It takes two people to have an affair, but despite this fact, there is a clear disparity in the way the public generally discusses extramarital relationships. Heterosexual men who have affairs are just heterosexual men who had affairs. But, the women with whom they have those affairs quickly get labeled with another term, one for which there is no effective male equivalent in English: mistress.
As Kelly McBride observed for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the word mistress made prominent appearances in early 2019 thanks to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s alleged affair with anchor and actor Lauren Sanchez—or his mistress, as many headlines dubbed her. Another notable so-called mistress was Lucero Guadalupe Sánchez López, lover of Joaquín Guzmán, the drug lord better known as El Chapo.
— Poynter (@Poynter) April 15, 2019
What does the word mistress imply about women, and why is it problematic?
First, what is a mistress?
Mistress is recorded in English around the 1300s, when it originally referred to “a woman who has authority, control, or power, especially the female head of a household, institution, or other establishment.” Think the headmistress of a school.
The word ultimately comes from a French female form of maistre, meaning “master.” The title Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, first recorded in the early 17th century, as mistress was used as a respectful term of address for a married woman.
By the mid-1400s, mistress was naming a “woman who has a continuing, extramarital sexual relationship with one man, especially a man who, in return for an exclusive and continuing liaison, provides her with financial support.” Over time, mistress narrowed to this sense—a word with no real male counterpart, perhaps ironically for a word that began as one.
Is mistress offensive?
Referring to someone as a mistress may seem more acceptable if there were a similar term we could apply to men, but there isn’t quite one.
In the wake of the February 2019 reporting of Sanchez as Bezos’s mistress, journalist Emily Peck wrote a piece for HuffPost titled “Mistress Is A Sexist Word. Stop Using It. The End.” She argues: “It’s a loaded term, meant to suggest that a woman is subordinate to the man with whom she’s having a relationship. The word also implies that her behavior is immoral.”
To use mistress to describe Lauren Sanchez can seem to imply that she is responsible for the affair, while Bezos’s behavior is more accepted or even overlooked entirely. Amid debate over the word, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook advised journalists to use mistress only in circumstances in which an affair took place over a long period of time and involved financial support. However, the AP also advised that, whenever possible, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: ‘The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.'”
When a relationship is not long-term or does not involve financial support, do not use mistress; terms like companion, friend or lover may apply. #APStyleChat (2/3)
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) February 12, 2019
Whenever possible, phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: "The two were romantically (or sexually) involved." #APStyleChat (3/3)
— AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) February 12, 2019
Putting aside its call for mutual language, the AP’s allowance of mistress for long-term, financially dependent, extramarital relationships raises the question of the extent to which we still use mistress in this way, suggesting mistress has evolved as a more general term for a married man’s girlfriend.
The problem with mistress, for many, is its implications regardless of intent.
Mistress, they argue, almost always labels a woman as an outsider, a seductress, a threat. Mistress paints women as being solely responsible for the transgression of having an affair while also framing them as submissive to the wills of their male lover. The word seems to allow men to retain power even in a situation where they are also culpable.
Are there other words only gendered as female?
Warning: There is some strong language featured in this section.
There are a number of words in the English language used to describe women, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships, that don’t have a male equivalent.
Spinster, for instance, is an offensive term for “a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marriage,” but we don’t have a similar insult to describe an unmarried man. In the 1300s, spinster simply meant “a woman who spins” wool for a living. This type of job was typically reserved for single women, according to scholar Claudia Goldin, because unmarried women had more incentive to excel at work and performed better. Spinsters were initially admired for their independence, but in the 1900s, they came under fire for not adhering to social expectations of marriage, transforming the word spinster into an insult.
Men, on the other hand, don’t have a term that derides them for being unmarried. Unmarried men are called bachelors, a word that conjures images of hunky male celebrities and is often preceded by “most eligible.”
There are yet more insulting words applied to women’s sexuality (and not men) as a result of cultural double standards.
Women who are perceived as promiscuous—“characterized by or involving indiscriminate mingling or association, especially having sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis”—have often been referred to as sluts, whores, and tramps. All of these words are disparaging terms for a “sexually promiscuous woman,” yet there is no equally disparaging term for men. (Note how promiscuous itself is largely gendered.) The term fuckboy has become popular in recent years, but that word more so skewers men for being contemptible and irritating in some way. This can include seeking sex without relationships, but society doesn’t condemn men for this behavior as much as it does women, hence words like slut and whore being sexist.
Outside of the bedroom, the way we label women also depends on their proximity to men. Consider poetess or prophetess, female forms of poet or prophet that have largely become archaic as we’ve realized we don’t need to mark gender in these contexts. Or, a woman who stays home to care for her family is a housewife, but a term like househusband (recorded in the 1800s) doesn’t have the same currency—or baggage. Similarly, we refer to mothers who work as working moms, but working dad is far less common. When we say that a woman is a working mom, the subtext is that the woman is somehow defying a norm by having a career, whereas it’s automatically assumed that a man will have a career, regardless of fatherhood. Then, there are terms like stay-at-home dad, which often praise men for being modern; compare that to stay-at-home mom, which is so often scornful.
There’s also the fact that women are referred to as bitchy when there is no similarly loaded word to describe the behavior of a man. Bitch is used as slang to describe “a malicious, unpleasant, selfish person, especially a woman,” originally disrespecting women by likening them to female dogs. When a man is unpleasant, he may be called tough, strong, no-nonsense, a straight-talker—never bossy, which almost always seems to target assertive women. He might be called a dick, but that doesn’t have the same force as bitch or bitchy.
So much of the language describing women is rooted in shaming their sexuality or reinforcing the idea that a woman’s value is determined relative to men. Words like mistress and housewife aren’t just descriptors: They are labels that reflect an undercurrent of sexism in society.