Home / Politics / Can we dump the 'mistress' from political scandals?

Can we dump the 'mistress' from political scandals?

Marilyn Monroe

I hate covering political sex scandals. A lot of that is because they distract from serious issues more than the schadenfreude is worth even if you hate the politician involved, or that they help Republicans paint politics as dirty and tacky. But it’s also a word that almost inevitably gets heavy use: “mistress.”

We need a substitute for mistress.

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.

It reeks of historical romance novels and long-ago kings and it frankly doesn’t apply to most sex scandals today.

There is of course no parallel word for men. The idea of using “master”—the male counterpart of other definitions of mistress—is ludicrous.

And mistress doesn’t just say “extramarital affair,” it strongly implies financial support and a specific power relation. To be a mistress is to have no other professional identity, and no matter how much you support treating sex work as work, it’s not an accurate term when the woman in question has a non-sex job and identity as a professional at the same time as she is having an affair with a politician.

Consider the synonyms: Concubine, girlfriend, paramour, prostitute, roommate (really?), sweetheart, chatelaine, courtesan, doxy, inamorata—on down the line to fancy woman, kept woman, other woman, and shack job. Either, like girlfriend or sweetheart, they leave out the illicit or transactional implications of mistress; or, like chatelaine, they apply to a different meaning of mistress; or they are about sex work: concubine, prostitute, courtesan. That didn’t apply when Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley was having an affair with a married member of his staff. It didn’t apply to Monica Lewinsky. The sex work aspect did apply to Ashley Dupre, the prostitute Eliot Spitzer was caught patronizing, but the other implications of mistress did not.

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