Victoria Brooks argues for an ethics of care that encompasses the mistress.
Writing Mistress Ethics: On the Virtues of Sexual Kindness was unnerving, not only because I was revealing my own experience as a serial mistress, but because I was asking for sympathy for one of the most demonised sexual archetypes. When we think about a situation of infidelity, our internally held rules of life, require that our ethical compass instinctively points towards the wife, or the scorned spouse, as the “good” party, deserving of our empathy and care. The mistress, or other woman, as the “bad” party should bear any emotional, psychological, or physical fallout as what she asked for and deserved for being duplicitous and in the wrong from the beginning.
I’m not writing this article to make a case that it’s wrong to give care to a scorned spouse in such situations. Rather, I’m writing it to make a case for sharing our ethical sensibilities, and therefore our care, with the mistress. Perhaps we could imagine that both parties have been harmed in different ways. What if we could imagine that there are two parties equally deserving of care? I would even go further to say that the mistress, given her historical demonisation and exclusion from care, is in fact more than equally deserving. There’s a hell of a lot to make up for.
To help us with context, let’s imagine a common infidelity scenario: a husband has been cheating on his wife with a mistress for around a year. All three parties live in a predominantly working-class, close-knit community.
The husband is careless with his passwords. The wife, having been suspicious of unusual perfume smells, perhaps a lipstick mark on a collar in a shade she doesn’t wear, and a lot of working late, plucks up the courage to look at her husband’s emails and texts. The affair is discovered and heralds a storm of rows, denial and tears. The husband promises his wife the affair meant nothing and that he’ll never see his mistress again. Of course that very night, before he encountered the wrath of his wife, he’d made a promise to his mistress that he’d leave his marriage, especially if the affair were discovered. Predictably, he never contacts his mistress again, but the news travels fast among the community.
Before we start to make our judgements as to which side to take, it’s important first to consider how our ethical compass in these situations is configured. We are socialised to understand that marriage is the sacred pinnacle of the so-called relationship escalator. This is because historically marriage was not only a patriarchal religious custom, but a means by which a husband could take and keep a wife as his property, and create the financial foundation for building a family. To highlight how this frames marriage in relationship terms, it’s worth remembering that a husband was unable to legally rape his wife in England until 1992, since her body was considered his property. The useful thing about marriage though is that, in modern times at least, it confers rights on spouses. A scorned wife can at least expect to divorce her husband on the ground of infidelity, and expect to receive some kind of settlement and rights in property and children. While money and security are far from everything, they are at least some solace. Our wife in the hypothetical scenario outlined above can at least know that even if her husband did leave her, she’d have some security. Marriage also situates the wife in a much more powerful, perhaps righteous position, than the mistress.
Of course, we (think we) know the mistress is not the marrying kind. So where does this leave her in this situation? Nowhere and in trouble, is the answer. She never hears from her lover again, although she does hear from his wife, who sends her a barrage of threatening messages, and writes the word “slut” in lipstick on her car windscreen. The wife also informs the mistress’s workplace, telling them they ought to know “the moral looseness of those who they employ”; and she sends messages to all of her friends, and the mistress’s friends, on Facebook, kindly informing them of the scandalous affair.
Notwithstanding that there might have been a degree of financial dependence, the mistress has suffered the loss of a relationship, and now needs to absorb the wrath of a scorned wife. She also needs to suffer the unpredictable manifestations of judgement from those who’ve been told, and wait for the “pitchforks at dawn” that will likely come as moral outrage spreads amongst her community. She will forever have the stain of “mistress” on her character, and even if in modern times she’s not likely to be literally burnt at the stake, there will be those who would like to, and will make sure she knows it.
