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Why Some Men Share Naked Pictures of Their Wives

Research on the roots of digital candaulism.

Key points

  • Some men through history have engaged in practices of allowing other men to see their nude wives.
  • Men's reasons for showing off their wives can be complex.
  • Some women give their male partners permission to share their images.
  • It's important for people to discuss with their partners expectations and consent around shared images.
Msporch / Pixabay
Source: Msporch / Pixabay

In the recent sentencing hearing of Infowars’ Alex Jones, a startling revelation emerged: When his attorneys accidentally shared his cell phone data with the plaintiff’s attorneys, it included nude photos of Jones’ wife, which he had texted to fellow Trump insider, Roger Stone. Beyond the bizarre and complex politics here, what would lead to these men sharing nude photos of their wives with each other? I call this behavior “digital candaulism,” and it’s a modern iteration of a very, very old behavior.

Candaules was, according to Herodotus, a Greek king with a beautiful wife. The king of Lydia was quite proud of his wife’s sexy appeal, and invited his friend and bodyguard Gyges to hide in the closet and watch his wife while she undressed. “Gyges, I do not think that you believe what I say about the beauty of my wife; men trust their ears less than their eyes: so you must see her naked.” Unfortunately, Candaules didn’t check this plan out with his wife, and when she found out, the queen was less than pleased. So displeased in fact, that she conspired with Gyges to assassinate her husband, and put Gyges in his place as king and her husband. This story was included in Greek history, apparently as a bit of a morality play, sending the strong message that men should keep their wives’ bodies and sexuality private, lest they pay an awful price.

For many years, it’s been claimed (including by me! Mea culpa!) that the term “candaulism” was coined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his work Psychopathia Sexualis, where he named numerous fetishes and sexual proclivities, such as masochism and sadism. Unfortunately, it turns out that the term candaulism doesn’t appear in any of his published works. Instead, the earliest known reference is from French dramatist Maurice Donnay in the weekly column La Revue Hebdomadaire, published in 1921. A translation of Donnay’s comment is:

“And then this special case of exhibitionism, which we could call candaulism, is not as rare as we think. Only, like virtue, candaulism has degrees; it must be recognized that the king of Lydia carried it, at once, to the highest degree of perfection; he went all the way. But more than one poet, a novelist and even a musician, if we go to the bottom of things, has undressed in some Candaulian work, morally if not physically, sometimes both, more than one modest friend.”

Hustler Magazine historically published amateur photos of “girls next door.” Unfortunately, some of these photos were shared with the magazine without the women’s permission, leading to several lawsuits. Technology has changed this: No longer must men hide their friends in the closet to display their wives’ bodies to them. They don’t even need to carry around Polaroid pictures anymore. Instead, men routinely now take nude or sexual pictures of their partners on their cell phones, and can whip them out at the bar to share with their friends.

Sometimes, this takes the form of “revenge porn,” in which the men publish or share these pictures as a means to embarrass and humiliate their former partner. Such was the case with Katie Hill, former Democratic U.S. Rep. from California, who stepped down from office after a scandal wherein her husband shared nude images of her during an acrimonious divorce, along with accusations of her infidelity.

There are currently no federal laws against nonconsensual sharing of such images, though many states and countries have passed various laws to criminalize and punish the nonconsensual sharing of such images.

However, like the story of Candaules himself depicts, such sharing of images are not always for purposes of revenge or anger. Instead, there can be more complex motivations at play, including pride, showing-off, male camaraderie, and bonding.

What motivates a man to share his nude wife with other men? For some, it’s what I’ve loosely called “The King Bee Syndrome,” (and yes, I know male bees are drones). Some men seek the admiration of other men for having a beautiful, sexy partner. They want their friends to envy them, and their friends will envy them even more when they know exactly what they don’t get to have because their friend has secured her as theirs.

In 1942, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov was invited to fellow writer Robert A. Heinlein’s home, and later recalled Heinlein proudly using a projector to display photographs of his nude wife to Asimov and their fellow writers. In his book Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein later wrote: “There’s no need for you to covet my wife...love her! There’s no limit to her love, we all have everything to gain—and nothing to lose but fear and guilt and hatred and jealousy.”

Some sharing of such images may be a form of trade: “I’ll show you my wife if you show me yours.” But sometimes, there may be more insidious motives. The infamous spy Robert Hanssen, who sold American secrets to the Soviets, installed a secret camera near his bed, so that a retired army officer friend could watch as Hanssen made love to his wife. Whether this was for exhibitionism, or for purposes of seducing the friend into also being a spy, remains unclear.

When men share sexual experiences with friends, there is a bonding that may occur. Katherine Frank documents many of these experiences in her book Plays Well in Groups, describing the camaraderie that develops in male sports clubs when they engage in group sex with women. Some Mexican migrant workers call each other “hermanos de leche” after they have shared experiences with sex workers. The same closeness can generate from the shared secret of knowing what each others’ female partners look like in the nude.

Some women even give their male partners permission to show their images to others. From various anonymous contributors, I received the below comments:

  • “I have a lover who takes video often during our times together. He always asks first and I have an expectation in me that he will show them to his other lovers. We discussed it at first and I said I was fine with it. If he posted them, I’d be pissed because it’s my business.”
  • “My partner is a photographer and spreads my pics around the internet. But, that is for art and for business. I’d be shocked if they just showed them to anyone for titillation and can’t imagine saying ‘hey, show these to your friends.’”
  • “I was wanting to have a threesome with my husband’s best friend, and told him to show his friend my pictures, to see if we could make it happen. It worked…”

Author of Sex at Dawn Christopher Ryan shared, “I know lots of guys who do this with the permission/encouragement of their wives. In the swinging world, men share their wives from a position of dominance, generally. Far from cucks, they’re more like benevolent pimps.”

Women may be surprised to learn that their male partners may share, or be tempted to share, their nude images with friends. I encourage them to have frank conversations with their partners about such images, and issues of consent, but to remember that these motivations are often more complex and nuanced than one might imagine.

Facebook image: KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock

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