PC Culture

Call Them ‘Mistresses’

Yes, the term is judgy. That’s a good thing.

The Associated Press released its updated stylebook at a recent teleconference. The new style guide contains more than 200 revisions and updates from the previous edition.

The new guidance includes a section on “gender-neutral language.” Stylebook editor Paula Froke said the update “aims to treat people equally and is inclusive of people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female.” One example of the “inclusive” transformation that the AP seeks to visit on the English language is using “search” instead of “manhunt” when describing the pursuit of an at-large criminal.

I do not doubt that this change comes as a relief to the nation’s transgender fugitives, now freed from the specter of the masculine generic noun that had heretofore been used to describe their pursuit. I rejoice at their rhetorical liberation. This change nevertheless obscures, rather than clarifies, the object that both nouns are meant to describe. “Manhunt” is a precise descriptor of the attempt to find and detain a fugitive; “search,” by contrast, is ambiguous and insipid, a small window into the sterile world of “inclusive” English that the AP proposes to usher in.

Another change in the guidelines concerns press coverage of extramarital affairs. The AP enjoins writers to avoid using the “archaic and sexist term ‘mistress,’” preferring instead “an alternative like companion or lover.”

Perhaps this change should not bother me – it’s only the AP stylebook — but it does. The status quo apparently vexed the AP enough to impel the change in the first place. I suspect that the AP and I are both motivated by the sense that what one calls a woman who participates in a protracted extramarital affair matters, and that it has downstream effects in the culture. There is, after all, a great chasm between “mistress” and “companion” in terms of what they imply about the woman engaged in the affair. The former has lurid and scandalous connotations, while the latter might describe a beloved household pet. It is worth examining whether “mistress” is a “sexist” and “archaic” term, as the AP insists.

The word, I admit, is “gendered,” as the sociologists would say: A man cannot, by definition, be a mistress. If the AP means to say that there is a dearth of similarly opprobrious terms for male adulterers, they’re right. If it would satisfy the egalitarians at the Associated Press, I would heartily endorse resurrecting “philanderer,” “lecher,” or some other contemptuous term to describe the man who betrays his wife and family by sleeping with . . . his mistress.

The question of contempt, however, is the central one. The AP guidance claims that “mistress” is an “archaic” term. But how it is archaic? Certainly not in the sense that it has fallen out of popular use — the word is used regularly in the press and public vernacular alike, which, one suspects, is precisely why the AP was so eager to proscribe its use. The AP deems the word “archaic,” then, in a moral sense. It is “judgy.” It bears what the British philosopher John Gray called “the implication of judgment.” If adultery is no different from any other consensual sexual arrangement and is but one legitimate lifestyle choice among many, as the AP seems to imply, why use a term such as “mistress” when “companion” or a similarly nonjudgmental noun exists?

We should insist on using “mistress,” whether or not it’s fashionable to do so, precisely because we ought to reject the AP’s indifferentist assessment of adultery. On a popular level, the AP is swimming upstream — In a 2019 Gallup poll, 89 percent of Americans described extramarital affairs as “morally wrong.” Adultery has obvious and pernicious cultural effects, too: Affairs can ruin marriages, upend children’s lives, and send shockwaves through local communities. Infidelity is a deeply antisocial behavior, and society has an interest — and I would say a right — to use language to stigmatize and disincentivize such behavior. One hopes that a regime of forgiveness would abound, and I am not proposing to cast the proverbial first stone at someone who has fallen into infidelity or otherwise cheated on a spouse. Language nevertheless reflects our values, and if the Associated Press is comfortable using “mistress” and “companion” interchangeably, one cannot help but question the merits of theirs.



The Latest