The word mistress is having a moment. It shouldn’t. It’s sexist and should’ve been retired long ago.
The “M word,” which has no male equivalent, is back thanks to the National Enquirer. Last month, the tabloid published text messages between billionaire Jeff Bezos and his girlfriend, 49-year-old news anchor Lauren Sanchez; each was married to someone else when their relationship began.
Then last week, the 55-year-old Amazon founder and CEO kept the story going by revealing in a blog post that the Enquirer was threatening to publish his naked photos if he didn’t comply with their demands.
In covering the drama, several news outlets resorted to calling Sanchez, a “mistress,” including The Daily Beast, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and MarketWatch.
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.
“It is clearly a red-flag word,” said Soraya Chemaly, the director of the Women’s Media Center. “It implies this woman is operating outside the parameters of what is socially acceptable. That she might be morally questionable because she’s breaking the rules.”
Since there’s no male equivalent for mistress, the implication is it’s OK for the guy to go outside his marriage ― it’s normal, doesn’t even require a new term.
Sanchez’s romantic partner is just rogue billionaire Bezos, the richest guy in the world. Indeed, he’s been publicly lauded for standing up to the Enquirer.
The move “is perhaps the best illustration of the in-your-face aggressiveness that has made him the richest man in the world and arguably the most important tech visionary since Steve Jobs,” writes tech columnist Kara Swisher about Bezos.
Mistress is one of a parcel of terms ― slut, spinster ― that serve to dehumanize, objectify and subjugate, notes Chemaly, who recently published “Rage Becomes Her,” an exploration of women’s anger throughout history.
Back in 2012, Paula Broadwell was called a “homewrecker,” “stalker” and a “temptress” for her extra-marital relationship with four-star general David Petraeus, a beloved military figure, Jessica Bennett pointed out in a 2016 New York Times article.
“[T]he shame of the mistress is a particular category,” she wrote. “Donna Rice, Monica Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter … the names have come to represent a kind of archetype.”
Broadwell was so bothered by the term that she petitioned the Associated Press to ditch it, Bennett reported. And they did, revising their guidance on the term and discouraging its use.
Here’s the entry in its style guidebook, used by many news outlets ― including HuffPost ― as a rulebook for writing. The AP notes that the word is meant to connote that a woman is getting financial support from her male partner.
“Mistress: A woman who has a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. 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. Whenever possible, phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: “The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.”
See there are other easy, less insulting words out there that can be easily swapped for mistress. Is that really so difficult?