How the Language We Use Reveals Our Assumptions
I was working on a post about relationships that begin with infidelity the other day when I found myself at a loss.
Unless I’m sharing my personal story, I try to write from as much as a gender-neutral perspective as possible. I typed the phrase, “Mistress or …” waiting for the masculine version of the word to pop into my head.
And I drew a blank. My trusty thesaurus wasn’t any better and even Twitter couldn’t find a male-gendered term that means an affair partner.
As I reworked the sentence to include a gender-neutral poor substitute (paramour), I found my mind actively chewing on this suddenly-realized vacancy in our language. After all, women cheat (the studies are notoriously inaccurate, but the rates aren’t usually much below men) and I would wager (again, going with statistical evidence) that the majority of those women are cheating with men.
So what are those men called?
It gets even more interesting.
We have a gendered name for the betrayed husband – cuckhold – a term that originally meant a deceived man who ended up caring for a child born from another man. And in fact, adultery has historically (and in many cultures) been considered much more heinous when it is between a married woman and another man than when the man is the one straying from the marital bed. Which makes sense from a purely economical standpoint; a wayward wife may mean a man’s resources are going to help perpetuate another’s genes.
Yet even without the biological concern of a woman unknowingly raising another woman’s child, there are certainly plenty of men who procreate outside of marriage.
So what do we call their deceived wives?
When a mistress is reviled (such as by the wife), she is referred to as the “homewrecker.”
I’ve never heard of a man referred to by that term, even though it is not exclusively feminine.
The woman is also more likely to be called terms that shame her for her sexuality, whereas the man is more likely to be called out for his duplicity.
The words used extend to within a marriage. How often do we hear about a “frigid” wife being the cause of a sexless marriage? Yet Google implies that men are equally likely to be the frigid ones. Except we don’t call them that.
The language seems to favor the fooled husband on the marital side and the kept and wanton woman on the outside of the marriage. Even though those roles are easily interchangeable and are more about character and circumstance than about gender.
And what does that reveal about our assumptions?
Interesting to think about.
Have any known words to add?
Any words you would like to create?