Married Men having Mistresses - The Tradition of Kept Women

Married men having mistresses is one of the most significant markers – some would say, consequences – of the patriarchal underpinnings of human society. And thus it spans vast stretches of time as well as space – the tradition of kept women has carried on over millennia and is to be found in almost every corner of the world. The idea of a websites that make affairs possible may be new but the concept of Mistresses is very old.

The idea of the mistress was one of the principal ways that patriarchy established itself as the source of all power in society. The polarity of the ‘wife and the whore’, the ‘angel at home and the fallen woman on the streets’ is a common one in almost all major religions and cultures. It was by dividing the subjecthood of women into these two polar opposites that patriarchy managed to divide and subjugate the female sex as well as wrest supremacy in culture, economy, religion, politics and all aspects of society.

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In the most popular sense of the term, a mistress is a woman who is involved in a romantic relationship with a man married to someone else. The significance of the term becomes apparent when compared to roles like a ‘partner’ or ‘girlfriend’. A woman can be called a partner or girlfriend of a man - even if he is married - and still be considered one half of a relationship, though extra-marital. In contrast, the term ‘mistress’ immediately brings with it connotation of a threesome, an extra third of a three-sided relationship.

Closely related to the above idea, is the fact that the term mistress carries with it a risqué element, a feeling of someone engaged in something taboo. An example is the definition of mistress in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a woman who illicitly occupies the place of wife”. The sense of the socially condemned role arises from viewing the “other woman” as committing adultery – a sinful act. Interestingly it is the male partner – as a married man – who is the prime actor is this adulterous relationship and therefore most liable to be condemned. The mistress or the other woman may not be married at all – as is usually the case – and hence not the primary participant in the sin of adultery.

But then how is a relationship with a mistress different from an extra-marital fling? The former implies a relationship that has been going on for some time while the latter is merely a casual encounter, a one-night stand perhaps. A mistress is one who has been involved with her married lover for some length of time; in fact British writers Wendy James and Susan Jane Kedgely 1 say “A mistress by our definition is a woman with whom a married man has a parallel relationship, or a woman who, outside her own marriage, has a relationship with another man. All these illicit relationships… must be long-term and as a yardstick we chose one year as the minimum period of involvement”.

Another important difference between a mistress and a sexual partner for a one-night stand is that there is some degree of emotional attachment with the former while there is no emotional give and take in case of a casual fling. This difference is a natural consequence of the fact that a mistress relationship is not a one-time affair but grounded in some length of time and thus brings with it all its related emotions of involvement, guilt, responsibility and dissembling.

What about the economics of keeping a mistress? In earlier times when employment opportunities for women – especially those from the middle and upper class – were severely limited, they could choose either the role of a wife or mistress. In case of the latter it was understood that the male lover in exchange for sexual favors and emotional support would assume the financial responsibilities of his mistress - and sometimes her dependents too - and it was this arrangement that gave way to the tradition of the ‘kept woman’. And even though now with women becoming financially self-reliant, the modern usage of the term mistress need not imply any financial dependence on the male lover, some degree of financial element in the nature of lavish presents or expensive vacations is usually still involved.

However on the other side of the spectrum of modern mistresses are those who would be quite averse to receiving financial support from her partner. These are usually self-confident, busy professional women who can comfortably support themselves and have no need of men to take care of their financial needs. This type in fact figures as one of many different categories of mistresses in a very interesting book by Penelope Orth 2. According to the writer, this kind of mistress is a Career Woman who has no time for marriage and hence takes a married man as a lover. Another kind is The Assistant who works tirelessly for her male lover who is most often her boss or at least a senior co-worker at the workplace. Then there is the One-Man Call Girl which of course means exactly what it says and lastly the Masochistic Mistress who really wants to get married but inevitably gets entangled with men who cannot marry her, who in other words are already married.

While by definition a mistress has a married lover for a man, what about her own marital status?  Different scholars and writers have interpreted this differently.  Orth in her 1970s book on the contemporary American mistress defines her as ‘a single woman, divorced, widowed, or never married, who is having an enduring affair with a married man…’ however according to the British definition put forward by Wendy James and Susan Jane Kedgely, a mistress can be married herself. ‘A mistress by our definition’, say the writers ‘is a woman with whom a married man has a parallel relationship, or a woman who, outside her own marriage, has a relationship with another man’. That the latter scenario has always existed is evident in the past tradition of royal mistresses where kings and rulers often had mistresses who were wives of other nobles or aristocrats. However in the more popular and contemporary sense of the term mistress, it does not usually imply someone who also a wife.

Finally like all other sexual, gender and cultural signifiers, the ‘mistress’ too has evolved over time. With changes in legal, economic and cultural position of women, the roles, privileges of and expectations from a mistress too are undergoing constant change even though the idea of the glamorous, slightly illicit figure is too delicious to let go off completely.


Mistresses: The Free Woman and the Unfree Man , Wendy James and Susan Jane Kedgely TBS The Book Service Ltd; 1st edition (Oct 1973)

A Enviable Position: The American Mistress from Slightly Kept to Practically Married.

Penelope Orth, David McKay Co; 1St Edition (October 1972)