A cuckold is the husband of an adulterous wife. In evolutionary biology, the term is also applied to males who are unwittingly investing parental effort in offspring that are not genetically their own.
History of the term
English usage first appears about 1250 in the satirical and polemical poem "The Owl and the Nightingale" (l. 1544). The term was clearly regarded as embarrassingly direct, as evident in John Lydgate's "Fall of Princes" (c. 1440). In the late 14th century, the term also appeared in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale". Shakespeare's poetry often referred to cuckolds, with several of his characters suspecting they had become one.
One often-overlooked subtlety of the word is that it implies that the husband is deceived, that he is unaware of his wife's unfaithfulness and may not know until the arrival or growth of a child plainly not his (as with cuckoo birds).
The female equivalent cuckquean first appears in English literature in 1562, adding a female suffix to the cuck.
A related word, first appearing in 1520, is wittol, which substitutes wit (in the sense of knowing) for the first part of the word, referring to a man aware of and reconciled to his wife's infidelity.
Metaphor and symbolism
In Western traditions, cuckolds have sometimes been described as "wearing the horns of a cuckold" or just "wearing the horns". This is an allusion to the mating habits of stags, who forfeit their mates when they are defeated by another male. In Italy (especially in Southern Italy, where it is a major personal offence), the insult is often accompanied by the sign of the horns. In French, the term is "porter des cornes", which is used by Molière to describe someone whose consort has been unfaithful. In German, the term is "jemandem Hörner aufsetzen", or "Hörner tragen", the husband is "der gehörnte Ehemann". Rabelais wrote the Tiers Livers of Gargantua and Pantagruel in 1546, by which time the symbol of the horns was "so well-known and over-used that the author could barely avoid making reference to it". Molière's L'École des femmes (1662) is the story of a man who mocks cuckolds and becomes one at the end. In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1372–77), "The Miller's Tale" is a story that humorously examines the life of a cuckold. In Chinese usage, an altogether different allusion is used, when the cuckold (or wittol) is said to be "戴綠帽子" (wearing the green hat), which derives from the sumptuary laws used in China from the 13th to the 18th centuries that required the males in households with prostitutes to wrap their heads in a green scarf (or later a hat).
Cuckoldry as a fetish
Unlike the traditional definition of the term, in fetish usage a cuckold is complicit in his (or her) partner's sexual "infidelity"; the wife who enjoys cuckolding her husband is called a cuckoldress if the man is more submissive.
Theories in psychology
Psychology regards cuckold fetishism as a variant of masochism, the cuckold deriving pleasure from being humiliated. In Freudian analysis, cuckold fetishism is the eroticization of the fears of infidelity and of failure in the man's competition for procreation and the affection of females. In his book Masochism and the Self, psychologist Roy Baumeister advanced a Self Theory analysis that cuckolding (other forms of sexual masochism) among otherwise mentally healthy people was a form of escapism. According to this theory, cuckold fetishists are relieving themselves of the stress of the burden of their social role and escaping into a simpler, less-expansive position.
If a couple can keep the fantasy in the bedroom, or come to an agreement where being cuckolded in reality does not damage the relationship, they may try it out in reality. However, the primary proponent of the fantasy is almost always the one being humiliated, or the "cuckold": the cuckold convinces his lover to participate in the fantasy for them, though other "cuckolds" may prefer their lover to initiate the situation instead. The fetish fantasy does not work at all if the cuckold is being humiliated against their will.
Theories in evolutionary biology and psychology
In evolutionary biology, the term cuckold is also applied to males who are unwittingly investing parental effort in offspring that are not genetically their own. As noted above, the term cuckold is derivative of the mis-directed parental investment of birds who direct parental investment to the eggs that cuckoo birds have laid in their nests.
In his book Sperm Wars, biologist Robin Baker speculated that the excitement and stimulation of the cuckolding fetish emerges from the biology of sexuality and the effects of sexual arousal on the brain, although it is important to note the word "cuckold" does not appear in his book. According to one of his theories, Baker believes that when a man thinks that his female mate may have been sexual with another man, the man is prompted by biological urges to copulate with the female in an effort to "compete" with the other man's sperm. Baker is also one of the few proponents of the theory of Killer Sperm, the idea that sperm compete not only for first access to the egg but by "attacking" other sperm. Although this idea appears frequently in cuckold fetish material, very few biologists share this view.
Baker and his proponents' views conflict with the hypothesized foundations for sexual jealousy in evolutionary psychology, which is rooted in the idea that men, specifically, will react jealously to sexual infidelity on the parts of their mates. Infidelity is also the number one cause for divorce.
The cuckold’s urge to thrust, through intercourse or masturbation, is often enhanced by the presence of the bull, whether real or fantasized. A study by Gordon Gallup and coworkers (2003) concluded that one evolutionary purpose of the thrusting motion characteristic of intense intercourse is for the penis to “upsuck” another man’s semen before depositing its own.