She will receive judgement, not just from the wife, the community, but likely from her support networks too – that’s if she dares to reach out to a trusted few. Family and friends, work colleagues, will vary in their levels of acceptance, understanding and care. In my experience, this spectrum runs from outright condemnation (of the mistress’s behaviour) to “what else did you expect to happen” to “think of the wife” to the most precious (but rare) kind of accepting care. You can never be sure where along this line the reaction will fall, and for that reason, sharing your pain is a risky business – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. It is a terrifying thing to out yourself as a mistress – you can wind up suffering multiple heartbreaks – the loss of a lover or partner, and the loss of family and friends. Those losses can be irreversible too. As a mistress, it’s difficult to forget the friends who supported you right up until the point you needed them the most when their moral standards become more important than your friendship.
When an affair is discovered, the mistress is in an extremely vulnerable position. The reasons for this are to do with power, and inevitably feed into the ethical calculations of those to whom the mistress might turn to in her hour of need, and therefore impact the likelihood that she will receive any kind of care and friendship. As Kate Manne argues in Down Girl, punitive consequences are publicly nearly always directed towards the woman who has apparently fallen from her moral responsibilities. This is particularly so with mistresses, who are the archetypal “bad women”, as are those who might be tempted to support them. A high-profile example of this is “Monicagate” when our judgement was focused not on Bill Clinton, the man in the highest office in the US who was lying to the whole world about an affair, but on Monica Lewinsky, the intern, who would now forever be known as the temptress who sucked off the president. We forget the “mistakes” men in in power make, but once a mistress, always a mistress, always a liar. This is because the mistress must bear the brunt of moral and social labour, and we dare not support her, lest we be pressed to take a share of this labour, and indeed the moral stain. Our ethical compass is skewed towards a conclusion we’re compelled to make by those in power who’d rather we kept our noses out of so-called “private” business. It suits those in power for us to not offer our care to the mistress, since this ensures she’s the one who stays isolated and in the wrong. Meanwhile, we forget what he did – boys will be boys.
Even the most beloved mistresses, like Marilyn Monroe, were not spared the Lewinsky treatment. Arthur Miller, one of her lovers, famously described her as being able to “draw out the essential qualities of men”. Described by many as “troubled”, Marilyn embodies that typical paradox – she’s both an enduring and desired servant of the patriarchy, yet at the same time a threat in that she holds so many potentially damaging secrets that could be revealed. The “troubled” description is something often deployed at mistresses. Whether or not it’s true, it’s assumed to be the case, since who on earth if not someone troubled, would want to be outside of a marriage, or fight against marriage? There are, of course, willing mistresses, life-long and contented mistresses, as well as those who are reluctantly “the other woman”. Whatever form she takes, she can be sure that she’ll be demonised. This means that she’s always in the wrong, which inevitably has an effect on our judgement as to whether, in our ethical calculations, we deem her worthy of care. In my experience, even if we do decide she’s somewhat deserving, our care is given to her despite her being a mistress, e.g., yes, I accept you’re suffering, but ultimately you are not an equally deserving injured party. Loyalty is always to the wife.
Even Marie Curie, who might as well be a saint for all her contributions to science and medicine, does not escape the stain of being a mistress. Despite her revolutionary contributions to cancer treatment and the development of mobile X-Ray technology, it’s the point in her life, following the untimely death of her husband, where she becomes a mistress to a married man, that she’s rejected by society. Being a mistress always comes first, before the rest of the person, which means a mistress is always in the wrong and therefore empathy and sympathy reserves are always running on empty.
Part of our reluctance to acknowledge the harm suffered by the mistress might also be the imagined proximity between being a mistress and being a sex-worker. Although the two identities or roles are not the same, being a sex-worker and being a mistress both require forms of labour. In both cases, this labour is often uncompensated, or inadequately so – whether this is financially, or through acknowledgment of the value of either identity or role in society. The level of risk undertaken by a sex-worker is clearly much higher than that of a mistress, as is the forcefulness of the stigma they will endure. But being a mistress is nevertheless a hard slog, requiring work that seems invisible until it’s required of you. There are the endless nights alone, Birthdays, any kind of event, or just the mundane times when life is just too much and you’d like to snuggle up at night with your lover, or even talk to them when you need to. Secrecy requires labour. She must keep her most treasured partnership from those closest to her, she can’t bring him home to her family, or invite him out with friends. Depending on the nature of her background and identity, keeping the affair secret may be a matter of life and death. On top of this, she bears the burden of knowing just a tiny slip – a careless word in the wrong ear, a reckless text, too much perfume, or the holding of a hand in public – could bring a whole world crashing down. She’s a world maker and breaker and she lives and breathes this for the entirety of the relationship. On top of this, she lives and loves knowing that the world is against her.
