostracized and ridiculed, and regarded as weak, "sissy men." Some of the men I interviewed described explicitly that the taboo was the thrill for them, from the excitement of the forbidden and the naughty.
• Female empowerment - I was surprised by how many of these couples embraced very powerful feminist principles, and how many of these husbands described the joy they felt at their wife's increased independence, confidence and assertiveness, that came from the wife's freedom to have sex with other men. Many of the men expressed that through their wife's open sexuality, the couple was actively and consciously rejecting social pressures to suppress female sexuality, assert monogamy and patriarchal power.
• Bisexuality - In more than half of the men I interviewed, male bisexuality played a role in the husband's desires to watch his wife have sex with another man. This played out in many different dynamics. Sometimes, bringing a man to bed with the wife was a pretext, a bait and switch if you will, for the husband to then engage sexually with the man as well. Sometimes, the husbands were very concerned about being seen as heterosexual, but they spent an awful lot of time looking for well-endowed men for their wife. To my mind, a man who is that focused on the size of other men's penises really doesn't qualify as all that straight.
• Physical health issues - In Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lord Chatterley was physically unable to have intercourse with his wife (though, as my own wife points out, his fingers and tongue still worked just fine - why wasn't he using them?). I did see a number of men who reported that due to physical complaints, they weren't able to be as vigorous in bed as they and their wives would like. While the wives by and large were happy with things as they were, the husbands often felt their wife's loss of sexual satisfaction more strongly than the wife themselves, and were motivated to encourage the wife to sleep with other men.
• Female sexual fulfillment - women's sexual capacity is far greater than that of males'. The world record for male orgasms is about 26 in a 24-hour period. Per Sherfey's research, women have documented as many as 60-65 orgasms in a single hour. I saw many men who reported that their wives were highly sexual beings, with a greater sexual capacity, and it simply turned the husbands on and pleased them to be able to see their wives sexually satisfied, at a degree that a single husband couldn't match. I also speculate that there is a degree of vicarious experience here - by being a part of the experience, the husband gets to vicariously experience what it's like to have that greater sexual capacity, and identifies in a strong manner with his wife and the essence of female sexuality in a way that most men never experience.
• Masochism - Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a 19th century fan of flagellation, who wrote Venus in Furs, about dominant women. Masochism was named after him. Leopold posted ads in German newspapers of the day, looking for "energetic young men" to befriend and pleasure his wife. (Check out Craigslist, and you'll see Leopold's modern counterparts) Leopold's interest in the experience was specifically the humiliation aspects, of being cuckolded, treated as weak, lesser, and not a real man. Like those who seek the Taboo, the cuckolds often seek out a strong SM flavor, where the husbands are dominated, belittled and degraded.
• Financial reasons - Most of the women working in Nevada's brothels have husbands and boyfriends at home, who benefit from the wife's sexual exploits for pay. It's not always about the money. A friend, and a wife interviewed in my first book, told me that when she was working as a manager at a brothel, one of the women always called her husband on her cellphone, before bringing a man back to her room for a "party." Unbeknownst to the man, her husband was getting off listening in on the phone. The financial part is a piece that can't be ignored, as it has been around for a long time. In England, men would sometimes set up their wives to be seduces by a man, so that the husband could then sue the man in court. In Florida, in the 1990's, the Sheriff husband of the "Housewife Hooker" hid in the closet videotaping his "nymphomaniac wife" with other men (notably republican politicians), whom the husband then blackmailed.
• The royalty perk - In the 1960's Motown song, the line goes "save the last dance for me," as the husband watches his wife dance with other men. Many of the men I interviewed got a thrill, a sense of being "king" that they had a wife who was so sexy, that other men wanted to be with, but who ultimately came home with him, the husband. It made the men feel powerful and successful, that they had such a sexy wife.
• Misogyny - sadly, I saw some couples where the husband's encouragement of the wife to have sex with other men was about a degrading of the woman. Some of these men talked about treating the wife as a whore, as a piece of meat, and "taking her down a peg."
A common fantasy is that the practice of wife-sharing starts when a husband catches his wife cheating, and finds himself strangely turned on. This might sometimes, though very, very rarely. But, it is at root of Dan Savage's past responses to these men, a response that Savage and Ryan didn't repeat in this column. Usually, Savage quotes the "eroticization of fear" hypothesis, that these men so fear their wife's infidelity that they eroticize the fear, in order to reduce the anxiety, managing it by sexuality, until they have turned the fear into a sexual fetish. In my book, I encountered a single man who described this scenario. It might happen, but it's a lesser answer than all of the above. Hopefully through their partnership, Christopher Ryan opened Savage's eyes to the wide range of other explanations.
Can you think of other reasons I missed?