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The word mistress usually indicates a female significant other (usually to a male) who is not related to the latter by marriage. A mistress is also traditionally described as a woman who cohabits with a man of stature. A twentieth-century example is Camilla Parker-Bowles, long-time mistress (and then wife) of Charles, the Prince of Wales. Other historical examples include Eva Braun, the infamous lover of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1944), and Sally Hemming, the slave-turned-mistress of U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). Regardless of whether the relationship is sexual or not, the presence of a mistress most often signifies love, or at least friendship, outside the bonds of marriage. A related term consort, a word that refers to a couple's shared fate or romantic friendship, correlates to the more contemporary term girlfriend, which may or may not signify a sexual relationship.

As recently as the eighteenth century, people generally thought romantic love to be incompatible with marriage, which was first and foremost an economic arrangement. A wife gave birth to and raised children, while a mistress, usually younger, single, and childless, provided emotional, sexual, and/or romantic companionship for the husband. As romantic love became more accepted as part of the marital relationship, the term mistress became associated with scandal and moral outrage. In 1998 President Bill Clinton's brief affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky resulted in the president's impeachment. In a review of Andrew Morton's Monica's Story (1999), in which she compared Lewinsky's affair with Clinton to other presidential affairs, political analyst Arianna Huffington argued the following:

Throughout history, mistresses have shared the lives of powerful men. According to Demosthenes, the men of Athens "had courtesans for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily health of our bodies, and wives to bear us lawful offspring and be the faithful guardians of our homes. "By that definition, Monica was a concubine, taking care of the presidential plumbing, who tried to convince herself that she was really a courtesan, dispensing pleasures of body, soul, and mind.

                              (Huffington 1999, p. 51)

In the United States and Europe, it has become socially unacceptable for a man to have a wife as well as a mistress; thus such relationships have become less public in the early twenty-first century. Gender roles, as well as traditional definitions of relationships, have been and continue to be examined with greater perception and scrutiny. For example, since the mid-twentieth century, it has become more acceptable, even common, for men and women to live together and not be married. It has also become more acceptable for women and men to have relationships on nonsexual terms.


Many examples of adulterous relationships exist in literary history, including Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857); Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (1905); D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928); Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath," in The Canterbury Tales (1478) and Andrew Marvell's poem To His Coy Mistress. (1681). In her 1999 text Adultery Louise DeSalvo has closely examined the historical links between adultery and the term mistress. DeSalvo points out that adultery stories can have many different possible endings, and several of these are represented in literature. Perhaps the most common is the adulterous relationship that ends tragically. This ending entails "discovery, disgrace, the breakup of families, the end of presidencies, and possibly death—murder and/or suicide" (DeSalvo 1999, p. 23). Given the prevalence of secrecy in such relationships, this is the ending one often reads about in newspapers or sees represented on television and film.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), which is set in early American Puritan society, protagonist Hester Prynne experiences passion and love outside the boundaries of her marriage. Her punishment is to sew a red letter A on the front of her dress, announcing her adulterous liaison and inviting the judgment of her peers. She becomes a cautionary tale for other women who might consider adultery. Hester is also a sympathetic character because she carries herself with strength and poise throughout the ordeal, never regretting the joy and love she experienced in her extramarital affair.

In the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, the mistress Alex refuses to accept the terms on which married father Dan has established the affair. Alex becomes increasingly threatening and unstable: She tells Dan she is pregnant; kidnaps his daughter and kills her pet rabbit; stalks the family; and finally confronts Dan with a knife. At the end of the film, Dan's wife shoots and kills Alex in a bloody confrontation. Some have argued that Fatal Attraction reinforces the moral imperative of monogamy. Others believe that the film represents male fears about being found out or, worse, losing control over the situation when a lover changes the implicit agenda to keep things quiet. Alex is, in effect, punished for her sexual depravity as a single, childless, thirty-something woman in a culture that values monogamy and heterosexual marriage. The ultimate penalty for the other woman is death, while the wayward husband is forgiven for his infidelity by his wife and child.

