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“You look like a classic hotwife,” the direct message to my Instagram account read. Well, maybe, I thought, deleting it without giving it much thought. After all, who hasn’t received unwanted direct messages, sometimes with sexual content or innuendo? “Are you a hotwife?” another DM from yet another stranger asked later that week. Duh, I thought, deleting that one too. And then a third message: “Hi. Are you into the cuckold lifestyle?”

This one gave me pause.

The cuckold lifestyle? I looked at the profile of the guy who had DM’d me. Ex-military. Clean-cut. His feed was all about sports. He looked macho. But the term “cuckold lifestyle” conjured up the Chaucer I had read as a student — stories such as “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale,” in which younger women have sex right under the noses of their unsuspecting older and ineffectual in every sense husbands. In both stories, the wife goes unpunished, and the joke is on her clueless spouse, for whom she, the reader, and the narrator alike have contempt.

After a bit of Googling, I was back in the realm of Chaucer, except in this case, the husbands are no dupes. Men into the “cuckold lifestyle” or “hotwifing” are fully in the know. In fact, they actively engineer their own cuckolding, because they are turned on by hearing about or witnessing first-hand their wives’ infidelity. Bucking the script of masculine possession, the man into this practice embraces being married to a woman who is untrue — his hotwife — egging her on to “betrayal” after betrayal because he likes it. And it seems there is no short supply of these men — or the men who fantasize about doing what these men do. This fascinating subset of swinging and kink is the second most commonly searched term by heterosexual porn users on English-language search engines, and researcher Justin Lehmiller found in a survey of 4,000 men that 58% of them had fantasies about sharing their partner with other men, or being “cucked.” Some men like to be present for the act, even participate in it, while others just like to help set it up and hear about it after.

Men who identify as cucks and like to hotwife may hide to watch the action or observe via video camera. Still others are far away when the sex takes place but are there for the lead-up. These men enjoy helping their wives get ready for their dates: A man might shave his wife’s legs for her, make the dinner and hotel reservation for her, shop for the sexy outfit she will wear on the date, and buy the condoms she will bring along. Still other men enjoy being told about it after the fact, in great detail.

Not all men married to hotwives are cucks, though. On her hotwife lifestyle blog, Alexis McCall, a hotwife and self-described “hotwife lifestyle coach,” clears up what she believes are some misconceptions, describing her relationship with her husband, who enjoys it when she has sex with other men but is not sexually submissive. It turns him on to hear about it, but he doesn’t like to watch, and he doesn’t like to be humiliated. McCall defines a hotwife as “a married woman whose marriage is open on her end only, so that she can date other men and have sex with them, with both the permission and encouragement of her husband, in order to fulfill his fantasy of sharing her with other men, to the benefit of their marriage.”

McCall confesses in one of her posts she had been miserable in her previously sexless marriage, and considered having an affair, before her husband told her of his interest in hotwifing. That turned things around. “I was committed in my own mind just as soon as I found out it was going to give me a personal sex life outside my marriage, which I had been planning on doing anyway,” she explains. It sounds like a disaster in the offing, but not for McCall and her husband. She says that hotwifing counterintuitively built intimacy and better communication skills in her marriage. Essentially, stepping out for sex with her husband’s encouragement saved their relationship, helping them talk to each other and connect more deeply than ever before.

In his remarkably comprehensive and readable Insatiable Wives, clinical psychologist and sex therapist David Ley made similar discoveries — couples who were into the cuckold/hotwife lifestyle, he found, varied in how exactly they practiced it, but what the successful ones had in common was impressive levels of connection and intimacy, enviable communication skills, and high levels of desire for each other compared to couples in monogamous unions. When he first stumbled across this lifestyle while reading responses to an online sex survey he had sent out, Ley thought people were having him on. There was virtually no academic literature on the topic. But exploring further, he connected with some hotwifing and cuckold-life practitioners and interviewed them at length. What he discovered surprised him. “I initially thought, This can’t be healthy,” he told me when I interviewed him via Skype one morning. “And then I had to stop myself. Why did I assume that these couples, often in decades-long marriages, were necessarily unhealthy for engaging in sex behaviors outside the norm? I was allowing my social biases around monogamy, promiscuity, and female sexuality to intrude into my clinical judgment.” Instead, Ley decided to listen.

He found more participants to interview and was further surprised to learn that, like Alexis McCall and her husband, many of these couples had quite extraordinary levels of commitment, showed deep mutual respect, and communicated skillfully. A significant number also reported very high levels of marital satisfaction and sexual satisfaction after decades of being together, a rather unusual state of affairs.

But it’s not for everyone. If being a hotwife sounds enlightened and perhaps even empowering, it might not be. Some men into the cuckold/hotwife lifestyle give the impression that when it comes down to it, they are a whole lot less interested in their wives’ sexual freedom and much more into rigidly choreographing their own pleasure. And, in some instances, a wife may not enjoy being a character in her husband’s scripts. Or the partners may find they have agendas that are no longer in alignment.

Ultimately, Ley thinks that the cuckold and hotwife relationships he studied may be about many things for men: Bisexuality, an interest in being submissive, wanting control, wanting to cede control, being masochistic. What strikes Ley most, he told me, is the incredible resourcefulness and creativity of the arrangements he witnessed. “It’s like these guys understand the very real sexual power of the women they’re partnered with,” he marveled.