As Mac and Smith argue in Revolting Prostitutes, sex-work is disproportionately done by marginalised people, and is fraught with dangers to health. Lives of sex-workers are often at risk. Sex-work, in all its forms, is also devalued, often by mainstream feminism, as a form of labour, and as a kind of sex. Some mistresses are also sex-workers, some are not. But what can be said about both is that they share in the plight of having their suffering, and their emotional, physical, and psychological labour erased, misunderstood or unseen. Both are also punished for their identities, and are often in fear of being outed.
What is clear from how both mistresses and sex-workers are treated is that there’s a fear that marriage, and monogamy, is being undermined. This is another important aspect of our ethical calculations – when we hear the mistress’s story, we can’t help but look inward toward ourselves, our own desires and relationships. Perhaps we’re worried our partner has their own mistress, perhaps we’re worried we might want one, perhaps we’re titillated more than we’d like to be, or perhaps we’re scared of being caught in flagrante ourselves and bearing the fallout of a secret revealed. Perhaps we’re scared the whole system makes no sense, perhaps power makes no sense. For bringing us into confrontation with these questions, she must be punished and our care must be withdrawn.
Not only does the mistress disrupt the line we like to draw between monogamy and polyamory – after all, an extra-marital affair might not follow the rules of ethical non-monogamy, but it’s still non-monogamy – she also disrupts heterosexuality. Whatever the compilation of her affair and the genders of the people involved, bodies who weren’t close are brought close, and relationships are shaken up. There will be no mistress ever who hasn’t wondered whether her lover made love to his wife the night before she finds herself in bed with him. A strange bodily proximity develops between the mistress and the spouse. This is a particularly interesting ethical dimension, regardless of the orientation of the people involved. There is the potentially positive or arousing discovery of closeness with another body, perhaps of the same sex, while at the same time discomfort of being brought into close contact with another without knowledge. I would argue that when the mistress confides in us, in the dark private place of our imagination we run riot, and we picture the scenario, the possible shared bodily fluids and traces – we’re shaken and scared, we’re excited, maybe aroused. Crucially, we’re in no state to give the mistress our care and respect – it’s just easier to be affronted, and to heed patriarchy’s call to reserve our solidarity for the scorned spouse and not the temptress before us.
Arguably, in all of her writings, Anaïs Nin makes a case for the joyful and arousing side of being a serial mistress. She also makes the case for the philosophical and ethical productivity of being a mistress. She writes movingly of the clearly queer and turbulent connection between her and her lover Henry Miller’s wife in Henry and June. At the heart of our ethical quandary is always the tension between mistress and wife, and our obsession with taking a side, and for that side to be the “right” one. But it doesn’t have to be a case of one side being good and one side being bad – instead, both can be both. Anaïs Nin writes in Henry and June that June says to Anaïs: “Let us be sane with Henry, but together let us be mad.” This is a powerful statement of the disruption a different version of the relationship between mistress and wife can bring. Love and care between a mistress and wife, and for a mistress and wife can be revolutionary. Patriarchy harms both mistresses and wives and this is something we must factor into our ethical calculations. Our ethical obligation is to take both sides. We must remember the mistress, and that the hatred of her we might harbour is not necessarily our own – it’s been carefully crafted for us as means to keep the secrets of powerful men, and to keep mistresses quiet.
Mistress Ethics: On the Virtues of Sexual Kindness is available from Bloomsbury (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/mistress-ethics-9781350195738/#) with a 20% discount with these codes: UK orders: KIND22UK US orders: KIND22US.
Victoria Brooks is a writer and researcher on sexual ethics. She has published academic, media and fictional pieces on the connection between philosophy and sex.