According to DeSalvo, another possibility is that an adulterous relationship, "while it lasts, [it] seems not to damage the marriage of either party, [and] does not end either marriage, perhaps because the adulterous couple have been smart enough to keep their mouths shut. This adultery, though, has unpredictable, unfavorable future consequences" (DeSalvo 1999, p. 24). Fear of discovery characterizes the sexual tension of such a relationship. In discussing the "social morality of the gentleman," in his study on "sugar daddies" and "mistresses," E. D. Nelson points out that secrecy was "simply part of the protocol of the affair which justified it as viable" (Nelson 1993, p. 61). Loyalty between the husband and the mistress is predicated on the notion that there is a fine line between the woman being considered a prostitute and retaining the more respectable title of mistress.

Other possible endings to adulterous relationships, as represented in literature, include "the adultery that ends unequivocally … [and] the adultery that ends happily enough" (DeSalvo 1999, p. 25). In Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, the reader remains uncertain, even at the end of the novel, as to whether the lovers, Lady Chatterley and Mellors, will reunite. The relationship seems to be over, but the reader sympathizes with the lovers, and wants them to reunite. Similarly in the 1995 film, Bridges of Madison County, directed by Clint Eastwood, the affair between a middle-aged farmer's wife and a kind drifter lasts a blissful four days, but must end when the woman's husband and children return from a county fair. The separation of the two lovers is painful and the relationship remains secret until the children find love letters after their mother's death. As part of her examination of the ending to an affair, DeSalvo describes her own experience as the mistress of a married man. She describes it as exciting and ultimately illuminating, an example of an affair that ends "happily enough"—a period in her life when she felt incredibly alive.


Lewinsky's own account of her affair with Clinton focuses on an ideal of love: Specifically she sees the relationship as a thwarted love story. Her perception illustrates a key difference in male and female representations of adulterous kept relationships. Often the female is represented as one who discounts the "primacy of sex" as the focus of the relationship, while the male sees the relationship as primarily sexual (Nelson 1993, p. 45). Less common are tales of the empowering experiences of female mistresses. In the 1970s Melissa Sands founded the group Mistresses Anonymous, which was a "self-help group for women 'addicted' to already married men" (Nelson 1993, p. 46). The function of the group was to allow women to discuss their experiences of love and loneliness, as well as guilt for being the other woman. Women in the group reported feeling desired, attractive, and loved in these elicit relationships, despite that their lovers were unlikely to leave their wives.

The term sugar daddy describes a man, often wealthy and approaching or in middle age, who takes a mistress as a way of reclaiming sexual vitality. Such men often offer the excuse that "their wives had lost interest in sex since experiencing the 'change of life'" (Nelson 1993, p. 49). Indeed most mistresses are having relationships with older men, who in turn are often labeled as going through a midlife crisis. Society in general gives less attention to an older woman taking up with a younger male mistress. Men seem to have written the rules on such relationships; for example, "such practices as polygyny (the marriage of one man to more than one woman), and concubinage (wherein a man lives in an intimate relationship with a number of women), have served as corroboration of a man's power and status" (Nelson, 1993, p. 51).

Prior to the twentieth century, people often linked the term mistress with the ideal of courtly love. The term was also used in connection with the high stature of a Lady, and to draw attention to her rank, as part of a respectful discourse. Later when people no longer equated a woman's status with that of her lover, the term mistress came to describe a single woman who had acquired a skill, or had power over others. For example, in the early twenty-first century mistress can signify a dominant sexual partner in sadomasochistic practices. As long as men and women engage in adultery, mistresses will continue to function as signifiers of men's sexual virility and desirability.

see also Adultery.


Cancien, Francesca M. 1987. Love in America: Gender and Self-Development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

DeSalvo, Louise A. 1999. Adultery. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1983. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Huffington, Arianna. "Girl Trouble." National Review. April 5, 1999: 50.

LaPlante, Eve. 2004. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. San Franscisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Miasha. 2006. Diary of a Mistress. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Morton, Andrew. 1999. Monica's Story. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Nelson, E. D. 1993. "Sugar Daddies: 'Keeping' A Mistress and the Gentleman's Code." Qualitative Sociology. 16(1): 43-68.

Pevitt, Christine. 2002. Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France. San Francisco: Grove Press.

Turner, David M. 2002. Fashioning Adultery: Gender, Sex, and Civility in England, 1660–1740. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wyke, Maria. 2002. The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

                                                  Amy Nolan

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