The word ‘mistress’ is creeping back into our vocabulary. Should journalists stop using it?

April 12, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Did Jeff Bezos have a lover, a girlfriend, an extramarital affair or a mistress? What about El Chapo? Both stories in recent months generated a renewed use of the term mistress as a shorthand for a married man’s girlfriend.

This word is sexist. It lacks a male equivalent, and reduces women to their sexual relationship with men — and it’s increasingly creeping back into our language. I blame Twitter, which creates a premium on punchy words that can convey complicated ideas.

In that sense, mistress is a convenient term. It implies sex, lies and secrecy and it rolls off the tongue. It works in this NBC News headline and more recently when AOL reported, “Jeff Bezos and rumored mistress Lauren Sanchez are still ‘deeply in love,’ but they’ve allegedly agreed to stay physically apart until both of their respective divorces are finalized.”

Even the Associated Press has struggled with the Bezos story. The AP routinely referred to Sanchez as Bezos’ mistress in the first week of reporting on the story,  Standards Editor John Daniszewski told me.

The Associated Press Style Book offers this advice:

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.”

“In discussion with our Washington bureau on Feb. 12, we agreed that Bezos’s relationship with Sanchez did not fit with this definition and we switched to calling them romantically involved,” Daniszewski said. “The feeling among the editors is that the word ‘mistress’ is largely archaic and tends to be sexist in its assumptions.”

Precisely. Mistress carries both sexist and moral assumptions. There is no true male equivalent.

Since that memo went out the AP has slipped up twice, calling Sanchez a mistress, he said. That just goes to show how entrenched we are in reducing women to their sexual relationships with men.

For the same reason that the New York Times finally got rid of Miss and gave women the option between Ms. and Mrs. as courtesy titles (at the late date of 1986!) we in journalism need to stop using the word mistress.

That means even getting rid of the AP definition. We don’t refer to men who have romantic affairs with married women as gigolos. In fact we can’t even say that word without giggling, because it’s so silly.

I put the question to my Twitter followers. They unanimously agreed that gendered words are problematic, and doubly so when they don’t have an equivalent. One Twitter friend, a man, suggested “lover” as the male equivalent. He was promptly educated.

We should probably stop using all words that are unnecessarily gendered. We’re coming at you blonde, actress, heroine, hostess and waitress.

Linguists tell us that gendered language definitively impacts how we think. Habits of speech inform our moral choices as a society. And while we certainly have it easier than the romance languages, which assign a gender to every noun, we know that language can and should change over time.

Mistress appeared to be waning. Is it a coincidence that we are seeing a resurgence at this moment where we are wrestling with our own inability to treat women equitably in the workplace?

It’s time to call out those who use the word in journalistic copy. At the very least it’s inaccurate, most of the time, according to AP style. More importantly, it’s sexist and demeaning. If you find yourself tempted to use it, find an alternative. And when you see it, call it out and ask that the word be swapped out for something neutral and less judgmental.

How are you doing it in your newsroom? How do you stay on top of the issues that need an update in your ethics handbook? Do you even have a handbook? Email us ethicscenter@poynter.org.

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