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Lisa Belkin

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The Petraeus Affair: Why Is There No Male Equivalent for 'Mistress'?

Posted: 11/13/2012 4:13 pm

Paula Broadwell was (apparently) David Petraeus' mistress.

What, then, was David Petraeus?

Colloquial English language has no word for that -- no label we use to describe the man with whom a married woman cheats. Gigolo doesn't really cover it. Lover, perhaps, but no newspaper account would use it in a situation like this because their goal is to talk about sex without directly mentioning it. Paramour? That just sounds ridiculous.

Mister-ess? Maybe that will catch on.

But until it does we are left lopsidedly with "mistress" and, by extension, the implication that she is somehow his and not the other way around. "Paula Broadwell, David Petraeus' Biographer and Alleged Mistress," reads the TIME's "2 Minute Bio" on her. "FBI Search Petraeus Mistress Paula Broadwell's Home," says the BBC. "Petraeus' ex-mistress Broadwell quipped in interview 'I'm not in love'," the New York Daily News tells us.

Language is a reflection of culture, which is why there are so many Inuit words for snow. Given that one can not be a mistress without a... someone... what does it say about our culture that we haven't given that role a name?

Mostly it says that we still think of him as a bit of a stud at best, and a victim of her manipulation, at worst, while we think of her as defined in relation to him -- something we can label.

And label we do.

The former general and CIA chief is described as "a driven, focussed leader," who "let his guard down," according to the Washington Post.

Business Insider anonymously quoted one of Broadwell's colleagues in a story headlined "Biographer Paula Broadwell 'Got Her Claws Into Him'": "You're a 60 year-old man and an attractive woman almost half your age makes herself available to you -- that would be a test for anyone." And Pat Robertson so helpfully smirked on the Christian Broadcast Network: "A man is off in a foreign land and he's lonely and here's a good looking lady throwing himself at her. He's a man."

Broadwell, too, is being described as "driven," but when applied to her the word becomes a condemnation. "Paula Broadwell Is the Classic Over-Achiever," one Newser headline exclaimed, and went on to take the fact the she excelled at West Point, Harvard and King's College in London, wrote a well reviewed book, and was an ironman triathlete who bested Jon Stewart at push-ups, and turn those into bad things. "Over ...time, she went from someone very likeable to a shameless self-promoting prom queen," the anonymous "friend" told the Business Insider.

I have no idea what happened between the growing cast of characters in this unfurling drama. It could be that Broadwell was the aggressor and Petraeus her prey, or it could have been the other way around. Most likely it was much more complicated than either/or, because human entanglements usually are.

But the fact that we can't possibly know, and yet so many of us apparently think we know is a testament to stereotype, language and a desire to find a morality play in what is mostly just a messy business. We have archetypes, we give them names, and then we construct our narratives around them. Maybe that's why there are no words.

HT to Paul Raushenbush for coining Mister-ess.

LOOK: Readers Suggest Terms For Male Mistress

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