Cuckoldry as Status Jockeying
I recently came across a social media post about polyamory that irked the fuck out of me, so here I am on another platform to complain about it.
The post described what is apparently a well-known trope within the poly community whereby non-monogamous women tend to have a much easier time finding dates compared to men. The theory outlined is that dating a woman who is already in a relationship is seen as a symbol of high-status because you're the superior bull, and the other dude is the pathetic cuckold. The post blithely dismissed this type of thinking as an outcrop of “heteronormative stereotypes” and encouraged its audience to “transcend” above it.
I'm largely on the monogamous side of things, for a variety of reasons. The only real dalliance I had with polyamory was when I had brief flings with two married women, each in an open marriage, and both within a month of each other. I got to have some really fun sex and it also unlocked for me a power dynamic I previously was unaware of. It was ludicrously thrilling to find myself fucking a woman who had a husband. Further feeding that dynamic was that both women readily would disclose how difficult it was for their husbands to find dates. (Check around the 55 mins mark on the podcast episode for more on my account).
“How fucking pathetic!” I thought. If I had to rationalize the thrill I felt, I think it's entirely predicated on how status is demonstrated and exhibited differently for men and women. Status for women is much more apparent because (to simplify the topic significantly) it is almost entirely dependent on obviously discernable markers of youth and beauty. But status for men is significantly more situational and dependent on circumstance. In my mind, the fact that this married woman chose to have sex with me instead of her husband unequivocally demonstrated my higher status over him1, and that felt great.
I generally see myself as comfortably occupying my space within the framework of masculinity, but without assuming too much I actually don't know to what extent other men mirror my thinking on this. My heuristic for evaluating a straight man's relative status is done by observing how attractive their female partners are. If someone's partner is unattractive, I immediately conclude the man must be low status, and vice versa. By process of projection, I assume everyone does the same about me. So I admit to having a great deal of self-consciousness about who I end up seen as either romantically or sexually involved with, because it's unavoidably a reflection on me as well. Or at least I think it is. My impression of this dynamic is that it is more-or-less universally prevalent, as evidenced by the glee by which men report their sexual conquest to other men, and the trope of the “trophy wife”.
Further, it's difficult to entirely escape the trappings of cuckoldry. I think everyone should watch this short video of what cuckoldry actually looks like. The term comes from the cuckoo bird, which has a habit of laying its eggs in other bird's nests and then dipping out. The cuckoo hatchling, barely out of its own egg and with its eyelids still closed shut, still immediately has a sufficiently developed instinct to start pushing out the yet-unhatched reed warbler eggs out of the nest. The reed warbler parent is duped and never notices the annihilation of its own children, and dutifully spends its time feeding and nurturing the progeny of an entirely different species. Meanwhile, the cuckoo parent who instigated the deceit peaces out and gets to have its lineage extended through no further effort of its own.
I don't use this term lightly but it's difficult for me to contemplate a creature more evil than the cuckoo. Naturally this dynamic is present within humans too, and the anxiety surrounding policing the potential deceit extrapolates to explain other social dynamics (For example, people are far more likely to comment that a baby looks just like the father). I’ve posted about the movie Blue Valentine (2010) before, and just how thoroughly repulsed I was by Ryan Gosling's character. The premise involves a woman who gets pregnant and another guy (Gosling) who comes along and helps her raise the kid. It speaks to Gosling's skill as an actor, because the role he plays was thoroughly repulsive and contemptible to me as a man. I felt nothing but abject disdain and visceral disgust towards the character.
Aella had an especially interesting poll question recently: “straight men: if you had to have a threesome with another guy (and a girl you really like), you'd prefer the other guy to be ____ status than you.” Some of the follow-up responses were illuminating as well, and I was surprised by how much of my own (previously undeclared) sentiments were echoed by others. I have negative interest in having a threesome with another man involved. I'm not sexually attracted to men, but I've been to nude beaches and hot tubs with both men and women naked and felt no aversion, so that can't explain it. Rather, I think I would be way too intensely preoccupied with status jockeying to ever enjoy myself. If the other guy is higher status, I'd wonder “why am I here?” and also would presume that the status disparity would reinforce itself throughout the experience just by virtue of how the attention economy would play out. If the other guy is lower status, I'd start to wonder that the woman is also low-status (why else would she have sex with him?), and then of course I'd wonder if that also means I'm low-status.
So back to the irksome post. The preference to be the bull, and the aversion to being the cuckold, are borne out of elementary desires related to the pursuit of status. (I 100% do not understand men who claim to be turned on by being the cuckold, and I'll leave that task to someone else). But in pursuing this desire to accumulate status, the circumstances for men and women are wildly different. There's no threat of “cuckoldry” for women, so maybe that absence within the lizard brain is sufficient to explain the disparity. In our polyamory episode, Aella confessed that although she felt deep insecurity the first time it happened, she found it exciting to know her male partner was successful in bedding other women because it reinforced that he was high-status. By contrast if you're a man and you let your wife/girlfriend fuck another man, that only gives him an opportunity to raise his status. And since status is zero-sum by definition, why would you debase yourself like that?
So yes, it is indeed “heteronormative” and also clearly a double standard. My response is “Yes, and?”
But I also confess to being in a bind here. While I think dismissing something because it's “heteronormative” is facile, patronizing, and lazy, I still think it's important to maintain an open mind about exactly which conventions about human relations we should (try to) keep. So many appear to be foundational, or at least inextricably tied to our reptile brain, and accordingly it's just fruitless to even consider jettisoning them. But human nature is malleable to some degree, and I'm not sure what guiding principle we should adopt in evaluating what stays and what goes.
Put another way, is the polyamorous man who is enthusiastic about his wife getting railed by other men enlightened or just a victim of a coping worldview. How can we tell?