Slate's Jesse Sheidlower argues that we shouldn't call the women Tiger Woods slept with "mistresses" — so what's to become of this rather well-behaved word for bad behavior?
We don't know much for certain about Tiger Woods' extramarital relations. But the term mistress generally connotes a level of commitment to one's side dish(es) that does not seem to be present here. A woman who has sex with a man once-or even repeatedly- but without any real devotion is not really his mistress.
A mistress, Sheidlower continues, is "exclusively devoted to one man." Their relationship is "relatively serious and stable," and the man may support her financially. And it's not just the name that sounds archaic — according to Sheidlower, the whole concept has fallen out of vogue:
If the type of romantic partnership that mistress evokes seems a little quaint, that points to the very problem with the word in current use: It refers to a social role for women that is increasingly rare, because it is increasingly unnecessary, in modern-day America. A man who is devoted to another woman can divorce his wife without the same social stigma that would once have applied; if his needs are purely recreational, he can engage in casual affairs without doling out serious amounts of cash. Conversely, women no longer need sugar daddies for support. Modern women, for the most part, have access to financial-and sexual-opportunities that make subservience to a married man distinctly less appealing.
It's good that women now have enough economic and sexual independence that they don't need to be "kept," and it's hard to feel much affection for a term that stood for a pretty unequal relationship (though Steidlower's claim that a mistress was always a one-man woman seems a bit naive). At the same time, as the number of Tiger Woods's alleged paramours (lovers? Hookups? As Sheidlower points out, all the terms suck.) approaches a dozen, I find myself a little nostalgic for a slightly more romantic form of infidelity. Various Freudian analyses notwithstanding, we don't really know why Tiger Woods cheated. But the sheer volume of indiscretion now piling up in tabloids and newspapers feels pretty sordid, less like the star-crossed love of "Meryl and Clint in the Bridges of Madison County" (The Daily Beast's example) and more like a guy scratching an itch. And scratching and scratching and scratching.
Yes, the word "mistress" hearkens back to a time when women had much less sexual freedom than men (although you could argue they still do). And yes, to privilege it over "one-night stand" or "hookup" implies a certain prudishness and discomfort with modern sexual practices — practices which may not really be so different from those of yore. Mistresses aside, the one-night stand is ancient, and even the "random hookup" is far from a twenty-first century invention. Still, I have to confess that when I received an email to my work address reading "become my sexual mistress, Lady," I was a little bit charmed. The "sexual" part notwithstanding, the request sounded so quaint, almost chivalrous. I could imagine it inscribed on a card, accompanied by a white rose. Then I noticed he'd sent the message to everyone on the staff.